Examiner Editorial: Accountability arrives for SFPD lab scandal

San Francisco police Chief George Gascón used angry phrases like “acts of negligence” and “we are going to hold people accountable” in his Friday news conference about the department’s lengthy “inability to see the signs” of a drug-testing scandal at its crime laboratory.

The chief invoked personnel confidentiality regulations to avoid naming names. But, it’s widely understood around the Hall of Justice that the sudden “voluntary” demotions of two high-ranking officers and perhaps also the retirement of a third are connected to failure to take action in response to early red flags.

Assistant Chief Kevin Cashman and Cmdr. John Loftus were demoted to captains and assistant Chief Morris Tabak abruptly announced he will retire this fall. All three veteran command staff members were involved with oversight of the crime lab at various times. While firing San Francisco police officers is a process that routinely drags on for years, demotions are a much simpler way to impose at least some level of disciplinary punishment — and they can take place without any embarrassing detailed public revelations.

Last year, suspicions began that 29-year criminalist Deborah Madden might be endangering cases by taking cocaine evidence for her personal use. In mid-December, her sister tipped off the crime lab that she had found an official cocaine vial at Madden’s home. Yet, no action was taken was taken until late February, when Gascón said he first learned about the mess.

Madden reportedly admitted to taking drugs from the lab. By then, she had retired and was collecting a generous pension from The City. To overcome any conflict-of-interest suspicions, the district attorney turned Madden’s case over to state prosecutors, who have yet to file any charges against her in the alleged drug-lab thefts.

Once the scandal went public, it became a high-priced embarrassment. Gascón ordered the drug-testing unit closed in March. Hundreds of drug dealers have remained on the streets as the District Attorney’s Office was forced to dismiss pending cases. Drug samples are being taken to private labs by on-duty police officers, at a high cost. The City has budgeted $11.2 million to clean up all the long-festering operational problems at the lab, which also tests DNA and bullets.

Despite the five-month delay, some accountability has finally arrived at the SFPD for what seems like inexcusable failures to address the lack of control over drug-testing security at the crime lab. If there are other police personnel — at any rank — who have been culpable in the downfall of the lab, we are hopeful they also will be held accountable.

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