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How Do You Lose a 24-Foot Boat?

Or a $74,000 piece of radio equipment? Or more than 150 handguns and rifles? Those are just a few of the nearly 1,500 items that the Texas Department of Public Safety reported stolen or lost in the last decade. Some of the assets might still be in the possession of DPS or possibly were sold, but the agency’s inventory system is so poor that it's hard to know what's actually missing.

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A 24-foot boat. A $74,000 piece of radio equipment. More than 150 handguns and rifles.

Those are just a few of the nearly 1,500 items that the Texas Department of Public Safety reported stolen or lost in the last decade, according to information obtained by the Texas Tribune under public records laws. Together, the items the agency lost track of — which also include computer equipment and protective gear — are valued at more than $3.2 million and were often bought with taxpayer money.

Some of the items might have been found, warehoused or sold, a department spokeswoman said, but the agency’s inventory system is so poor it is hard to know exactly what assets are actually missing. “We haven’t had the tools we need to keep track of stuff very well,” said DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange.

State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, vice chairman of the Finance Committee and member of the Criminal Justice Committee, said the department’s missing or misfiled inventory, particularly the firearms, were inexcusable. And in interviews with the Tribune, other large police agencies across the state reported few incidents of assets being lost or stolen.

The DPS, which has assets across the state, is aware of problems in its inventory system, Mange said. Some items on the missing list, she said, are simply outdated. But because the technology used to track inventory is antiquated, she said, the items are listed as missing. “We are working with the IT department to get us the appropriate software that will help us better track inventory,” she said.

Division heads and property custodians receive an accounting each month of the missing assets. Mange said that since the 2010 fiscal year, the department had found more than $500,000 in missing assets.

More than 1,200 of the unaccounted for items over the last decade were simply reported as “missing”; roughly 200 were reported as “stolen.” Guns made up more than half of the pilfered items: 110 of the 151 missing firearms were reported stolen. “People break into things and steal stuff all of the time,” Mange said. “It’s just really bad when it happens to us.”

State troopers reported more than $60,000 worth of firearms lost or stolen from January 2001 through December 2010. Hinojosa said, “We need to keep a very tight rein over guns and rifles” and other equipment “that could pose a danger to the public.”

Some of the firearms have been stolen in burglaries of troopers’ homes and vehicles, Mange said. And sometimes the weapons were simply not properly transferred when an officer was reassigned. But, she said, if the department determines that a weapon was stolen because of a trooper’s negligence, the officer may have to reimburse the state and could be disciplined.

Firearms were not the most expensive category of missing items, though. More than $3 million in electronic equipment was. About 1,300 pieces of electronic equipment apparently went missing or were reported stolen. The equipment included laptop computers, fax machines, night-vision goggles and walkie-talkies.

graphic by: Becca Aaronson

The most expensive item that DPS employees reported missing was a “radio control console spare” worth $74,042. The console, which controls the volume and channels transmitting to police radios, was reported missing after department employees conducting inventory could not find it. It  was later found in Ozona, in West Texas. Other expensive equipment that the department lost track of included a $27,000 “gas chromatograph system” used in the crime lab. It has been listed as missing since 2004.

There were also items that would seem unlikely to simply vanish, like that 1989 Bayliner 24-foot recreational boat worth about $6,000. It was reported missing in April 2010, but in fact, it was not lost at all, Mange said. The boat, which the department had seized, had not been put on an inventory list until it was ready to be disposed of and was sold through the agency’s normal asset-disposal process.

Although most police departments contacted by the Tribune reported few inventory losses and said they had efficient tracking systems, the DPS is not the only agency to have troubles with theft. In Harris County, Sheriff Adrian Garcia reported in 2009 that thieves stole two tires from his department-issued black Chevrolet Tahoe as it sat in his driveway.

“We still haven’t recovered the wheels,” said a spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Alan Bernstein. The sheriff’s department has reported no significant loss of inventory, though. When the Harris County auditor randomly selected 250 of the department’s assets and asked for proof of their existence, all were found, Bernstein said.

In Dallas, thieves recently broke into a secured parking lot where 10 wrecked Dallas Police Department vehicles were waiting to be inspected by insurance adjusters. About $90,000 worth of laptops and docking stations were stolen from inside the cars, said Sgt. Warren Mitchell, a department spokesman. “We’re hoping to find a better way to stop that from happening again,” Mitchell said.

On another recent occasion, two suspects in police custody were able to move their cuffed hands from behind their backs to the front and drive off with a police car. Mitchell said officers were able to track down and retrieve the vehicle. To prevent items from disappearing, Mitchell said, the department has periodic random inspections of officer equipment. If an officer is found at fault for losing something, he must pay to replace it.

Sen. Hinojosa said the DPS — the state’s premier law enforcement agency — should set the example when it comes to tracking taxpayer-financed equipment, particularly at a time when the state faces a huge budget shortfall. “It all adds up,” he said. “That type of loss is unacceptable.”

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Criminal justice State government Department of Public Safety Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa State agencies Texas Department Of Criminal Justice