Ocotber 25th, 2023
Santa Fe police officials and Mayor Alan Webber say the city police department has cleaned up its evidence handling procedures and has invested in improvements following a scathing report in January 2020 that found a lack of proper protocols and practices had led to missing evidence in criminal cases.
But it's been about two years since an independent audit of the evidence room has been conducted.
The evidence unit continues to struggle with a staffing shortage, and the department has not overhauled its evidence management policies as recommended in the report by Washington state-based SCS Northwest Consulting Services.
The agency also has not gained accreditation from the International Association for Property and Evidence, a goal Deputy Chief Ben Valdez called a metric of success for the unit.
While he does conduct random monthly inspections, Valdez said, the department does not have an independent audit of the evidence unit scheduled or a timeline for gaining accreditation.
He pointed to work the agency has accomplished to improve its evidence handling system since the critical review in January 2020 — which led to a corrective action plan — and another audit performed in 2021.
The independent audits of the evidence unit came after a public defender's motion in 2019 requested dismissal of a murder case in which a Santa Fe man was accused of fatally stabbing his girlfriend in 2017. The motion said many pieces of evidence in the case were missing and sought a separate audit that found numerous flaws in the department's evidence handling.
The department made several improvements to the evidence unit in 2020 and 2021, adding high-density shelving, new surveillance cameras, evidence freezers, temporary lockers and evidence management software.
The department overhauled its procedures for submitting and storing evidence, Valdez said, implementing a new bar code system, packaging standards for officers and a "right of refusal" policy for evidence staff that allows them to decline any evidence submission that does not adhere to the new protocols.
"The first thing for us was getting organized and trying to get a process in place," Valdez said, "and we're still getting evidence in the door and fixing things while we're doing that."
Webber said in a statement this week, "The City has taken concrete steps, including increasing staffing levels and investing in tracking technology and more, to update our evidence management system."
The department added positions to the evidence unit in 2020 and 2022, increasing the current staff to four evidence technicians and two supervisors from just three people previously. However, four additional evidence technician positions are unfilled.
Both the 2020 and 2021 audit reports recommended the department revise its outdated policies and procedures for evidence management. REDW noted some of the policies would need to be overhauled to meet the standards of the accreditation agency.
Valdez said he has issued written directions to officers and evidence staff in recent years regarding new protocols for packaging, submitting and managing evidence, but the department has not revised its official policies.
The 2020 audit also noted excess inventory in the evidence unit and recommended reductions.
Purging evidence collected at the facility — some that dates back decades — is an ongoing effort, Valdez said, adding the department is required to coordinate with the District Attorney's Office to dispose of items.
"We can't just unilaterally say, 'We don't need this anymore, so it's gone,' " Valdez said. "There is a process to that."
The department might seek a "blanket order" to dispose of evidence for all cases that meet certain criteria, Valdez said, such as those that have been adjudicated or those in which the statute of limitations has passed.
The protocols for sexual assault kits — used to gather evidence such as DNA — also have changed, Valdez said. Before the kits are admitted into the evidence room, they are sent to the state crime lab for testing.
In recent years, a growing call across the country to decrease a backlog of untested rape kits in law enforcement evidence rooms has led to changes, Valdez said.
A recent report by the Santa Fe Police Department shows 12 kits, submitted from February through June, are at the crime lab undergoing testing while hundreds that have been tested are stored in a single location in the evidence unit.
Sometime between 2018 and 2020, the department lost an untested kit from an examination of a 4-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted. The defendant's charges were downgraded in a plea deal.
A pending lawsuit against the city of Santa Fe and the police department over the incident alleges the department discriminated against women and girls by "treating violent rapes against women as lower-priority cases than other violent crimes." A response to the lawsuit the city filed in August denied most of the claims in the complaint.
Lapses at the evidence unit have been a "hard lesson learned" by the department, Valdez said, but ongoing efforts for improvement include more frequent training on best practices for evidence staff.
"We have to earn back that trust and respect, and we're on track to do that," he said.