A criminalist at the Stark County Crime Lab has been fired for alleged work-rule violations related to gunshot evidence. Michael Short, a 20-plus year employee with the agency, was dismissed by Canton Safety Director Thomas Ream. Short’s attorney says the dismissal was not justified.
A criminalist at the Stark County Crime Lab has been fired amid the allegation that he falsified reports related to firearm testing.
Michael Short was dismissed last week by Canton Safety Director Thomas Ream. Disciplinary charges also include improper job performance and insubordination.
Short’s annual salary was $62,392, according to the mayor’s office. Prior to the firing, Short had been placed on paid administrative leave.
Ream said in a report that he fired Short to “ensure the safety and well-being of our community going forward” and “to uphold the professionalism and integrity of the Stark County Crime Laboratory and the city of Canton Police Department.”
Short referred questions to his attorney, Christopher Newlon, who noted his client has worked roughly 21 years at the crime lab without prior disciplinary issues.
None of the evidence in question was sent to a prosecutor’s office or introduced in a criminal case, Ream said.
“We vehemently deny that Mike committed any violation that would rise to the level of termination,” Newlon said. “This is a 20-plus-year employee at the crime lab who has an excellent work record, who has an excellent reputation among all the prosecutors who he deals with.”
Newlon said Short is considering ways to appeal the firing.
The improper job performance violation stems from Short failing to notice a bullet hole in a piece of clothing during the examination process, according to the police investigation.
The evidence was part of the investigation into the shooting death of Desmond Thigpen, 21, in October in Plain Township.
Newlon said that Short saw the entrance hole but not the exit hole, which “is really of no evidentiary value. Newlon noted that bullet wound information is contained in an autopsy report. After the exit hole issue was pointed out, Short found it in the “blood-soaked and dried” garment, Newlon said.
According to a disciplinary hearing report issued by Ream, Short admitted to the mistake “and stated he was mortified when it was pointed out to him and he immediately took steps to correct the situation.”
Short also stated he conducted or processed multiple gunshot residue cases at the same time as a time-saving measure and has done this in the past, the report said.
The police investigation described it as a “batching method,” instead of completing the examination of one case at a time. According to records, the quality-control manager said the batching method increases the potential for mixing up paperwork.
The falsification violation stems from Short’s gunshot-related analysis in January in a felonious assault case, not the Thigpen shooting.
In paperwork, Short used the term, “using the firearm,” which investigators say indicated the gun had been test-fired when it had not.
Page 2 of 2 - Short said that the description of “using the firearm” did not mean he test-fired the weapon, according to Ream’s report. Short told a police investigator that there was not a code in the computer to specify that he didn’t discharge the gun.
Short explained that his results —in determining the distance from which the gun was fired — were gained through past experience with firearms and ammunition.
An accreditation program manager told an investigator that basing lab results on experience without conducting the examination is not an acceptable practice when the items that are to be tested are available.
In addition, a crime lab employee told an investigator that he returned reports to Short to be done correctly regarding the gun-related analysis and the test-firing of a firearm. The reports, which were not corrected or administratively reviewed, were placed in a bin to be sent back to the submitting law- enforcement agency, according to police records.
A system of “checks and balances” and quality-assurance practices discovered the problems, Ream said, and prevented the information from being forwarded and damaging a criminal case.
Canton Police Chief Bruce Lawver said an audit showed “this was a real isolated incident.” He also said “the integrity of the crime lab has not been put at risk at all.”
Crime lab staff completed a review of the gunshot residue cases submitted from 2008-11 that were processed by Short, according to records. The reports previously completed in these cases complied with laboratory accreditation standards.
Ream said that although Short did not have disciplinary issues in the past, the violations warranted firing instead of the progressive discipline sometimes applied to city government employees.
Newlon said the firing “smells kind of funny to me.”
“Especially when you have an employee who has such an outstanding record and reputation, and really when we’re talking about internal arguments over procedure,” Newlon said. “We’re not talking about something that directly impacted a case.”
Ream, meanwhile, said that “in this case, the concern is the ability to carry out the critical job functions going forward.”