If Tim Scapin, the Asheville Police Department’s new evidence and property manager, needed reminders of how sensitive his position is, he didn’t have to wait long for them.
Scapin started the job March 4. Three weeks later, his predecessor, former APD evidence manager William Lee Smith, agreed to plea guilty to stealing drug evidence valued between $10,000 and $30,000. And in the first week of June, defense attorneys in an Asheville rape case cited the APD’s past evidence-room dysfunction in a bid to have crucial DNA evidence from a “rape kit” dismissed.
The judge was not persuaded; he ruled that the evidence was sound, and the jury went on to find the defendant guilty of rape and related charges. But the deliberations offered a stark reminder of the potential consequences of a local law agency’s breakdown in evidence handling.
Even before these latest developments, Scapin knew what he was getting into, he told Carolina Public Press in a recent interview.
“It’s been well-publicized, the situation that led up to our current position,” he said.
That “situation” is the APD’s protracted evidence-room scandal, which has ground on since Smith was suspended in early 2011 and the State Bureau of Investigation launched a probe that is only now nearing completion. Meanwhile, an extensive audit of evidence in the APD’s possession, commissioned by Asheville City Council, was conducted, and a public-records lawsuit filed by Carolina Public Press and four other local media outlets to make the audit public failed.
Despite the controversy over missing drugs, guns and money, “I didn’t have any reservations about taking the job,” Scapin said. “But I did know it was going to be a huge undertaking.”
One of Scapin’s major challenges will be to counter a climate of doubt about the APD and evidence in the wake of the scandal.
“I’m working every day to try to build that public confidence, that public trust, back in,” he said. “Obviously, the sins of someone’s past, I only have so much control over. But from the point I came in and going forward, we’re locking it down and it’s going to be on the straight and narrow.”
‘Hard-wired for public service’
CPP interviewed Scapin last week, in a conference room at APD headquarters. The department permitted the interview, Scapin’s first while on the job in Asheville, on the condition that Scapin’s direct supervisor, Lt. Gary Gudac, also be on hand to answer any policy questions outside of Scapin’s purview.
Back in February, APD Chief William Anderson announced that, after a nationwide search for a new manager and reviewing more than 100 applications, the department had hired Scapin, an 11-year veteran of the evidence room at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in Florida.
“Having somebody come in with this level of experience in this area, I think, is going to take us where we need to be,” Anderson said as he touted Scapin’s record.
In response to a records request from Carolina Public Press, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office provided hundreds of pages from Scapin’s personnel file. Such records concerning public employees, available under Florida’s so-called Sunshine Law, are confidential in North Carolina and other states, so they offer a rare window into Scapin’s work history.
The documents, including a full set of annual performance reviews that can be read below, support Anderson’s contention that Scapin’s career in evidence management has so far been a model one.
After a first-year performance deemed “satisfactory” on most counts, Scapin, who entered law-enforcement early and is now 33, quickly earned accolades for his work. Over the years, he was almost uniformly praised for meeting and exceeding the job requirements in communication, professional ethics, technical skills, organization, time-management and other key areas.
An August 2005 review of Scapin’s prior year on the job offered typical observations, calling him “accurate in submission of all reports,” “above normal in being neat and organized,” “error free in reference to chain of custody (of evidence items)” and “a great assist to supervision in solving and analyzing problems.”
The review noted that Scapin “requires little or no supervision,” was “always on time and willing to work beyond shift hours if needed” and had proved “instrumental” in “updating and maintaining all training and policy manuals.”
Other records in the file document Scapin’s early and ongoing efforts to bolster his professional knowledge and credentials. On his own initiative, the documents note, he became certified by the International Association for Property and Evidence and an active member of the Property & Evidence Association of Florida.
Along the way, Scapin completed a bachelor’s degree in public administration and took classes on first aid, leadership, conflict resolution, emergency management, gun and ammunition safety, and other job-related specialties.
At the same time, the personnel file shows that even as Scapin honed his skills as an evidence manager, he regularly sought out alternative assignments elsewhere in the sheriff’s office. His applications for other posts were denied, however, and he remained mostly in the evidence room for a full 11 years.
Scapin retired from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in April 2012. When asked why, he said, “Throughout the years, I looked for different opportunities throughout the department, but nothing really arose, and there wasn’t whole lot of opportunity for improvement.
“It just got to the point to where I knew I could do a lot more,” Scapin said. He and his wife, he said, had vacationed several times in WNC, and had resolved to seek employment in Asheville if any positions came open.
In a cover letter accompanying his application to the APD, Scapin described himself as being “hard-wired for public service.”
“For the past 11 years I have been preparing for the opportunity that falls before me today,” he added.
A smaller evidence operation, with bigger problems
Scapin said his experience in Pinellas County has already come in handy here. The system he managed there was much larger, taking in roughly 50,000 evidence and property items a year, compared to the some 10,000 the APD takes in in an average year.
“The main difference is the magnitude of the operation; still, the meat of the job is the same,” he said.
The APD’s new evidence room — in use since the old one was sealed at the start of the SBI investigation — has been well run for the past two years, Scapin said, by sworn police officers, four of which remain on the job.
The new room “is orderly — we have no real issues that have arisen there yet, and I don’t foresee any,” Scapin said.
The old room, as the outside auditor informed City Council last summer, is something of a mess of unfinished business, in need of processing and purging of old evidence and found property.
“Especially in the last month, after I’ve started to settle in a bit, we’ve really started to attack the backlog,” Scapin said. He’s focused on finding property owners and, failing that, auctioning items of value and destroying others, all in accord with state statutes. He’s also worked to process funds from old cases that are, under state law, destined for local school boards.
To expedite processing of items in the future, Scapin said, he’s met with Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore, with whom he has “a good working relationship.”
Scapin, however, has not yet been granted access to the audit of the old evidence room that was commissioned by City Council and remains exclusively in the hands of Moore and the SBI.
Once Smith is sentenced, however, that audit will likely become available, Moore has indicated. Scapin believes the information it holds will help with the purging effort.
“When we do have access to it, it will be a tool to help us draw a baseline,” he said.
Among other fresh initiatives, Scapin is drafting a new operations manual for handling property and evidence, and implementing policies intended to safeguard against future problems.
For example, “with handling currency, we needed a second person to verify that the count was accurate from the time of submission to the time of deposit,” he said. “Now, we always have two people there to make sure that everything is intact.”
Scapin is also changing how the department stores sensitive items like money, jewelry and drugs. He’s studying samples of tamper-evident tape, which would indicate if an evidence package was inappropriately opened, and instituted the use of clear plastic packages that allow the items to be seen even when sealed up.
“This allows for a lot more transparency, without opening it up every time,” he noted.
‘An important job’
Among evidence professionals, it’s a common complaint that their work is little-noticed — until something goes wrong.
“When I was a less-mature person, I would feel that way sometimes,” Scapin said. “You’re kind of forgotten. But now I think I’ve grown to the point to where I know it’s an important job, and I value it.”
The APD certainly has a new appreciation for the importance of a well-run evidence room, said Lt. Gudac, Scapin’s supervisor.
The Asheville evidence scandal “has caused lots of agencies to look at the way they conduct business within the property and evidence room,” he said. “As commanders, we never went down there. To be honest, we just did not follow up like we should have. We didn’t put a lot of emphasis on who we put into those positions.”
That’s no longer the case at the APD, Gudac and Scapin asserted. Scapin was thoroughly vetted, with an extensive background investigation and polygraph and drug tests.
What’s more, Scapin said, his supervisors and Chief Anderson have made it clear that their doors are open to him if any evidence-related concerns arise, especially in light of the APD’s recent problems.
“I said my first day here, to the chief, ‘I just want to focus on the future — I don’t want to get bogged down on the politics of the past,’” Scapin recalled.
“I know it’s definitely a sensitive issue, and I understand citizens being a little skeptical,” he said of the APD’s evidence woes. “But I can assure them that right now we’re complying with every best practice that I understand, that I learned in my years in evidence and forensics management.”