Does Your Evidence Room Need a Technology Makeover?

ACROSS THE COUNTRY, law-enforcement agencies are turning to technology to improve their efficiency, save money, and better

Manually bagging and tagging evidence is a start...but you should probably consider taking advantage of state-of-the-art management software that is available. The evidence tag shown above is an example of a system that helps you speed things up by providing barcoded labels and efficient database management.
Photos courtesy of Smead Manufacturing

serve their communities. In many cases, these initiatives could not be coming at a better time.

In the current economic climate, city, county, and state revenues are contracting, forcing budget cutbacks in a wide range of government agencies. While the outlook is far from rosy, on the whole, law enforcement has been faring better than many government departments. Placing a priority on public safety, many jurisdictions are working to preserve law-enforcement funding, while the federal government has stepped in to help with a number of new grants, including the COPS Hiring Recovery and Justice Assistance Grants (JAG).

Unfortunately, in many departments that has still not been enough. In some agencies, open positions remain unfilled. In others, layoffs occur. Other budget cuts have affected a number of other jurisdictions.

The main question remains: How can our communities meet ongoing public-safety challenges with diminished resources? Doing so often takes some creativity and ingenuity as well as looking in some unexpected new places. In many cases, making better use of available technology is key to that change. Utilizing new technology can not only save time and money, it can also protect long-term against continued economic uncertainty.

Property-and-evidence (P&E) rooms are good candidates for technology makeovers. Many still rely on manual processes and procedures that require the application of significant man-hours—an increasingly scarce resource in light of the pressures on personnel bandwidth. Greater efficiencies here can help departments do more with limited personnel and also reduce storage costs, allowing them to redirect resources into more critical public-safety work.

Up-to-date P&E-management systems are a prime example. By leveraging barcode tracking and labeling, these systems make evidence easy to find, regardless of where it is stored. They also document the chain of custody, so law-enforcement agencies know where items are, where they have been, and who has accessed them—from their entry into the system all the way through disposition. More advanced systems also include electronic imaging and tracking, allowing police departments to track both electronic evidence directly as well as crime-scene photos, or photos of the property and evidence itself.

Integrated systems have been on the scene for the last several years and offer one way to automate the entire chain of custody. Some experts suggest that an integrated system’s property-room module may not be as robust as a stand-alone system. With ample research and, depending on the size of your department, these systems may eliminate hundreds of hours spent annually on manually tracking property and evidence—and in the process, the systems may eliminate many of the problems associated with mislabeled, mishandled, or missing evidence.

Say goodbye to the paperwork

Briefly, here is how P&E-management systems work: When a piece of evidence is checked in, the system generates and prints a label that contains a unique barcode. The label is affixed to the evidence, which is then scanned by the P&E-room technician and inventoried. Every transaction is automatically tracked and logged, and a full audit trail is provided for every item checked in.

Some systems save time by enforcing correct check-in and labeling procedures for evidence. For example, officers cannot complete the process until every mandatory field on the form is completed. This step may take additional moments at the time of booking the evidence, but the procedure can save significant time through process improvements that no longer require double-checking completed information inputs or, in the case of incomplete information, tracking down officers to come back and redo it. Because this takes less time overall for officers, it helps them get back into the field faster.

Automated systems can also use information entered during evidence check-in to automatically populate other forms. This results in fewer redundant fields for officers to complete. In some departments, officers simply print all the reports they need right in the property room and slip them into their reports pack.

Officers and other personnel also save time when they need to locate evidence for investigations or court proceedings. No more searching for misplaced or mislabeled evidence. Lost or missing items can be virtually eliminated. What might have taken hours before can often happen in just minutes, allowing fewer people to accomplish more work.

These may seem like small things; but they all add up, especially in departments that have recently reduced their workforces.

Going digital

Some software systems include imaging capabilities that allow jurisdictions to attach electronic evidence—such as digital photos of a crime scene or photos of the evidence—into the reporting system. The ability to attach digital images to individual P&E files enhances security by providing an alternative to checking evidence in and out at various points in the chain of custody. Additionally, when evidence is checked in and out of the property room for testing or investigator use, digitized signatures provide tracking control and an audit trail, which greatly reduce evidence-mishandling claims.

Minimizing storage costs

Automated P&E-management systems not only allow departments to use personnel more efficiently, but they can also reduce storage-space requirements, which can add up to a significant cost savings for agencies that have evidence backlog issues. While some evidence must be saved indefinitely, the majority can be returned or purged out of the system once legal requirements are met. Automated systems can help by generating disposition letters based on retention schedules for particular types of property and evidence.

Departments which get the process under control this way often report cutting their physical inventory requirements significantly in just a few months.

Searching, reporting, and auditing with ease

An automated P&E-management system that captures and tracks all data from check-in through disposition in an easy-to-use database can streamline day-to-day workflows in many additional ways.

At one time, searching databases on anything other than property ID tags or serial numbers required agencies to create complicated programming queries that resulted in delays. Current solutions offer the ability to run intuitive queries in a spectrum of ways. Officers and property-room clerks can easily search by case number, officer name, suspect, violation, date, time, location, narrative, neighborhood, zone, and other criteria.

Getting personnel up to speed quickly and ensuring consistency

One significant benefit of an automated P&E-management system sometimes gets lost in all the talk of features and functionality: automated systems can ensure training consistency and adherence to mandated process and procedures, even with the newest team members.

If your department relies on a “homegrown” system, what happens when the personnel who developed the system leave the force? Often, they take their knowledge of the system and possibly the underlying mandates with them, making it difficult and time-consuming for new personnel to get up to speed. Automated P&E solutions systematize the training processes—all personnel go through the same training and follow the same processes and procedures. If the system is intuitive, easy to use, and based on pre-established workflows and pro-cesses, new property-room personnel can become proficient and productive in relatively little time.

Further, automation allows property-room functions to run around the clock, even without property-room personnel, by allowing officers to check in and label property and evidence on their own.

What to look for in a partner

P&E-management systems require an initial investment in planning, software, hardware, and training. But when you consider the benefits, the investment is usually more than justified. There are some important considerations, however, when you choose a vendor to partner with.

The first is system flexibility. Find a system that can fit the way your department already works and does not require you to change the way you operate. Remember that your department has years of experience handling property and evidence and you have your own unique workflows and processes, in addition to local laws and jurisdictional requirements. Look for a system that maps your existing processes and allows you to easily add or modify fields to reflect your unique needs. Such a system should also come with standard reports and allow for the custom reports your department will undoubtedly need.

In addition, find a system that does not require an excessive amount of specialized computer knowledge to operate on a day-to-day basis. Users of the system will be police officers, not computer programmers. If they view the system as something that overly complicates their jobs, they will not use it. Look for a system that is intuitive, fast, and simple to use, with features that your officers can learn easily and utilize quickly, without extensive training or months of practice. One tip is to examine the user interface carefully and ask the vendor to walk you through a demo so you can see the system in action.

Finally, take a good hard look at the vendor itself. Is the vendor’s central business focus records and property management? How well does it know the law-enforcement community? Can its software track both physical and electronic property and evidence in the same interface? Does it show a commitment during the pre-sales process to work with your unique needs and practices? Or does it give you a take-it-or-leave-it offer? How financially stable is it and how long has it been in existence? How big is its consulting and professional services organization? This last consideration can be crucial, since you may need a partner who can create an efficient plan to convert data in your old system to a new one, and be with you over the long haul as your department’s needs change and grow.

About the Author

Billy Mitchell is a 20-year veteran of the software industry and the professional services group manager for software solutions at Smead Manu-facturing. He has helped thousands of companies and government agencies with their records-management needs. Mitchell can be reached via e-mail at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED:
"Does Your Evidence Room Need a Technology Makeover?" written by Billy Mitchell
Photos by Smead Manufacturing
November-December 2009 (Volume 7, Number 6)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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