"You Collect It. We Protect It." This is Not the Whole Story
Written by Sherri Reaume   

THE DUTIES AND RESPONSIBILITIES of an evidence/property unit are a critical task of any law enforcement agency, but these crucial functions are highly misunderstood and unappreciated regarding its effect on successfully prosecuting criminal violators (Campbell, 2011; Stresak, 2013). Evidence and property personnel are tasked with the unsung duties of working as the liaison between detectives and attorneys to ensure all evidence for criminal discovery is properly stored, documented, analyzed, present in court, and eventually disposed of in accordance with all legal and ethical guidelines. A combination of decades of ignorant neglect by agency heads, lack of training of staff, and inadequate collection and tracking methods resulted in many dysfunctional evidence rooms—creating an opportunity for the perfect crime from within.

Note: The intent of this article is to provide a comprehensive review of the responsibilities and job duties performed in an average police evidence/property unit and the potential of exposure to hazardous or health damaging substances to evidence/property personnel.

With the advent of evidence-tracking software, leading to an environment of transparency, law enforcement agencies throughout the country are now under more scrutiny and at risk for lawsuits as a result of allegations of evidence and property personnel (both sworn officers and civilians) improperly handling high-profile items such as firearms, narcotics, and currency (Giles, 2014; International Association for Property & Evidence, 2017). For evidence & property technicians (EPTs), training, certification, and accreditation programs establishing written procedures and professional standards strengthens accountability and safeguards evidence integrity (Geoghegan, 2014).

Law enforcement administration needs to realize that the effective and efficient operation of an agency’s evidence/property unit is integral to the quality of service to the community and the criminal justice system (POST Management Counseling Services Bureau, 2013). This means administration must not only recognize the importance of hiring personnel with the special combination of job skills, personality traits, competencies, commitment, and integrity, but they must reciprocate by creating a healthy work environment.

Law enforcement, as well as city and county administrators, need to recognize that the potential risk of exposure to harmful narcotics and biological hazards is just as crucial to EPTs as to other members of the law enforcement team. With this recognition generating mutual respect, it is hopeful administrators will reconsider the benefit and compensation philosophy for civilian employees.

Introduction to Evidence & Property

Most law enforcement personnel (to include administrators) would most likely describe the evidence/property unit as the place for storing evidence and property for department cases. Although this statement is true, the reality is that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Not only are EPTs tasked with preserving and protecting the physical evidence vital to criminal prosecution, they are also responsible for submitting high profile items to include firearms, narcotics, cash, and biohazardous items (i.e. sexual assault kits, buccal swabs, and specimen kits) for analysis (Latta & Kiley, 2007) and evidential physical and digital media to attorneys and court.

Job Duties

The two most crucial aspects of any evidence/property unit are intake and disposition (via return to owner, donation, or destruction). Although the daily priority is “intake” or receiving of evidence and property, the ultimate goal of every evidence/property unit is to dispose of more evidence than is being received (a.k.a. an aggressive purge policy).

With the advent of evidence management software, the intake of evidence and property has been streamlined—as long as law enforcement officers package and label their submissions correctly—requiring EPTs to complete the chain of custody, assign storage locations, affix unique, computer generated barcodes, and physically place the item in the appropriate bin location. Less time spent processing incoming evidence allows more time for purging and release of evidence (Galvin, 2013).

The purging of evidence and property requires extensive knowledge of state statute of limitation, accreditation standards, and General Records Schedule (GS2) as minimum guidelines for disposal (Florida Department of State, Division of Library and Information Services, 2015). Training and education is imperative (Peace Officer Standards and Training, 2013). Unfortunately, secondary to economic concerns, training for sworn law enforcement officers supersedes training for civilians.

It is probably not common knowledge that EPTs have an obligation to restore found and abandoned property to the rightful owner. If an owner can be established (e.g. a wallet containing identification), a police officer can personally serve the owner with a receipt and instructions on how to claim their property, or an automated letter can be generated by EPTs and promptly mailed—notifying the owner that their property has been recovered and is available for pickup. At minimum, a cursory effort by EPTs to identify the owner must be conducted through the posting of monthly public notices. After the specified time period (customarily 90 days), the item can be transferred for agency purposes or destroyed if the item has no value or is deemed illegal. Found or confiscated unlawful items (i.e. alcohol, drugs, and paraphernalia) are sanctioned for imminent disposal. Seized automobile tags can be released to the Department of Motor Vehicles for final disposition after statutory requirements for evidence retention have been reached. Recovered automobile tags can be released to the rightful owner or the Department of Motor Vehicles for final disposition.

One can readily imagine the potential for mayhem (overcrowding and disorganization) without an aggressive purge policy, leading to the “ticking time bomb” described by Latta & Kiley (2007). It is a fact that most evidence/property unit inventory is unnecessarily stored for years with less than three percent of stored evidence ever reaching the courtroom (Latta & Kiley, 2007). Researching every case is tedious and time consuming (at least 30 minutes per case) and is mandated by judicial authority, state statute, court order, or agency policy (Latta & Kiley, 2007). Items of value can be returned to the rightful owner. However, secondary to significant liability exposure, felony background and domestic violence checks must be conducted before attempting to return firearms. All other evidence earmarked for disposal is incinerated at periodic intervals.

Careful documentation, visual verification of contents and destruction, and witness signatures (an EPT, the EPS, and a sworn officer not assigned to the evidence/property unit) are required for all disposals (Campbell, 2011). Knowledge of research strategies and laws governing disposal of evidence is crucial to effective and efficient researching, with education and training once again being the key to success. Even for cases where no crime can be established (e.g. accidental death or suicide), according to the General Records Schedule, all documents and digital media submitted must be retained for a minimum of four years (Florida Department of State, 2015).

Although evidence/property personnel do not investigate the crime, they are tasked with the responsibility to work as a team member with officers, detectives, crime scene technicians, and attorneys to ensure the evidence is properly analyzed and researched before it is eventually released (Campbell, 2014). Many, but certainly not all, of these items are high-profile items, including firearms, narcotics, and biohazardous materials. Service requests for latent fingerprint lifts and swabbing for DNA can be handled by agency crime scene technicians either before or after submission to the evidence/property unit. The majority of confiscated firearms (even those with little evidentiary value) are submitted to a firearms examiner so that cartridge casings can be submitted in the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) to determine if the firearm is linked to another crime, possibly even in a different jurisdiction. Sexual assault kits; blood and urine specimens (biological and toxicology); and touch and biology DNA samples (blood, semen, and saliva) are sent to a forensic lab for analysis. Once the evidence has been analyzed, a DNA profile of the assailant is submitted for search against state and national DNA databases for known criminal offenders using CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). CODIS is a crucial investigative tool aiding in identification of an unknown suspect, linking DNA profiles between crimes, and even eliminating suspects. In numerous incidences, the State Attorney’s Office will request misdemeanor and felony narcotic evidence to be sent to a professional laboratory for analysis to determine if the substance is indeed an illegal narcotic or controlled substance.

EPTs are responsible for communicating with the state and the professional chemical crime laboratory to schedule analysis, preparing items for transportation, completing chain of custody documentation, transporting the narcotics to and from the lab and, finally, restoring the items back into inventory.

The electronic era has lead to an increase in courtroom victories due to the proper submittal of electronic evidence and digital media. Extraction of data from a mobile device or cellular phone for a criminal trial is court ordered and conducted by cell-phone forensic experts—ensuring that the evidence is court-admissible. Demand for copies of evidentiary documents and duplicate digital evidence (i.e. surveillance video, dash camera video, digital interviews/interrogations, digital photographs, and text and phone extractions) by officers, detectives, state attorneys, public defenders, private attorney, private investigators, and citizens has increased over the past decade as laws of admissibility have evolved. Proper evidence handling protocols and chain of custody enhance credibility and the persuasive value of the digital evidence. On average, a small law enforcement agency can receive an average of 70 requests per month, with larger agencies receiving more than 275 requests per month. Without the right training for preserving and collecting, and the cutting-edge avant-garde tools to reliably enhance, analyze, and eventually duplicate evidentiary media, the process is arduous for EPTs. In most jurisdictions, evidence identified in criminal discovery is subject to disclosure (inspection of physical evidence and photos or copies of documents)—not only to prosecutors and defense attorneys but also by the defendant.


The tip of a weapon projects through its paper packaging in a pile of evidence from a case that dates back to 1988.

Risk of Exposure

Statistically, the potential for hazardous and health-damaging exposure multiples every time one must search for, handle, and dispose of evidence while performing these duties (DOJ, 2017). The potential risk of exposure to health-damaging substances for property and evidence personnel is eight hours a day, five days a week. From the point of submission to laboratory analysis to its day in court and final disposition, evidence/property personnel are continually at risk of exposure to contaminated laundry (fleas, bed bugs, lice, scabies, disease, blood, vomit, urine, and seminal fluid), crime scene evidence (urine, semen, vaginal secretions, blood, tissue, bones, and teeth), drugs (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, flakka, fentanyl, carfentanil, and schedule 1 through 5 controlled substances), sharps (needles, knives, swords, crack pipes, and probes), firearms (loaded and/or jammed), and contaminated air due to insufficient ventilation (OSHA, 2010, p. 266). According to OSHA 1910.1030, exposure is defined as “Any situation in which an employee may inhale, absorb through the skin or eyes, accidentally ingest or otherwise come into contact with hazardous substances…with exposure determination being made without regard to the use of personal protective equipment” (OSHA, 2010, p. 267). Hazardous classifications range from irritant (bacteria, mold, and fungi), corrosive, harmful, toxic, and finally very toxic (synthetic opioids). Evidence/ property personnel work with a range of inherently hazardous and dangerous substances (antineoplastic agents, alkylating agents, anthracycline antibiotics, and antiviral agents), which put personnel at risk of chronic, low dose exposure—ranging from skin irritation to cancer (OSHA, 2016). Many of the new opioids, such as Fentanyl and carfentanil, are extremely potent and are regularly requested for lab analysis.


The handling of even the smallest amount of Fentanyl poses a serious hazard to law enforcement personnel. EPTs are even being trained in some agencies to administer NARCAN in the event of an accidental exposure to Fentanyl.

A recently published guide by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency on the current opioids crisis, indicates the potential danger of inhalation and percutaneous absorption of Fentanyl and other Fentanyl-related substances which should be treated with extreme caution as exposure to even a few grains (2 to 3 milligrams) can lead to significant health-related complications, respiratory depression, or even death (Department of Justice, 2017; NIOSH, 2017). All law enforcement personnel are advised to handle any unknown substances as if they were lethal (FDLE, 2017). Incidentally, in July 2017 all evidence/property personnel at our agency received NARCAN training and were supplied with two NARCAN kits in case of accidental exposure to Fentanyl.

Another area of potential exposure comes with biological evidence (including sexual assault kits, buccal swabs, and specimen kits) that, according to OSHA, “all human blood and certain human body fluids are treated as if known to be infectious for HIV, HBV, and other blood-borne pathogens,” (OSHA, 2010, p. 267) and, as previously noted, with exposure determination made regardless of use of personal protective equipment (OSHA, 2010, p. 268).

Identify and Mitigate Problems

All too often, the importance of an effectively and efficiently managed evidence and property unit is not recognized until evidence in a criminal case is lost, stolen, or contaminated and the agency is under scrutiny from the public, media, or members of the court (Campbell, 2011). More allegations of mismanagement and theft have led agencies to adopt policies of scrutiny, monitoring, and an unalterable trail in the form of regular audits, inventories, and spot inspections for breaches in protocol. As many as six audits are being performed annually in agencies accredited by CALEA (The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc.) (Geoghegan, 2014).

Future Directions

Two huge issues to address for making evidence management successful are 1) to provide mandatory training that provides clearly defined responsibilities and a solid basis for the proper performance of job duties (Galvin, 2013) and 2) for effective policies and procedures (e.g. standard operating procedures) to be established for law enforcement as well as evidence/property personnel (Geoghegan, 2014; Latta & Kiley, 2007; Mark, 2013).

In addition, administrators need to make evidence and property units a priority by providing a hands-on type of supervisor whose attention is not divided between the responsibilities in the evidence/property unit and unrelated collateral duties that take time away from monitoring behavior and work performance (Campbell, 2014; POST, 2013). According to Latta, “95 percent of administrators have never worked in an evidence room and have no idea about how it functions.”

Unfortunately, there is an obvious lack of interest at the “nuts & bolts” level in most law enforcement agencies (Campbell, 2011). Numbers and statistics alone are not an adequate picture of daily operation. In many (but certainly not all) instances of evidence mismanagement and theft, management lacked the requisite skill-set consistent with leaders who are thoroughly familiar with the specifics of operating a professionally managed property room. It is obvious that an officer’s training has not prepared him or her to oversee and engage in the intake, processing, security, accountability, and property disposition of evidence (Campbell, 2014; Galvin, 2013). Appallingly, Latta & Kiley (2007) go so far as to acknowledge that the evidence/property unit has been viewed as the place to assign disgruntled employees, officers who had been restricted from carrying a firearm, and recovering substance abusers. How and why does this occur? There simply has been a lack of insight by sworn officers as to the risk, responsibility, and accountability afforded personnel assigned to evidence/property units.

Personnel Issues

As previously noted, evidence/property units are generally staffed with either all non-sworn personnel or with non-sworn technicians and a sworn officer supervising. The personnel are tasked with onerous responsibilities that require a special combination of job skills, personality traits, competencies, commitment, and integrity. Civilians staffing the evidence/property unit, regardless of education, are generally the lowest-paid employees within the organization (Latta & Kiley, 2007). There is little opportunity for advancement, little recognition for a job well done, and little recognition of critical tasks or concern for risk exposure.

Allegations of mismanagement and negative media scrutiny not only lead to a loss of public trust in law enforcement agencies where criminal events have occurred, but also present a threat to an employee’s personal identity. There are just as many instances of sworn law enforcement absconding with currency, drugs, and firearms from an evidence room as civilian employees (Giles, 2014). There is a recent trend by law enforcement agencies requiring random drug testing and financial background checks for employees assigned to high-risk positions, such as an evidence/property unit (Campbell, 2011; POST, 2013). Although all motives cannot be conceived and rectified, it is generally recognized that the critical tasks performed by property & evidence personnel are not internally recognized as an important function of law enforcement and are generally a low priority in terms of staffing and resource allocation (Latta & Kiley, 2007). These attitudes breed discontent amongst many non-sworn personnel who already believe they are viewed as second-rate citizens within the law enforcement family.

Practical Implications

Although a 100-percent (all-inclusive) evidence room inventory is a necessary evil and a huge burden on staff, it is imperative that when an evidence/property supervisor (EPS) leaves and a new one takes command that he or she is assured that he or she isn’t going to own mistakes made under the previous regime (Marks, 2013).

Some evidence managers even suggest inventorying the security-sensitive items such as guns, currency, and narcotics every four months, and all other items in monthly increments (by storage room), so that by the end of each year a complete inventory has been conducted (Marks, 2013). The scenario here is that 80% of EPTs time should be spent dealing with 20% of items that require the most scrutiny.

An additional security measure in a well-managed evidence/property unit includes a safe for currency and valuables, with a two-key system for security. However, this same well-managed unit has also implemented policies and procedures for a monetary threshold for depositing multiple cases in one transaction into a special bank account, with very little currency physically being stored on-site.

Although audits and inventories are necessary interruptions, they take evidence/property personnel away from their normal duties and create a stressful work environment because, for the most part, when discrepancies are found during an audit or inventory, it usually can be accredited to simple human error and not theft. Many agencies are now adhering to an appointment-only rule for releasing evidence/property to the public so that evidence/property personnel can appropriately plan and manage work responsibilities (POST, 2013). It has also been recommended that the evidence/property function remain open to agency staff and the public on all but one day of the work week, creating an opportunity for uninterrupted purging and other subordinate duties (POST, 2013).

Future Directions

Many occupational-stress models emphasize the point that two people who experience the same work environment may interpret the environment differently. Different responses occur secondary to the intrinsic relationship between characteristics of the environment and the individual’s personality traits (Reaume, 2008). Personality traits are linked to behavior leading to specific responses in specific situations (Reaume, 2008). With this indicated, future areas for exploration include hiring employees who possess the personality traits most consistent with related job performance (conscientiousness, openness to experience, and agreeableness). It is also worth exploring the stresses encountered on the job and the potential counterbalance of satisfaction that motivates evidence/property personnel to strive for career longevity.

Although distinguishing a goodness of fit between job characteristics and personality traits has potential for success, the work of EPTs is still considered to be one of the least-desirable jobs and one of the lowest-paid positions in law enforcement (Latta & Kiley, 2007). However, it stands to reason if a particular personality profile and skill set leads to job satisfaction for this specific field, then performance will increase and turnover decrease (Campbell, 2014). Personality is certainly not destiny, but the utilization of personality traits for predicting job performance is valuable for use in selecting personnel for positions involving tasks with high responsibility and accountability (Reaume, 2009).

Conclusion

In closing, the effective and efficient operation of the evidence/property unit in any large or small law enforcement agency is integral to the quality of service to the community it serves and the criminal justice system as a whole. Leadership should not wait for a crisis before recognizing the multi-faceted challenges of evidence management. By adopting the proactive steps required to manage the crucial functions and reduce the potential liability, leadership can facilitate the successful operation of the evidence and property component. This can be accomplished by selecting high-quality personnel who possess the integrity and a conscientious commitment to completing duties in an assiduous and proficient manner, and for law enforcement administrators to recognize and provide competitive financial incentive for the high risk associated with this daily, critical activity occurring in their department (Campbell, 2011).


About the Author

Sheri Reaume has a BA in Business Administration and a MS in Psychology. She worked for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office in Bradenton, Florida for 16 years where she held two positions: 1) assisting the staff psychologist; and 2) property & evidence officer. She is currently Civilian Supervisor of Property & Evidence with the City of Bradenton Police Department.


References

Campbell, S. (May 2011). Property and Evidence Management: Best Practices, Inspections, and Audits. Retrieved June 3, 2017 from http://www.patc.com/weeklyarticles/print/2011_sc_evmgt.pdf

Campbell, S. (2014). International Association for Property and Evidence: The Evidence Log. (2014-4). Retrieved on June 11, 2017 from http://iape.org/evidencelog/EvidenceLogArchive/2014_Evidence_Log/ELog4_2014.pdf

Florida Department of State Division of Library and Information Services (2015). General records schedule GS2 for law enforcement, correctional facilities, and district medical examiners. Available online at: http://dos.myflorida.com/library-archives/records-management/

Georghegan, S. (2014). Lessons Learned in Evidence Management. Law and Order. Retrieved on June 6, 2017 from: http://www.hendonpub.com/law_and_order/articles/2014/06/lessons_learned_in_evidence_management

Galvin, B. (2013). Electronic Evidence Management: Automating property rooms helps manage inventory status while saving time and money. Police Technology: The Law Enforcement Magazine. Retrieved on June 5, 2017 from: http://www.policemag.com/channel/technology/articles/2013/02/electronic-evidence-management.aspx

Giles, B. (2014). “The Giles Files: The shame continues…”. Retrieved on June 2, 2017 from http://iape.org/evidencelog/index.php

International Association for Property & Evidence, Inc. (IAPE) [website]. Retrieved on June 2, 2017 from: http://home.iape.org/features/headline-evidence-news.html

International Association for Property & Evidence, Inc. (IAPE). Retrieved on June 2, 2017 from: http://iape.org/evidencelog/EvidenceLogArchive/2010_Evidence_Log/Evidence_Log_2010_2.pdf

Latta, J.T. & Kiley, W. P. (2007). Property and Evidence Control – the Hidden (and Ticking) Time Bomb. CALEA Update Magazine, 94. Retrieved on June 6, 2017 from: http://www.calea.org/calea-update-magazine/issue-94/property-and-evidence-control-hidden-and-ticking-time-bomb

Marks, K. (February 2013). The modern police evidence room. Law and Order. Retrieved on July 17, 2017 from: http://www.hendonpub.com/law_and_order/articles/2013/02/the_modern_police_evidence_room

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (2017). Fentanyl: Preventing occupational exposure to emergency responders. Retrieved June 19, 2017 from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/fentanyl/risk.html

Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST): Management Counseling Services Bureau (2013). Law enforcement: Evidence & property management guide. Retrieved from http://lib.post.ca.gov/Publications/Evidence-Property%20Management%20Guide.pdf

Reaume, S. (2008). Why are we not using psychological screening to select Florida child protective investigators? All Points Bulletin, 12-14.

Reaume, S. (2009). Improved hiring for child protective investigators. Law and Order, 57(2) 19-24.

Stresak, R.A. (2013). Foreword. (Ed.), Law Enforcement Evidence & Property Management Guide. (p. v) Retrieved from: http://lib.post.ca.gov/Publications/Evidence-Property%20Management%20Guide.pdf

United States Department of Justice (May 2017). Fentanyl: A briefing guide for first responders [Available Online]. Retrieved on June 11, 2017, from https://www.dea.gov/druginfo/Fentanyl_BriefingGuideforFirstResponders_June2017.pdf

United States Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration (2010). OSHA Law & Regulations, 29 CFR Ch. XVII 1910.1030(c)(2)(ii). Retrieved October 13, 2015 from https://www.osha.gov/law-regs.html

United States Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration (2016). Controlling occupational exposure to hazardous drugs [Available Online]. Retrieved July 3, 2017 from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/hazardousdrugs/controlling_occex_hazardousdrugs.html#intro


 

This article appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.

 

 
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