June 29, 2023
Jun. 29—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — An ongoing audit of West Hills Regional Police Department's policies for securing drug evidence will yield recommendations for change in the wake of Sgt. Michael Beblar's overdose death, Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Tristan Tappe said on Wednesday.
Spurred by the death of Beblar earlier this month, the state police conducted a regulatory audit of the West Hills Regional's evidence room, indicating that Beblar had tampered with drug evidence, officials said.
The audit is near completion and will include recommendations for policy changes within the department moving forward, Tappe said.
Cambria County District Attorney Gregory Neugebauer said that West Hills Regional Police Department, headquartered at 1000 Luzerne St., Westmont Borough, has fully cooperated with the investigation and has already begun to make policy changes.
Beblar joined the West Hills department in 2015 and was promoted to patrol sergeant in 2021. In that capacity, he had access to the evidence room, police Chief Edward Fisher said.
Fisher made no remarks during a press conference on Wednesday at the state police barracks in Ebensburg, but he was present along with Neugebauer and state troopers. He spoke with The Tribune-Democrat after the press conference.
"Sgt. Beblar was a trusted supervisor," Fisher said. "He had access (to the evidence room). We are in the process now of working with the district attorney's office to change some of those policies and procedures. Right now, we want to group everybody together and move the department forward."
Fisher showed emotion when speaking about Beblar.
"You'll struggle to find anyone who disliked him," he said.
"He was all about his kids, his job. That's why it was such a shock to all of us."
Neugebauer said that he contacted the state police Bureau of Criminal Investigation to conduct an audit of West Hills Regional Police Department's evidence room out of an abundance of caution after information from the coroner's office narrowed the cause of Beblar's death to a drug overdose.
When completed, the audit's recommendations for increasing evidence room security won't be mandatory for West Hills Regional Police Department, Tappe said. However, advice from the state police is generally respected by smaller departments.
"Other departments that are smaller look to us for an example," she said. "We can come in an evidence room and say, 'We found this discrepancy. Here's the policy we follow. You guys can take bread crumbs from that and make it your own.' "
While state police barracks across Pennsylvania operate under uniform policy, the policies of local departments vary.
"Small local departments' policies will change at the drop of a hat," Tappe said. "Catastrophic incidents like this will really motivate a department to change."
West Hills Regional Police Department covers Westmont Borough, Southmont Borough, Brownstown Borough and Lower Yoder Township. Representatives of those municipalities' governments form a commission that oversees the department's hiring and budgets the municipalities' tax dollars' to fund the department.
Robert Morgan, chairman of the police commission and Southmont Borough Council member, said the commission will have no official action to take regarding changes to the department until the audit is complete, Morgan said.
Tappe said she hopes other small departments will also check their policies and procedures.
"On behalf of the Pennsylvania State Police, we do extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to those who knew and loved Sgt. Beblar," Tappe said. "From here, we cannot go back and make things right ... but we can move the department forward, and we can encourage other departments to follow suit and operate with like-minded policies to ensure these things diminish and, over time, completely stop happening."