How Secure is Your Evidence?
Written by John Vasquez   

How Secure is Your Evidence?

THINK ABOUT SECURITY: Homeland security, national security, information security, airport security, home security, personal security... All designed to protect us from danger, loss, and criminals by creating a separation between us and the threat.

Law-enforcement agencies employ several layers of security to protect their facilities from the public. Interior and exterior surveillance cameras, bulletproof glass at the front desk, and locked doors restrict public access to certain areas. Most, if not all, local and state law-enforcement agencies have crime-prevention programs. These programs train citizens how to protect themselves and their property in various ways, such as locking their car doors, securing valuables from plain sight, or being cautious of one’s surroundings.

So it is ironic that law-enforcement agencies do not always protect themselves from...themselves. They often tend to have a false sense of security because, they think, “We are the police. We have separated the threat (the public) from us. Look at all this protection. No one that we don’t want would be able to get in here.”

But what about the internal security? What about protection from department employees? How many layers of protection lie behind those locked doors? Here are just a few examples of actual headlines that appeared in newspapers across the country

  • “Property Room Can’t Account For Seized Guns, Drugs, Money”
  • “Former Officer Sentenced For Stealing From Property Room”
  • “$11,000 Missing From Sheriff’s Office Property Room”

Those headlines illustrate the point that just because a person is employed at a law-enforcement agency does not mean the threat is removed. One never truly knows how a person will react when holding $11,000 in their hand, knowing they have bills that need to be paid, thinking about sleepless nights worrying about debt collectors.

Many of us know how we would respond: the temptation would never even cross our minds. But for some, the thought would be there and for others, well… you just read some headlines reporting what others in law enforcement have chosen to do.

Do not pretend that you do not need security inside a secured facility. You do! Am I saying you need to purchase an iris-recognition security system for your evidence room? No. But I am saying that you need to implement reasonable, industry-accepted measures to protect the integrity of your property-and-evidence (P&E) facility.

Before I go on, let me make something perfectly clear: I am not an expert on security and I do not claim to be. This article is based solely on my personal experiences with certain types of security systems that I have come across while visiting other agencies and while researching the accepted industry standards. I am not selling any product or making recommendations for a specific product. The purpose of this article is to get you to think about securing your evidence room. Start asking some important questions: “What level of security do I need? How many layers of security do I need? Who needs to have access? How do I monitor that access?”

It does not matter if your evidence room is a closet or a multi-level warehouse; it must be secure. Unauthorized access to the room will jeopardize the integrity of the items stored. So, let’s begin with a simple question…

Who has access
to your P&E Room?

I ask this question at each class that I instruct. Some of you may be surprised to hear the list of individuals that have keys to P&E rooms. And some of you will not be surprised because you come from an agency that gives out keys to almost anyone who says, “I need a key because…” In my classes, I also ask to see a show of hands of the chiefs and sheriffs who have unrestricted access to their property rooms. After a number of hands are raised, I follow up with, “Why?”

Their response is, “Because I’m the chief of police (or sheriff).”

“Okay,” I respond. “You are now at the top of the suspect list when an item comes up missing in the P&E room!”

At one seminar, a chief’s response to that statement was to immediately take his keys from his pocket, remove a key from the ring, turn to his captain, and say, “Here’s my key. Take me off the access list.”

The number of employees who have unescorted access to the P&E room will vary from department to department. In small agencies, no more than two people should have keyed access to the P&E room. The two individuals should be the one who is primarily responsible for the P&E room and the one who is the designated backup person. The backup person needs access in case the primary person is on vacation, sick, or otherwise not available.

I also recommend placing a key in a sealed envelope and storing it in a location that can be accessed after hours. The envelope needs to be sealed as if it contained evidence—evidence tape, initials (if tape is not used, initial across the seal), etc. The secured key needs to be checked at least monthly to ensure the seal is intact. Maintain a log indicating when the envelope was checked and by whom. The reason for this envelope is to allow entry to the P&E room in the event of an emergency when those who do hold a key are not available. Departmental policy needs to be established to define the precise circumstances under which this key may be used.

In large agencies—especially those agencies that operate their P&E rooms “24/7”—only P&E-room employees need keys. No one else!

Another suggestion for medium to large agencies is if you have identified certain individuals to work in the drug room, for example, only those individuals (along with the supervisor) should have access to the drug room. All P&E-room employees do not need to be able to access that section of the P&E room. The same holds true for the money and gun vaults. Only those assigned to work in those areas need access, along with the supervisor.

Finally, regardless of the size of your agency, maintain a key log. Every individual assigned keys needs to be noted on the log. Employees with special access need to be identified. The log needs to be kept updated.

Securing evidence-packaging
and report-writing areas

Many agencies have areas designated for officers where they bring property and evidence for packaging, or where they write reports. The concept is to place essential P&E-packaging and report-writing materials—such as computers for report writing, forms, packaging material, work surfaces to allow packaging of items, and lockers where evidence is placed for retrieval by P&E-room personnel—in one central location. There are many variations to this concept, all dependent on the size of the agency.

Regardless of the size of the area, it needs to be secured and monitored by cameras. Evidence lockers, used to hold property and evidence temporarily before it is moved to the P&E room, come in various sizes and styles. Some styles still use padlocks, others use keys, and some are keyless “pass-through” models. In the pass-through design, the officer places the item in an open locker and closes the door, which automatically locks. Then, P&E personnel remove the item from the rear of the locker and only they can unlock the front door to the locker. This style, in my opinion, is the most secure and failsafe of all styles.

What external security measures
do you have in place?

“External” refers to the area immediately outside the P&E room, regardless of whether the P&E room is located within a building or is a building in itself. For P&E rooms operated less than 24 hours a day, seven days a week, cameras should be installed showing every entrance to the P&E room and, when feasible, monitored by dispatch or another unit that is staffed 24/7. If 24/7 monitoring is cost-prohibitive, then the recorder should be installed in the supervisor’s office. Another suggestion is to install cameras in the interior of the P&E room, capturing the doors and customer-service window. Again, the recorder should be placed in the supervisor’s office for review when necessary.

If cameras are installed outside the P&E room, lighting needs to be considered. It will not do any good to have cameras monitoring the entrances if you cannot see anything! The same is true for cameras installed inside the room. When the door is opened and light is behind the individual entering the room, chances are you will not be able to identify the facial features of the backlit subject.

If cameras are not an option, then an alternative is an alarm system. An alarm system is also a good idea even if cameras are installed because it adds an extra layer of security. The alarm signal should be sent to dispatch in the event of an intrusion so that patrol units can be notified and dispatched.

Now that we can see and/or hear when anyone enters or leaves the facility, let’s take a quick look at the point of entrance: the door itself. This area of security is often lacking because most people just do not give it much thought. When selecting a door, remember three things:

1) Composition—Do not install a hollow-core wooden door. At a minimum, the door needs to be a solid-core wooden door. The recommended material for the door and the doorframe is metal.

2) Door size—The size of your storage facility will dictate the size of your door. If you have a large facility and large items are stored there, such as refrigerators, sofas, and pallets loaded with property, then you will need an oversized door, or even double-doors.

3) Door hinge placement—Do not install doors with the hinges located on the outside, unless you have purchased tamper-proof hinges. If the hinges are located on the outside, it is very easy to remove the hinge pins and gain entry to the P&E room.

For those of you with a customer-service window where individuals drop off or retrieve items, there are several ways to secure the window. When windows are more than five feet wide, pull-down doors (similar to garage doors) are very popular and offer great protection. They can be secured with padlocks on the inside-bottom corners or with one padlock in the center. Other methods include installing doors over the windows. Whichever method is used, be sure to install an alarm on the window, as well. Install a camera on the interior and focus it on the window to provide a good level of added protection. The additional video at the window will be valuable the next time you have an incident with an unruly customer.

The most preferred method of wall construction is cement blocks with solid centers. Some P&E rooms have drop ceilings. These do not present a problem as long as the walls extend up to the next level. On too many occasions I have observed drop ceilings in the P&E room that have crawl spaces above them. This presents the opportunity for someone to enter the P&E room from an adjacent room.

What options are available
for access control?

There are many different styles of access-control systems, ranging from the simple door lock to the highly sophisticated iris-recognition system. When deciding on which kind to use, consider a few things:

1) Size of the P&E room, including the number of rooms in the facility;
2) Number of P&E employees;
3) Hours of operation;
4) Location of the room (Is there public access or is it accessed by department employees only?);
5) Construction of the P&E room;
6) Budget.

Many medium to large P&E rooms use keyless access-control systems. The options available at start-up and subsequent add-ons make this type of access control very attractive to agencies experiencing or anticipating significant growth. Almost all vendors provide customization for these systems. The systems come with software to manage entire buildings, the ability to easily add or delete employees, and program times and areas for authorized access for each employee. This works great for part-time or volunteer employees with set hours. You can even set times for doors to remain unlocked. For example, if you have an entrance for customers, you can set the system to unlock the door from 0800-1700 hours, Monday through Friday. (A word of caution: If an upcoming Monday is a holiday, be sure to change the setting so the door will not be open all day with no one there! I learned from experience and—trust me—it will only happen once!) Another advantage includes the ability to disable an access card if one is stolen or lost.

Can you overdo protection? In my opinion: Yes! Why purchase a keyless access-control system for a small, one-room, two-employee operation? Instead, purchase a metal, solid core door, an alarm system and possibly even a camera system for one-tenth the cost of an access-control system. Use common sense and your evidence won’t “grow legs” and walk away!

About the Author

John Vasquez is a Certified Evidence Technician with the Texas Association of Property & Evidence Inventory Technicians (TAPEIT).Vasquez is a past president of TAPEIT and has worked in the field of evidence management for more than 20 years. His company, Mission: Control Consulting Group, LLC, provides consulting services in evidence management, leadership development, and employment issues. He can be reached at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or through his website: www.missioncontrolconsult.com


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED:
"How Secure is Your Evidence," written by John Vasquez
September-October 2009 (Volume 7, Number 5)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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