Farmington Police Department holds daily command briefings to measure impact of evidence thefts
Editor's note: After an employee in the trusted position of evidence technician allegedly stole drugs and money from the Farmington Police Department, Chief Steve Hebbe invited The Daily Times to attend his daily command briefings. The effects of those thefts could be far reaching, and Hebbe said he wanted the process — of determining the damage and formulating changes to prevent a reoccurrence — to be transparent. It was an unprecedented offer in this editor's experience. The Daily Times accepted the invitation. We agreed to only one condition — that we would discuss whether we would use information if police thought it could compromise a case. We attended the third briefing on Oct. 22 and were present from then until they were discontinued on Thursday. Here is our report.
FARMINGTON — Less than a week after Farmington Police Department employee Ashley Goodvoyce was accused of pilfering cash and pain pills from the department's evidence room, senior officials met in a conference room for the first command briefing on the status of the investigation.
The officers and civilian employees tackled the task of dissecting the theft and its implications, which were many, in the daily briefings. The briefings also covered policy, command structure and physical remodeling of buildings, with the intention of making evidence more secure. As of Thursday, department employees had spent 753 hours investigating the thefts, Police Chief Steve Hebbe said.
Officials learned of the thefts on Oct. 14 when a detective requested evidence and a technician discovered it was missing. Goodvoyce was taken into custody on Oct. 17.
The thefts could have far-reaching consequences. The count as of Thursday: 69 bags of evidence were tampered with, 41 chain-of-custody records were falsified, one signature was forged and $5,597 in cash was stolen. The amount of cash could increase by $570, department officials said.
San Juan County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien has said the thefts could impact 13 active cases involving drugs held in the department's evidence room. More could still be identified.
Detective Sgt. Brandon Lane gave a list on Oct. 21 to the District Attorney's Office that named 48 suspects who could be freed because of Goodvoyce's alleged actions.
Police say those actions could ruin active cases and potentially set criminals free. However, sloppy evidence processing by police in some cases also meant the exact number of pills stolen was unknown. Some officers, Hebbe explained in an interview, were not following procedure.
"I am looking at a brown paper bag sealed up with a multitude of prescription pills in it because John Doe died an unattended death, and we don't want to let those pills just sit there," Deputy Chief Keith McPheeters said during a command briefing. "On the evidence bag, it says: 'Pills.' That is a direct contradiction of our policies."
Other times, officers improperly packaged the evidence, making it difficult for detectives investigating recent thefts to determine whether an evidence bag had been tampered with or was poorly packaged.
Poorly packaged evidence that did not fit what appeared to be Goodvoyce's modus operandi was not included.
And now, the department is auditing all of its evidence, including bags from closed cases that were to be destroyed. On Thursday, they lined an entire evidence room wall. Eva Barron, civilian operations supervisor, told those in the briefing that two employees were combing the old evidence, searching for signs of tampering.
"Anything she's hiding or moved, it's going to be in there," she said.
One piece of evidence that was poorly packaged was tied to the Hopi Street shooting, a high-profile homicide case.
In an Oct. 22 briefing, Lane reassured officers that the Hopi Street evidence was not compromised and had mistakenly been included in the investigation.
Hebbe said the criminal cases that hinge on a single drug charge are the ones that make him nervous.
The purpose of the daily briefings was not only to keep senior officials informed about the case. The group — composed of lieutenants, sergeants, civilian employees and deputy chiefs — was also working to make sure that such thefts never happen again.
Department officials currently have plans to install nine, motion-activated cameras for less than $20,000 in areas where evidence is handled, and they will likely install three more when more money is available. For $6,000, they are converting a department garage into a new drug evidence room where half of the cameras will be installed. They will install two entry card-swipes for about $1,500 each on that building so those who enter can be tracked.
"If we had a camera (in the evidence room), I guaran-God-damn-tee she would not have done it," Lt. Darryl Noon said. "The checks-and-balance piece was weak, and we had somebody who was willing to break the policy."
The department now has two full-time evidence technicians — one was previously part-time — who will monitor each other, and both will wear body cameras.
By next Friday, officials expect to have audited all of the department's evidence. And they will begin conducting full audits annually.
But there was disagreement as to the problem's roots. The focus of this discussion was policy and procedure.
Policy outlines goals. Procedure specifies actions intended to accomplish those goals, sometimes step by step. The department's policy is good, Hebbe said in the interview — it helped catch the thefts — but officers and employees disagreed in the Tuesday briefing about how rigorous the procedures should be.
"What tells me how I'm supposed to handle destruction of drugs?" Hebbe asked.
Barron said a new technician would be trained by people already doing the job.
Deputy Chief Vince Mitchell said the department needs to move away from that practice and specifically define more procedures.
"But seriously, the department can't write procedure for everything," McPheeters said. "I don't think you can itemize every contingency you have."
Police get lots of instruction on how to be an officer when they attend training, but what instruction do civilian evidence technicians receive, Hebbe asked.
"So we're writing a manual for every specialty?" Barron asked.
"Yes," he said.
Hebbe said he wanted that to be a goal for the end of 2015.
Barron said she's two employees short and asked if Hebbe could wait until she was fully staffed.
Start now, Hebbe said.
The problems didn't end with policy. Supervisors in the room were also trying to find money for the new cameras, digital door locks and relocated evidence room.
"We aren't budgeted for any of this," Hebbe said in the Oct. 22 briefing. "So either it comes in from our budget, or I go back and ask for a budget adjustment. I am not saying we won't go back over there (to City Hall), but we are not going over there until we have eyeballed our (spending) to make sure we have done what we can do."
In the interview, Hebbe acknowledged the department's briefings sometimes strayed and got defensive. But, he said, he wants residents to see that those working for the department are people, like them, who care about their jobs and their community.
"We're going to try to figure out a way forward that makes us better than we are today," he said in Thursday's briefing.