The Arizona Republic, azcentral.com
BYLINE: D.S. Woodfill, The Arizona Republic
Link to Article
Two internal investigations in the Surprise Police Department have gone into a second year having no clear end in sight.
One case, involving former Assistant Chief Scott Connelly and an unidentified employee, started in June. Officials said they hope to wrap it up by the end of the year, but it could take longer if the other employee appeals any discipline that may be meted out.
The other case concerns $33,000 in drug money stolen from a department evidence locker in September 2010. Police had confiscated the cash in two drug investigations - one in March 2008 and the other in February 2009. Police said they have been waiting for a criminal investigation by the Phoenix Police Department to end before beginning an internal-affairs investigation interviews in earnest.
The Republic has sought public records in the missing money and Connelly cases.
MISSING DRUG MONEY
The Republic learned in March that $33,000 in drug money had gone missing from a police evidence locker six months earlier. The Police Department - headed at the time by interim Chief Mark Schott - didn't publicly disclose the theft, but reported it to the Phoenix Police Department, which began a criminal investigation. That investigation has is now in its second year.
Surprise Chief Mike Frazier, who took over for Schott in February, told The Republic in March that the money was seized by police from suspected drug dealers.
The theft sparked outrage from the new chief, who said he was "gravely concerned" about the missing money and the fact that the department may still have a thief in its midst.
In addition to the internal inquiry and criminal investigation, Frazier ordered an overhaul of security procedures, which were criticized by at least one employee from the evidence department, according to Phoenix police documents. Frazier's reforms included stricter limits on employee-access to the evidence room and additional video cameras to cover blind spots.
Where the investigation stands:
Surprise officials originally said the criminal investigation could last several weeks to a few months. However, the review has no clear end in sight.
On Tuesday, Surprise Police Commander Terry Young said investigators still do not have any suspects. He said it's possible that the culprit or culprits are no longer employed at the department.
Young was noncommittal when asked if he is confident investigators will discover who stole the money.
"That's certainly my goal," he said. "Obviously, there's no guarantee."
Young said he had been waiting for the criminal investigation to reach a point where he could start interviewing employees for the internal inquiry. That process has started, he said.
"As a matter of protocol, we let the criminal investigation unfold first," he said. "We don't want to interfere with or step on the toes of that criminal investigation."
Young said federal law also protects government employees from being compelled to provide potentially self-incriminating information to employers during a criminal investigation.
"For example, if I talk to an employee on an administrative matter, I have the right as the employer to compel them to answer my questions," he said. "But criminally, obviously, you have the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.
"So, we take a lot of precautions to make sure that we're not speaking to people who might ultimately be interviewed criminally. You can start kind of clouding that line for them as to when they have to talk, when they don't and are they providing information that they should be protected from," he said.
Young said the department began interviewing people because the criminal case is winding down. Still, the internal investigation cannot conclude until they have all the information from the criminal investigation.
Theron Quaas, the lead Phoenix detective investigating the theft, didn't respond to requests for an interview.
When asked if the criminal investigation could take another year, Young said, "It should not take anywhere close to another year."
Young said the internal investigation should end within 120 days after the criminal case is closed.
What others have said:
Councilman John Williams said the council has no role tracking the investigations of the missing money or in the inquiry involving Connelly and declined to comment. He said it's not appropriate for the council to get involved in matters that aren't policy-related unless public trust is at stake.
Still, Williams said he would request an update from the city manager, saying his interest was piqued, but "I don't plan on running any interference or inserting myself."
Pierce Murphy, a board member of the Idaho-based National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said there's no set time for how long an investigation should last if it's connected to criminal wrongdoing. Such cases can be more complex than administrative inquiries over policy violations.
Murphy is also the Boise Police Department's ombudsman, in charge of investigating public complaints and auditing internal-affairs investigations.
Murphy, who was unfamiliar with the details of the Surprise case, said a year could be reasonable for an internal investigation that is part of a criminal case.
He said, for example, a case could be connected to a federal investigation, drug cartel or because police are investigating wider corruption that was uncovered by the original crime.
Connelly resigned Aug. 15 after being demoted from assistant police chief to sergeant in January. Officials said the demotion, which took effect immediately after it was announced, was voluntary.
The Republic filed two public-records requests seeking information from Connelly's personnel file - one after his demotion and another shortly before his resignation.
City Attorney Michael Bailey declined both requests, stating in a letter dated Feb. 14 that state law limits public access to government records if the documents are confidential by statute, involves privacy interests or when disclosure is detrimental to the state.
He did not say on which of those grounds officials denied the request.
In his second denial letter dated Aug. 9, Bailey said the requested information was the basis of a pending investigation and state statute prohibited its release.
Neither department officials nor Connelly has disclosed the nature of the investigation.
Where the investigation stands
Commander Terry Young, who oversees the department's Professional Standards Unit, would not share details on the case. He said it involves another unnamed employee who is currently the subject of an investigation in the same matter. Police have long said they don't comment on internal investigations and are prohibited by state law from disclosing information to the public on ongoing internal investigations.
Officials have said it does not include any suspected criminal wrongdoing.
Young said he hopes to conclude the investigation concerning the other employee by year's end.
When asked why the case requires that much time, Young said that it had been stalled by an "employee issue." Young added he hasn't been able to conclude the interview portion of the investigation.
"As soon as I'm able to do so, then we can put that one to bed and be done with it," he said.
Opinions on case vary
Six months is too long for most non-criminal investigations, said Pierce Murphy, a board member and past president of the Idaho-based National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. .
Murphy said investigations not involving criminal acts should take only 60 to 90 days.
The reasons are myriad, he said. It's unfair to allow officers with careers and reputations on the line to remain in limbo, he said.
Murphy added that if an officer's bad behavior or mistakes aren't rectified quickly, managers lose the opportunity to correct long-term behavior.
"If you're talking 180 to 365 days or more, I'm not sure you're accomplishing that goal," he said. "The teachable moment's gone."
Lengthy investigations also send the wrong message to other officers, Murphy said. If employees know bad behavior won't be corrected swiftly, it lessens the concern they will be disciplined.
Merrick Bobb executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, a Los Angeles police watchdog organization, said six months is the maximum for less complex cases. He cited U.S. Department of Justice guidelines.
However, departments should strive to conclude them as quickly as possible, he said.
Tim Dorn, president of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, said in an e-mail that the length of time an investigation should take "is based totally on the extent and nature of the investigation."
But Dorn said a recently enacted law requires investigations to completed within 120 days, but it does not apply to investigations that were started prior to the law's adoption.
"There are exemptions for investigations which also involve a criminal investigation, or where it can be clearly demonstrated that additional time is necessary to complete the investigation," he said.
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