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Tempe’s new police chief addresses problems with unit that processes crime scenes

Posted at 6:19 PM, Dec 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-07 10:52:31-05

TEMPE, AZ — Tempe’s new chief of police called issues with the Forensic Services Unit ‘problematic’ after an internal investigation found the unit used expired chemicals, had outdated lab equipment, and had no standards to process crime scenes.

In November, the ABC15 Investigators reported on an internal investigation into the former supervisor of the unit that found a lack of equipment had a negative impact when members of the Forensic Services Unit were on crime scenes.

Investigators found that there were no standard procedures for processing crime scenes during the six years that the former supervisor was assigned to the unit. Along with having no standard operating procedures, the unit did not continue with proper training.

In the Internal Affairs report, investigators wrote: “Due to the lack of proficiency testing and training, FSU has not been able to maintain their skills and knowledge at the level which would be expected.”

In the report, the Professional Standards Bureau also found an incident where a mop handle from a 2016 homicide case was not properly handled as it was left in a temporary locker for approximately two years.

“The chain of custody and storage of this evidentiary item in such a manner can be detrimental to the criminal investigation as well as impacting a victim’s family,” an internal affairs report stated.

It went on to say that the former supervisor, Laura Somershoe, admitted this item was to be processed by her, stating, “According to her statement she did not process the evidentiary item due to factors such as hiring, training, COVID-19 and having many responsibilities.”

Investigators determined this is not consistent with the city’s impound policy as well as Somershoe’s work duties and responsibilities.

The ABC15 Investigators have been looking into concerns around the Forensic Services Unit since September when Tempe officials said they were having the Mesa Police Department process their major crime scenes including homicides, officer-involved shootings, and stranger sexual assaults.

RELATED: 'Areas of Concern' around Tempe Police Department’s forensic unit, memo reveals

The first statement from the City of Tempe in September said after a period of review by the new supervisor of the Forensic Services Unit and new chief of police, the department: “Made the decision to upgrade the training provided to FSU team members.”

After the city declined several interview requests in the past, the ABC15 Investigators spoke with Tempe’s new chief of police before a city council meeting where we were given a few minutes to ask questions.

“I've only been here for five months now and one of the first things I've done is start to evaluate our police department and one of the first things I learned were the issues with our Forensic Services Unit,” said Chief Kenneth McCoy.

The ABC15 Investigators asked McCoy about how this was not just about the need for upgraded training as the internal investigation found the unit had expired chemicals, outdated lab equipment and did not have a standard operating procedure to process crime scenes. “And I would agree with you that's problematic and like I said I've only been here five months now and truly I'm just learning of all of these deficiencies and so again as I caught wind of the concerns they were immediately pulled offline.”

McCoy said that the police department has set up a task force and they are looking at cases going back three years.

“Once that review is complete we will go back further until we have looked at all of the cases that the unit has been involved with," McCoy added.

If any cases are set aside to be reviewed, they will then be sent to Mesa’s crime lab for an independent review.

McCoy said he did not have answers as to why or how issues with the unit went on for seven to eight years.

“But what I can tell you is I’ve identified it and I will get it fixed during my watch,” he said.

We asked Chief McCoy if he is worried about the people around him, and the leadership in place since problems within the unit went on for so long.

“As the new police chief one of the first things I've started to do is build my team, my command team, and that's still an ongoing process,” he said.

McCoy also said he is evaluating each area of the police department to see what their capabilities are, and if there are improvement needs.

A recent memo from the Tempe Police Department to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office revealed Tempe’s Criminal Investigations Bureau has reviewed over 400 cases, and following this review, 20% of the examined cases have been identified for fingerprint re-evaluation.

“As a precautionary measure, we are forwarding these specific cases to Mesa Forensics,” the letter stated.

The letter adds that Tempe has put an emphasis on reviewing open and inactive homicides, sex-related offenses, and other crimes of violence.

Chief McCoy was asked if he had started ordering the needed equipment, like cameras and lenses, upgrading lab equipment, and checking for more expired chemicals.

“The process of evaluating the unit and identifying the needs is ongoing,” said McCoy. “One of the first things that were identified was the training that was needed for the unit so that's in place, the protocols and procedures are things that our supervisors in the unit are working directly with our partners with the Mesa lab to update our policies and procedures and with that will come ensuring we have the appropriate equipment and that we are cycling the equipment through appropriate timelines for expiration, and so forth.”