B y J . E . R e l l y
ON THE GROUND floor of the Nogales Police Department, Robert Jontow's office resembles a jam-packed car heading 'cross country.
The evidence and property custodian's desk is nestled in with shelves jammed full of envelopes stuffed with cocaine, heroin, marijuana, jewelry and money. His computer sits several feet away from an open rack stocked with UZIs, AK47s and BB guns. Freezers packed with blood and semen wedge into any free stretch of wall.
The Nogales Police Department is cramped for space. Built in 1978, the department has increased its turf by 25 square miles and doubled personnel. As a result, groups of up to 15 cops must prepare their reports standing in a narrow, cramped room.
Jontow feels particularly concerned because officers' uniforms, weapons, radios, riot gear and books are stored together with evidence and property. Cops pass through the main evidence room every day for supplies, but can't gain access without Jontow or his lieutenant unlocking the door.
"To have a proper evidence room, no one should have access except people who sign in and out," says Jontow, who meticulously enters each new item into NPD's database. "It's just not good procedure. There's no problem with the officers, but if anything was ever misplaced, we'd all be subject to scrutiny."
Around the corner from Jontow's office, an overwhelmingly sticky herbal reek fills a hallway cluttered with evidence boxes. Jontow opens one of several former jail cells to reveal them filled from floor to ceiling with dope--satchels, duffel bags, purses, tightly compacted plastic bricks of it. Nogales Police Chief Augustin Huerta points to a bale torn open by nibbling rats. Nugget-sized brown buds, evidence, stream out of the sack onto the cell floor.
"That really bothers me," says Jontow, who recently planted rat poison in all the cells. He sees a lone rodent staggering amidst the thousands of stored pounds and has no problem catching it in its dying state.
But rats aren't Huerta and Jontow's only concern. During the marijuana growing season, up to 500 pounds a day is nabbed by the Santa Cruz County Metro Task Force, while disposal bonfires are lit only every few months. Both cops say the fumes wafting off the dope in their hallway are a potential health hazard. Without proper ventilation, anyone working in the area risks contracting aspergillus, a fungi sometimes found in dope that's been packed wet. The spores can cause lung disease.
Jontow says the department either needs to build a new storage area for the dope or install proper venting. Officials estimate the department needs three times the space it now has.
Huerta hopes Nogales' new mayor, Louie Valdez, will come through on his statement of support for a much-needed police substation. But it's not laid out in the 1995-'96 budget proposal for the city. Huerta says they'll get creative in looking for the money. Maybe a grant from the feds, he says.
After all, they are fighting the War On Drugs. They need a place to dump the spoils.
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