Track It
Written by Bob Galvin   

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TO A CASUAL OBSERVER, a police department’s property room might seem like a low-activity environment. Not so. In fact, many property rooms handle a monthly torrent of evidence both arriving and leaving. Therefore, it is important for the property room’s custodian and the police department’s management to know at any given moment the status of all evidence. After all, missing evidence—whether it’s a gun used in a homicide, drugs seized from a huge bust, or perhaps a sack of money obtained in an arrest—can complicate or eliminate attempts to mete out the appropriate justice.

These issues and others—plus expanding inventories—are driving property rooms to automate their operations. According to Joe Latta, executive director of the International Association for Property and Evidence (IAPE), automating is not merely a good administrative practice.

“There must be adequate security for the property and evidence due to threat of theft,” Latta stressed. “And there must be at least an annual inventory of property.” Latta estimates that at least half the property rooms at police departments nationwide do not conduct regular inventories. Yet, he believes evidence control would be easy if property room had the right software in place.

Common Issues in P&E Rooms

iape property and evidence law enforcement forensic science laboratory Crimestar Corporation
Allie Frishkorn removes a piece of property for release to an officer for court. (Photo: Rockville City (Maryland) Police Department)

Latta, a retired lieutenant with the Burbank (California) Police Department where he served for 31 years, early on became interested in the property room, and eventually was assigned there. For more than 20 years, he has taught and consulted on various property and evidence concepts through the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the IAPE. Latta argued there is a widespread lack of understanding about property and evidence software and what needs to be tracked. He added that high employee turnover and severe lack of ongoing training leaves a huge gap in evidence inventory and tracking knowledge and practice. “You might just start to under-stand your computer system and then a new person replaces you,” Latta said.

One more persistent challenge is the length of time evidence must be held. The reversal of hundreds of convictions based on DNA evidence has forced property rooms to hold evidence longer. Thus, the required extra storage space means property rooms will need to develop expedient review and purging policies.

Chain of Custody, Evidence Photos, and Barcoding Priorities

For Max Crago, the Support Services Coordinator for the Rockville City Police Department in Rockville, Maryland, a constant challenge is making sure his police department’s administrators all agree on proper packaging of property by officers and communicating these procedures to officers. Rockville City PD’s property room policy is to document items within its software, as well as on property-control cards. Crago, who is custodian of Rockville’s property room as one of his several responsibilities, notes he had used the Property and Evidence Module in a records management system (RMS) offered by Crimestar Corporation before joining the Rockville City PD. It worked well, and on his recommendation, Rockville also adopted Crimestar.

The module identifies and tracks the existence and movement of property that can be uniquely described and categorized according to its type and the reason it is in the agency’s possession. The system can attach multiple digital photographs for each item and is completely barcode enabled.

Crago sees several advantages with this software system. “Once property is entered into temporary storage, I am able to go back there and type it into the Crimestar property and evidence module,” Crago said. “We barcode each piece, then place it on the shelf, with barcode clearly in view. If an officer needs to secure it for court, we’re able to scan the item, release it, then track the evidence coming back from court.” High-risk property received—such as jewelry, guns, and cash—is photographed. The ability to include these photos in the software “is another huge advantage,” Crago noted.

Integrated Tracking

The biggest advantage Crago sees with the property and evidence module is that it is integrated with records management. “A stand-alone system would only focus on property and evidence, whereas Crimestar allows us to put in a lot of data that can be tied into other records,” Crago said. For instance, he explained, “We can have a case where there was a call for service, and if there was property and evidence collected, this portion of RMS can be included.”

Crago also is able to easily share status of property and evidence as part of full RMS reporting with the police chief, bureau commanders, and even the lieutenant who is in charge of accreditation. He said this is helpful for justifying workload objectives and performance measurement. As a result, Crago said, “The software allows our agency 100-percent accuracy pertaining to property inventory, property involved in court cases, chain of custody issues, and how we track all of this. Our annual inspections by the police chief and the reports we can generate are outstanding.”

More Access To Evidence Data

Patrol Sergeant Bill Rockafellow of the Johnson County (Iowa) Sheriff’s Office has been managing property and evidence for about ten years. The sheriff’s office transitioned from a manual system, where deputies handled their own evidence—even keeping it in assigned lockers—to the fully automated system used today. Replacing the old program is one called Evidence, a web-based evidence and property tracking system from TAC 10, Inc.

“We wanted a software program that gave more access to our data: the evidence being put in, tracking it, identifying it with the case it came from, history of where it was moved, ability to document its movement in and out,” said Rockafellow. “We also needed to track the disposition of the evidence, what actually happened to it.”

The main objective the sheriff’s office would like to meet with the Evidence program is the ability to locate information on property or
evidence as quickly as possible. For example, explained Rockafellow, “When I’m disposing of property, there are several things I need to ensure, among which are: first, if the case is disposed of; and second, the appeal periods are over.”

More Data for Each Piece of Evidence

The TAC 10 web-based RMS system allows the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office to record additional information on both their property entry and evidence. With the software’s Dynamic Forms engine, a user is able to add new fields to both their property and evidence forms. These new fields can automatically become part of the trans-fer of information from an Incident Property record to an Evidence record. The software’s evidence package also will automatically create the Chain of Custody entry records as property is turned in as evidence.

“The property-to-evidence wizard in the software saves officers and custodians substantial time with cases involving large amounts of evidence,” said Mark DeGroote, president of TAC 10. DeGroote added that because the Evidence module is web-based, it enables any officer to search for and view a piece of evidence as along as he has the proper permissions.
Rockafellow considers accuracy of the information within Evidence to be the software’s chief benefit. “It is having the officer enter the information (about property obtained) as he received it and being verified by the property room,” Rockafellow said. In this way, “You’re getting the best information entered into the system from the beginning.”

Stand-Alone Evidence Solution

The Evidence Tracking Solution from Birmingham, Alabama-based MCM Technology is a stand-alone software program for police, sheriff, and fire departments. It is well suited to replace obsolete, single-task software packages or older mainframe/legacy management systems.

The software automatically tracks all transactions and history for each individual piece of evidence and chain of custody. With it, the user gets electronic signature capture, barcode label generation, scanning, and printing, plus a web-based application allowing controlled access by external users (such as police officers or detectives) to view evidence.

The Birmingham (Alabama) Police Department chose MCM’s software to help it inventory and track thousands of evidence items each year. “Our city already had a good system in place,” said Police Captain Ray Tubbs. “However, it was very manual, and was time-consuming and inefficient. MCM Technology’s system will allow us to more efficiently manage our evidence.”

Saving Through Automation

For Detective James Sullivan of the West Columbia (South Carolina) Police Department, the chain of custody for evidence has been his chief concern, especially since he inherited a totally manual tracking system when he took over his department’s property room two years ago. The property room now holds about 50,000 items, and it receives between 350 and 450 new evidence items a month. So, last year, West Columbia PD purchased the Progressive Microtechnology, Inc. (PMI) Evidence Tracker System. The standalone software program has both an Evidence Program and an Asset Program. The Evidence Program uses barcode enabled labels that house all key information on an item, allows evidence items to be added that link to the same case number, and tracks movement in and out of the property room. The Asset Program provides an easy way to keep track of equipment assigned to personnel, along with the value, detailed item description, and labeling to track who has an item and its location.

Sullivan said the software is particularly helpful with large cases. Recently, for example, he cited one large case involving a hostage negotiation, where he had to enter 20 pieces of evidence into the PMI Evidence Tracker. “I can track evidence a lot easier, reducing man hours,” he noted.

According to John Alex, CEO of PMI, an auto-fill feature in the software helps handle additional pieces of evidence tied to the same case. “You put in that first piece of evidence, save it, then put in a second piece and the program will auto-fill a lot of the information that’s basic and common to the case,” Alex said. “That saves a lot of time.”

And saving time is a main goal for the property room. Where it took nearly six hours to document 20 or 30 evidence items over a weekend with the manual system, it now can be accomplished within an hour using the software program, Sullivan said.

Random Electronic Audits and Inventories

Random audits and full inventories are two more attributes of PMI Evidence Tracker. “You can ask the software to randomly select so many pieces in your property room and it will produce an audit report for you,” Alex said. “When it comes time for a full inventory, you can scan all the items in your property room and the software tells you where every item is, any that might be missing, or evidence put in the wrong location, or, for example, that it is signed out to court.”

Learn the Software’s Full Capabilities

Choosing a property and evidence system for your police department should be done with careful research tied to the demands of your property room. Crago at the Rockville City PD urged departments who acquire new software to both look at what it offers and to take time to learn that particular system. “This will pay dividends for you,” Crago said. Still another key consideration is proper training and support, much of which is offered online via several vendors. And there’s one more helpful tool worth exploring in your evidence tracking software. Specifically, Crago noted he has benefited from the Crimestar user group, where members have given suggestions on using the software to handle various property and evidence issues.

Integration Helps Bind Evidence and RMS Records

Law enforcement agencies have various property and evidence tracking methods, many of which are either stand-alone or integrated within RMS software. According to Rockafellow of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, “Without these (RMS and property and evidence tracking programs) being connected, it would increase the likelihood of failure. If it’s not documented in the RMS side that evidence even exists, you may never know to go to the other (property and evidence) module or software to look for it.” Likewise, noted the sergeant, if evidence is not documented as to what record on the RMS side it reverts back to, “you’d never know how to clear the evidence.”

Above all, Latta at the IAPE argued, having a method for reviewing property room operations is vital to maintaining security, accurate records, and proper chain of custody policies. This should be exercised annually, if not more frequently. Determining how much property is coming in and how much is going out is also critical. Such measures will help strengthen accountability for property room operations.

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it 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, Oregon.

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