Probe into drug-money theft in Surprise grows cold

AzCentral.com, azcentral.com
BYLINE: D.S. Woodfill
Link to Article

Surprise, AZ

Surprise police will continue internal investigation

A criminal investigation into the theft of $33,000 in drug money from the Surprise Police Department has run cold.

The Phoenix Police Department, which was handling the investigation for Surprise, shelved the case after it failed to identify suspects.

Phoenix Police Sgt. Trent Crump said detectives exhausted all avenues and even identified some individuals as "investigative leads" but weren't able to forward charges to prosecutors because of a lack of evidence. The case is now pending, meaning it's on hold until new information surfaces or the seven-year statute of limitations forces investigators to close it.

"All you have is the evidence that is presented to you," Crump said. "If you can't get to a level of probable cause with the evidence that you have, then that is why a case is pended out."

The money, which was seized during two separate drug investigations under the federal RICO laws and had been placed in a department evidence locker, was discovered missing during a September 2010 audit. The Republic reported the theft a year ago.

Chief Mike Frazier expressed grave concern about the theft in a March 2011 article in The Republic and vowed to "leave no stone unturned" to find the culprits. That internal investigation, which started as the criminal case was winding down, is ongoing with no clear end in sight.

Frazier defended the time the department is taking to conduct its inquiry.

"Internal investigations take an extreme amount of time if you do them right," he said. "You can rush them and get a skewed conclusion or you can do them right and take the time."

Pierce Murphy, a board member of the Idaho-based National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said the time it takes for Surprise to conduct an internal investigation is understandable, given it must wait until a criminal investigation is completed.

Murphy said that in a criminal investigation, those being questioned are protected by the Fifth Amendment, meaning they don't have to answer questions that may incriminate them.

In an internal police investigation, employees are required to discuss their knowledge and role in the incident under investigation. If they refuse, they can be fired.

To ensure that information isn't being passed from the internal investigators to the criminal investigators, Surprise had to wait for Phoenix to conclude its investigation, Murphy said.

Murphy did take issue with the amount of time Phoenix police took conducting the criminal investigation.

"The primary question is why did the criminal (investigation) take so long?" he said. "The list of potential suspects is a known quantity. It's not like we're trying to find a terrorist in the middle of New York City and we don't know what he looks like. A year and a half does seem like a long time."

Crump defended the time Phoenix took to conduct the criminal investigation.

"The Phoenix Police Department conducted this investigation as a courtesy to another jurisdiction," he said in an e-mail. "We are the largest and one of the busiest police departments in the state. The unit which was asked to conduct this investigation is responsible for investigating all crimes related to City of Phoenix employees. Unfortunately they are extremely busy and turnaround times can be lengthy. I'm not sure how that changes or would have changed the current case status."

Surprise officials said investigators are conducting an audit of the department's evidence-handling and security procedures in tandem with the internal investigation into the theft. That audit will tell investigators three things: whether new procedures must be adopted to protect the department's evidence facility; how the thief or thieves managed to exploit weaknesses in the department's security; and if any other items were stolen at the time of the $33,000 theft.

Frazier said that audit is due to end soon, but he would not specify when.

In an interview with Phoenix police during its investigation, an employee assigned to safeguard the area criticized the department's evidence room security, saying there were not only flaws but routine violations of department policy by even top-level administrative staff.

Frazier acknowledged the security in the evidence room was lacking prior to his hiring in January and said he has made improvements by installing new cameras, limiting the number of employees with access to the evidence storage facility and installing additional locks accessible only with a security badge.

"If the measures were in place that are in place today ... it should not have happened," Frazier said.

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