Evidence Integration
Written by Bob Galvin   

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The receipt & tracking of evidence is a thorny challenge for law enforcement. Although evidence intake initially occurs in the property and evidence room, much of it inevitably travels throughout an agency, and even outside of it, based on various requests and needs. For example, crime labs often need to examine and analyze evidence brought into an agency. Likewise, crime scenes are extensively photographed; the resulting images and additional information collected are important types of evidence that need to be managed. Consequently, the property room, crime lab, and digital media unit of a law enforcement agency currently handle evidence differently and with a separate chain of custody.

The concern with this configuration is that both internal and external stakeholders are unable to see the status of evidence across all three processing categories. Law enforcement needs to remove this inefficiency by integrating the disparate systems and the ways in which evidence is handled within the independent systems. Meanwhile, agencies across the country have started to move from home-grown versions of evidence management systems to automated solutions, usually by deploying one of these solutions at a time. This article will examine how each of these technologies can be implemented, and explain how integrating the three systems in the future may produce compelling benefits.


An analyst at the Kansas City (Mo.) Police Department Crime Lab examines a carpet sample for blood.

Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) capture critical data about the scientific study and evaluation of a vital piece of evidence. LIMS focus on automated evidence collection and case management, and deliver the results of analysis from within its laboratory operations. This automation alleviates the backlog of evidence, improves the speed of testing and analysis, and can improve productivity and quality via more timely, accurate results.

Digital Information Management Systems (DIMS) capture and manage large volumes of information and evidence including photographs, videos, audio, documents, diagrams, and 3D VR (virtual reality) laser-scanning data that are generated by crime scene units, patrol, investigations, crime labs, or specialized units. These electronic data, or assets, must be secured, authenticated, and stored (with full redundancy to prevent loss of evidence), and distributed to stakeholders based on permissions. As the DIMS accomplishes these tasks, it also logs a complete chain of custody and audit trail. An effective DIMS can simplify the acquisition and archiving of digital assets and protect an agency from accidental or intentional release of confidential or sensitive images/audio/video that could trigger millions of dollars for damages in civil lawsuits.

Evidence Management Systems (EMS) allow for easy data entry and real-time tracking of evidence items. A key feature of EMS software is that the storage location and chain of custody for any evidence item can be tracked electronically. This allows quicker and more efficient evidence searches, customized reports, inventory audits, and evidence purging.

Evidence System Needed to Provide Audit Trail, Work With RMS

Today, most law enforcement agencies have installed one or two of these technologies and realized major savings in both time and resources. And some agencies have even begun to plan on how to integrate these compelling systems.

The Kansas City (Missouri) Police Department is a case in point. Faced with inadequate systems for both evidence management and laboratory information management, it turned to automation. After struggling with three separate systems for evidence management—an automated reporting system/records management system (ARS/RMS) where officers wrote reports and recorded property entries; a paper system for recording information on property; and another duplicative electronic evidence system based on an old mainframe database—the agency chose the EvidenceOnQ software program from FileOnQ. Captain Mark Terman, who oversaw the software’s installation, called the new program a “one-stop shop for chain of custody.” One of the biggest advantages with the new software is the ability to conduct audits. “We can look at a bin (for evidence) and very quickly tell if it has what it’s supposed to have inside,” said Terman, thanks to barcoded evidence labels. “There has to be continual audits to ensure the property is not missing and to ensure that the chain of custody is properly maintained.”

The payback has been rewarding. It once took a person nearly 45 minutes to complete an audit and generate paperwork on just a single bin of evidence using the legacy evidence system. The new EMS completes this in ten minutes. “We’ve decreased the amount of personnel needed by the equivalent of one full-time position,” Terman noted. “That’s on top of savings in hours originally needed for packaging and recording evidence in the beginning from our officers in the field.” Today, evidence room personnel can spend more time on other tasks.

Many agencies already use an RMS to organize and share law enforcement records, conduct database queries, generate incident reports, and provide crime analysis. These RMS programs usually have a module that provides some basic property and evidence management functions.

Since Kansas City PD had been using an RMS program containing a property module that was not sufficient for the actual management of evidence, the new EMS software needed to integrate with it—which it now does. As a result, detectives and other personnel can quickly view what property and evidence actually is available along with the details they need to effectively carry out their jobs.

Access to RMS Barcodes, Data Mining Was Crucial

Similar to its property and evidence room, Kansas City PD’s crime lab struggled for years with an outdated LIMS. According to Jennifer Howard, DNA technical leader and LIMS administrator, the aging system was all paper-based, creating massive inefficiencies. Chain of custody was on paper and so were notes on evidence items. “The downside is that only one person could look at the case file at a time, there was no data mining, and we could not manage our backlog (of evidence to be tested) well,” Howard said. Even worse, information in the old LIMS could not be shared.

The crime lab needed a newer, automated LIMS that could perform a wide range of tasks and interact with the agency’s RMS that is tied into the police report-writing system. “We wanted to ensure we were able to interact with the report-writing system and that we weren’t duplicating data from the RMS to input into our new LIMS,” Howard explained.

Four years ago, the crime lab adopted the Forensic Advantage LIMS. The software contains many essential capabilities: ensures accountability for evidence chain of custody; collects, associates scientific analysis for evidence submitted; query and statistical reporting; generates documentation for use in criminal proceedings; automates communication on the transfer of evidence; and provides case status and results.

Data integrity and strong chain of custody were, of course, essential to the Kansas City PD’s crime lab. However, the lab wanted some additional capabilities uncommon in a traditional LIMS, which include time-keeping and an analysis-request system. “We’re a local lab, so we don’t initiate work based upon an officer physically bringing us evidence, which is why the integration (of the LIMS) with the property and evidence unit is important,” Howard said.

The new LIMS has allowed Kansas City PD’s crime lab to make the least amount of changes to its workflow as it transitioned from a paper LIMS to an automated system. It also allows the lab to use the RMS system’s existing barcodes. The agency’s EMS program has access to these same barcodes. “We wanted to utilize the existing RMS barcodes within our LIMS to eliminate the need for lab-specific barcodes to be added to the evidence,” Howard said.

Now, notes can be taken electronically and provided to the LIMS users for data mining. “We wanted to use management reports to track statistics and be aware of our current output and backlogs,” said Howard.

Connecting LIMS with Evidence Room

Today, the crime lab still must, through email, request evidence to be brought from the property room. “We want to get evidence here so we can analyze it,” Howard explained. “We need a way to look at their EMS and tell them what evidence we need and where it is located, so they can get it to us, and quicker.” The connection between the LIMS and the EMS is critical in Howard’s view. “This affects chain of custody, for analysts to know what evidence is actually at the lab or on its way to the lab,” Howard said. She added that integrating the two systems will strengthen an already strong chain of custody in the EMS as well as accuracy of real-time information. “We’re hoping the integration will allow us to request evidence and get it to the lab quicker for those rush and priority cases,” Howard said.


Evidence management technology will enable the integration of LIMS, DIMS, and EMS. Here, evidence is tracked at teh Fairview (Ore.) Police Department.

Another trend driving integration is the need for crime labs to perform scientific analysis as fast as possible, while battling huge backlogs of evidence. Without integration, these labs may be forced to perform testing and analysis on evidence tied to cases that have already been pled or adjudicated.

Need To Share Digital Information

Several years ago, the forensic division of the Portland (Oregon) Police Bureau captured photos on 35mm film, proving inefficient and requiring massive cabinet storage space and costly equipment for processing film. If internal or external customers needed access to assets in a case, there were many time-consuming hurdles: long delays in determining location of evidence; permission to access assets; inadequate manpower for printing; and the time and travel required to visit the photo lab. Once in print form, there was potential for loss of chain of custody, plus limited security.

In 2011, Portland Police Bureau chose the Linear Systems DIMS and ImageServer system after a careful search of other DIMS solutions. The agency’s main criteria for selection included ease of use, redundancy, reliability, uptime, and security. “Linear allows us to share these assets with unlimited users through a secure browser over a network connection on our intranet,” said Chris Wormdahl, police ID technologies coordinator for the bureau’s forensic division. “Now, a detective can type in a case number (in the DIMS) at his desk and, based on predetermined classifications and permissions, review all related photos, audio, or video without having to request a hard copy,” Wormdahl said. In addition, the district attorney’s office also has access through the DIMS setup to quickly review evidence and make decisions for prosecution.

With more than 900 sworn personnel and 250 civilians, Portland Police Bureau must carefully control authorization levels for access to digital assets, which the DIMS provides. Wormdahl also notes it is critical to have log tracking and an audit trail to authenticate the complete chain of custody for all assets or evidence.

Multiple DIMS Stations Give Quick Access To Assets

Another requirement the forensic division made of its new DIMS is multiple acquisition stations on the network that could upload information and evidence from 14 locations within various precincts to ensure that no data is ever deleted or lost. A challenge was to securely transfer the high volume of data from these locations over existing network infrastructure without disrupting normal operations. The DIMS handled this task easily. Once all the data is transferred and replicated to fully redundant servers in different physical locations in the police bureau, “The images are available on a web browser that you can access from any computer in the bureau,” Wormdahl explained. “The ability to share these images instantly with various stakeholders, especially the district attorney’s office, using varying authorization levels, is invaluable.”

Several good examples of how important the DIMS functionality has become involve access to photos from a homicide or assault case. For example, Wormdahl points out, “Our investigators can access photos to show to a victim or witness minutes after being acquired instead of a delay of up to five days with film.” Likewise, prosecutors can review DV cases very quickly, which leads to increased conviction rates and pleas.

Wormdahl sees huge value through integrating DIMS with property and evidence software. “If property and evidence personnel have a link to DIMS to see photos, this would make information accessibility more robust,” Wormdahl said. “It would prevent people from having to do more work to gather that information. To have this information at a unified access point, whether it’s DIMS talking with property and evidence or LIMS—for all three to be integrated would be valuable for investigations or discovery,” Wormdahl said.


An evidence technician at teh Burbank (Calif.) Police Department places evidence—just received and barcoded—into an evidence intake locker.

Integration Can Yield Better Information for Investigations

Brady Mills, president-elect of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, is supportive of integration of LIMS, DIMS, and EMS, but feels its implementation will depend on the makeup of some of the nation’s laboratories, some of which are local and others state-managed. Local labs, he said, might have an easier time integrating disparate evidence systems as they only serve one client—their own agency. Mills sees integration as giving two-way communication about evidence inquiries. Usually, a client submits something to a lab—physical evidence and information surrounding the evidence that outlines what crime is being viewed and what people were involved in that crime—so that a report (from the crime lab) on results can be pushed out. “If those systems (LIMS, DIMS, and EMS) are linked, especially for secondary clients like DAs and county attorneys interacting with the forensic lab or with crime investigators, everybody now has access to the same information,” Mills said. “This will give a more accurate and comprehensive view back to our clients who are trying to investigate a particular offense.”

A More Comprehensive Evidence Management Process

The concept of integrating the technologies that provide evidence assets from a property room, a crime lab, and a forensic identification unit will surely become a reality for law enforcement agencies. The above discussion has shown how progressive steps to make this happen are already underway. The fact that there is a mix of physical and digital evidence necessitates their integration so that all constituents have access to it, see where it resides, and share information about this evidence. In the view of EMS development company FileOnQ CEO Kim Webley, without integration, the result could be an incomplete view of evidence and how it ties back to a crime. “To have a single baseline of evidence tracking should be a requirement for good law enforcement case management, all the way to the judicial level,” Webley said. In this way, he added, “Integration will unify the tracking and management of EMS, LIMS, and DIMS.” It also will represent a truly comprehensive, integrated evidence management system.

About the Author

Bob Galvin is a freelance writer who covers topics related to law enforcement and the technology of crime scene and crash scene reconstruction. His office is located in Oregon City, Ore.

For More Information

...about the concepts discussed in this article, contact This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it , CEO of FileOnQ, Inc.

 
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