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Controller: Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office can’t account for hundreds of guns

The City Controller's Office issued an investigative report showing that the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office cannot account for more than 200 guns it should have in its possession.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart speaks during a press conference at Thomas Paine plaza outside of the Municipal Services Building on Wednesday.
City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart speaks during a press conference at Thomas Paine plaza outside of the Municipal Services Building on Wednesday.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office cannot account for more than 200 guns that are supposed to be in its custody, some of them part of the office’s arsenal and others confiscated from people subject to protection-from-abuse orders, according to an investigative report released Wednesday by the City Controller’s Office.

The investigation found serious problems in the Sheriff’s Office with recordkeeping, a lack of policies and procedures for managing guns, and haphazard storage of guns in boxes, barrels, cabinets, and in piles on the floor of the office’s armory, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said during a news conference in Center City.

She laid the blame for the dysfunction on former Sheriff Jewell Williams, who left office in January, while she praised his successor, Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, for cooperating with the probe and for addressing the myriad deficiencies.

Still, Rhynhart said the missing guns are a serious concern that is still under investigation, although she declined to say which law enforcement agencies she had contacted.

“It is a serious issue, and steps need to also happen,” she said, to find the missing guns and to put in place detailed polices and procedures to prevent such losses in the future.

“Not only does poor management and lack of policies increase the likelihood of potential theft or waste or mismanagement of the guns,” she said, “but it also compromises the safety of Sheriff’s Office employees."

Bilal, who took office in January, said poor recordkeeping by Williams’ administration has made it difficult for her team to verify that more than 200 guns are missing, but her internal investigation into the finding is ongoing.

“They left us with a crazy mess, as far as the Sheriff’s Office, and not just the armory, trust me,” said Bilal, who attended the news conference.

The probe began in November 2019 after the Controller’s Office received a confidential complaint and supporting documentation alleging that 15 long guns — rifles and shotguns — had been missing from the Sheriff’s Office gun inventory since 2016, Rhynhart said.

The complaint also included details of an alleged burglary that the tipster said occurred in February 2019 at a local gun shop and involved three of the Sheriff’s Office guns, she added.

Investigators determined at least 101 service firearms were missing from the Sheriff’s Office armory -- nine long guns, 26 handguns and 66 other guns. In addition, 109 guns relinquished in protection-from-abuse cases between 1997 and 2015 were missing, investigators found.

Of the 15 missing long guns noted in the initial complaint, six were located during the controller’s investigation, including three that were alleged to have been stolen during the gun-shop burglary, leaving nine of those guns still unaccounted for, the report said.

The Sheriff’s Office, with a budget of $27 million in the 2020 fiscal year and 428 employees, is responsible for the court-ordered sale of foreclosed and tax-delinquent properties, along with courtroom security and the transportation of prisoners to court.

The investigation was complicated by the physical disorganization of the armory — located in three rooms of Sheriff’s Office headquarters on South Broad Street — and poor gun-inventory recordkeeping, deficiencies that limited the investigators’ ability to complete an exhaustive review and required them to generate their own comprehensive reference documents from inconsistent, and often handwritten, Sheriff’s Office source documents, the report said.

Investigators uncovered numerous deficiencies in the office’s overall handling and storage of weapons that included the commingling of service firearms and confiscated firearms, and the storage of some weapons that were still loaded, the report said.

While Bilal has been cooperative with investigators, they received “considerable pushback” from the administration of Williams, who was in office from January 2012 to January 2020, the report said, noting that access to the armory was restricted, along with interviews with staff members.

Bilal pledged better recordkeeping and stricter controls going forward.

“I am pleased to report that there are new internal audit procedures, our office has been using state-of-the-art weapon-tracking software, and a full review of the inventory of both protection-from-abuse and service firearms have been implemented and completed this year during my administration,” she said. “All weapons have been inventoried. There is a new day in the handling of this office’s day-to-day affairs under my watch.”