Fixing a problem can be difficult if those in charge do not discover how the situation went wrong — and that’s our concern about the current efforts to improve operations in the Santa Fe Police Department evidence room.
We have seen the city of Santa Fe conduct a review, bringing in an outside auditor to investigate present and past practices in the evidence room. We have noted that the mayor and other officials have pledged to update evidence management software and also hire more people to staff the evidence room. We see that they are determined to ensure best practices for logging and tracking evidence going forward.
This is the correct approach. Still, even necessary reforms do not cancel the responsibility to determine exactly what went wrong. Without proper accounting, change may not take hold as promised.
As reporter Daniel J. Chacón found through his reporting, (“From techs to top brass,” Jan. 26), the person once in charge of making sure the evidence room functioned properly is now police Chief Andrew Padilla.
It would be unfair to blame him for failures in the evidence room since they predate his time in charge, but that doesn’t mean the chief does not need to explain more fully why he did not follow policy. It was his job as deputy chief of administration to inspect the property room and file monthly reports that accountability procedures were being followed and maintained. That did not happen. Why not?
Padilla needs to be held to account, as does anyone else still working at the department who had a role in the evidence room debacle. It will be the task of newly selected City Manager Jarel LaPan Hill to connect all the dots, from past failures to current reforms.
It also is important to show that such sloppy practices as using shared computer logins — which means it is hard to determine who did what — are no longer routine. And city officials should understand that it’s not enough to tell citizens this is being done. They must demonstrate the improvements. The mess in the evidence room has caused a serious erosion of trust.
Retired officer Gardner Finney, one of the cops who brought the problems to light, put it this way: “There is no public trust now in the police department.”
To be sure, the department did begin to examine its own practices before the problems became public back when evidence in a homicide case could not be found. Quietly in August of 2018, then-Deputy Chief Robert Vasquez began to evaluate evidence management — two officers, separately, had documented concerns about evidence room procedures. Responding, rather than attempting to quiet the officers, the department began to address the problem. That’s a hopeful sign.
By April 2019, $20,000 was included in the police department’s budget request to pay for an audit, eventually conducted by SCS Northwest Consulting Services. But the review blew up in June 2019 when the department realized it could not locate 11 items of evidence in a homicide case; eventually, the defendant was handed a 12-year plea deal instead of a potential life sentence.
It remains unclear if more evidence has been handled in a manner to make it useless in court. As Finney put it, “If I were a defense attorney, I would take every single case to trial — every single case — and challenge every bit of evidence.”
So that cases can be prosecuted and justice delivered, Santa Fe city and department officials need to make sure past mistakes are not repeated.
They need to announce new hires in the evidence room to show staffing shortages have been addressed. They need to share when a better software system is purchased. They need to trumpet the clearing out of useless, dated evidence that has cluttered the room and tell citizens that evidence in big cases coming to trial has been checked and is in order. Padilla might need to hold a public session to answer questions and put to rest concerns.
It’s not enough to reform procedures going forward — although that remains essential. No, the city and its police department must show they understand what went wrong and demonstrate with each and every case that sloppiness and apathy no longer are playing a part in police work. Show. Don’t tell.