RFID for Evidence Tracking and Accountability
Written by Kathryn Bankston Smith, CDIA+   
Baker, LA. is the third-largest municipality within Baton Rouge Parish, with a population of 14,500, and a police force of 45 officers. Baker Police Department uses two vaults for the storage and tracking of criminal evidence. They are holding up to 9,000 pieces of evidence at any given time.
 
As with most law enforcement organizations, the method of tracking physical evidence started on paper and later migrated to computer (a DOS-based system) where everything was logged and entered into the computer by hand. When the Baker PD re-organized their evidence room in 2007, they migrated to the current state-of-the-art barcoding program. In the implementation process, they removed all evidence, and when they returned it, each piece was barcoded and its shelf location entered into the system.
 
Small Error, Big Problem
 
While barcoding was an improvement, it was susceptible to human error.
 
“I’ve been there when an evidence envelope was supposed to be in a certain location and it’s not there. Officers can spend hours searching for something that’s simply been placed on the wrong shelf. I have personally spent three hours looking for an evidence envelope. That’s not how you want your law enforcement officers to be spending their time,” explained Randall Dunaway, assistant chief of police at Baker PD. “Also, when you inadvertently walk out with two envelopes—maybe stuck together—nothing will catch it in a barcoding system. But if those two envelopes are carried past an antenna, an RFID system will alert us.”
 
RFID vs. Barcoding
 
“This is where they are tremendously different,” said Dunaway. “Let’s say envelope 2548 was barcoded and was manually entered into the computer as ‘shelf position G-25.’ The smallest human error can cause it to be placed on the wrong shelf. When that happens, you have no way of easily finding it. Every module of the software program will tell me it’s in the room, but that does not help me locate it.
 
“Now imagine we have solved a crime, and we are in court. Lack of evidence or poor evidence handling can cause our officers to be attacked by the defense. The downside is that it can cost us a conviction. Imagine that happening in a crime against your loved one. It is a huge price to pay when a simple technology could have prevented it.”
 
While it is rare, there have been historical cases where evidence was intentionally misplaced or tampered with. “With RFID, there is a whole lot more accountability built in,” said Dunaway.
 
How it Works
 
 
When evidence arrives, it is logged into the tracking system and given an RFID tag. A unique tag is affixed to each piece of evidence or envelope. RFID antennas are installed at the entry point of each vault. When an officer walks into the vault, the RFID antenna does two things:
 
  • Reads the officer’s name/ID tag (noting that this officer had possession of the evidence)
  • Reads the RFID tag for each item being carried.
 
The same thing happens on the way out: the ID of the officer is noted, along with the evidence in his possession. Now, a full chain of custody is established, which is particularly important for evidence transfers.
 
“Evidence transfers used to all be recorded on paper. There was a physical release form, where the recipient must sign off on it. With RFID, there is an electronic signature pad and it records not only the signature but also date/time stamps it,” Dunaway explained. “We can see the entire history of a single evidence item and its chain of custody. It is a much more reliable system, as well as convenient. If I want to locate a misfiled item, a pull on the trigger of the portable handheld RFID reader will lead me right to it.”
 

RFID antennas are installed at the entry points of each vault, where the officer's name/ID tag is recorded, along with the RFID tag of any evidence being carried. The system ensures the full tracking of the chain of custody, which is particularly important for evidence transfers.
 
 
Early Issues
 
As with any solution, even an off-the-shelf one, you have to work out the kinks. It has to be tested in a real-world setting before you implement it, which is true for any technology. Baker PD’s vendor tweaked the software for the particulars of the vault configuration and the process employed by Baker personnel.
 
The Case for RFID
 
“It took a minute to sell me on this,” said Chief of Police Mike (“Snapper”) Knaps. “I’m very on top of technology and our goal is to make this department as advanced as we can possibly be. In fact, we’re one of the most advanced police departments in the nation. RFID is right up there in line with GPS technology and body cameras. It’s that important to us.”
 
About the Author
 
This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is an information technology specialist with over 24 years experience in the content management industry. She is the owner of Advanced Imaging Solutions (AIS), based in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, La.

 

 
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