Focus on Evidence Management Needs
Written by Bob Galvin   

Property and evidence management at law enforcement agencies—once a slow, tedious, and inefficient process bogged down by manual record keeping—has been greatly automated. Yet, even with automation, evidence management nationwide remains fragmented. Some agencies do it well while others flounder because they still use outdated methods, have poorly trained staff, or simply have not made evidence management a high priority. Ineffectual evidence management practices may also be tied to the fact that many agencies under-use their evidence software, thus missing key steps and capabilities vital to protecting chain of custody as evidence is received and eventually checked out for processing or presentation in court.

Evidence is checked in from a locker, issued a barcode label, and then recorded in software, before finally being placed in the evidence storage area. Photo: Eaton County (Michigan) Sheriff's Office

There are weekly news accounts of police departments whose evidence rooms have been jeopardized due to lost or stolen evidence. What is fueling this troubling trend? A key factor is that some administrators recognize the necessity of a property and evidence operation, but fail to acknowledge the need to supply that operation with proper training and resources. All of this means evidence-room custodians must persevere with every tool they have to secure evidence—for their protection and the agency’s protection, as well.

Because software is so integral to an evidence department’s ability to navigate the many steps of receiving, processing, storing, and checking out evidence, this article will examine how some automated solutions prove highly effective—whether they are evidence modules embedded in records management systems, or standalone software solutions. The article will also address the need for proper evidence-control guidelines, procedures, and training—all essential to making an automated system successful.

Integrating evidence controls with RMS

Before joining the Rockville (Maryland) City Police Department as support services coordinator (a job that includes evidence management), Max Crago used the property and evidence module in an RMS program offered by Crimestar Corporation. Upon joining Rockville PD, he encountered an obsolete and inefficient Microsoft database program used for managing evidence. Crago convinced Rockville PD’s management, a champion of technology, to adopt Crimestar’s program because it is barcode enabled, and because the software identifies, categorizes, and tracks property as it moves through the agency’s custody.

Most evidence-management programs perform the same key functions: creating electronic records for evidence items using detailed drop-down menus; barcoding incoming evidence items that then can be stored with the barcode clearly visible; easy check-out of items that can be closely tracked as they go to and return from court and forensic labs; and customized, detailed reports on evidence status. Photos of evidence, especially high-risk items such as jewelry, guns, and cash, can be incorporated into the evidence software.

Crago considers an integrated approach for evidence with his agency’s RMS to be invaluable. “It allows our agency 100-percent accuracy with regards to property, court cases, chain of custody issues, and how we’re able to track our property and evidence,” Crago said. “Our property room inspections are impeccable, and our reports are outstanding.”

Using the evidence module has another significant advantage, in Crago’s opinion: the ability to integrate with the numerous RMS records and databases. “A stand-alone system would only focus on property and evidence, whereas this system allows us to enter extensive data that can be tied into other records,” he observed.

Evidence module yields easy, thorough functionality

Chief Robb Bell of the Hamilton (Illinois) Police Department, handles all aspects of evidence management. The small department, which is representative of many agencies throughout the nation, has only four full-time officers, including Bell, and four part-time officers; it serves a population of 3,000 people. The chief considered a stand-alone evidence system, but abandoned the idea after seeing how the RMS he inherited functioned so well, and for fear a standalone program would not be easy for officers to master.

In place since 1999, the RMS, like that of the Rockville PD, streamlines evidence management. “I can pull up any case number and see where each evidence item is,” Bell explained. “If it’s still at the crime lab, or has been brought back from the crime lab, what officer’s locker it’s in, what bin it’s in inside the evidence room, who was the last one to take it out, why they took it out. This is what the evidence software needs to provide to be thorough.”

Hamilton PD was the first agency in its region to have a computerized system for evidence. Now, the RMS evidence module not only helps Hamilton PD, but neighboring agencies, as well, to know more about evidence residing in the module that may tie back to their cases.

Scant evidence experience, high turnover

Many agencies underuse their evidence systems, and the reasons are troubling, according to Joe Latta, executive director for the International Association for Property and Evidence Inc. “The person in the property room may not have the necessary skills to know what a good software system can do,” Latta said. “You have people involved in the purchase and design of the software system who don’t know what the tracking needs are in the property room.”

Latta, who once worked in the Burbank (California) Police Department property room, now conducts evidence-management training sessions year-round across the country. “Oftentimes, property managers are working for a person who has never been in the property room, like a police sergeant,” Latta continued. “There’s nobody to even go to in the organization. It’s really frightening.” Another problem Latta sees is high turnover within property rooms because no dedicated staff have been hired exclusively for evidence management.

Such poor evidence-management practices can lead to disastrous consequences, such as lost or stolen evidence, which will imperil the entire agency. Therefore, it is critical to have defined evidence management policies, easy-to-use and feature-rich software, and a trained staff that understands the software.

Integration not always seen as essential

Although a large percentage of law enforcement agencies nationwide use the evidence module integrated with their RMS, some agencies instead choose a standalone evidence management system. Still, it is highly probable that the standalone solution somehow will need to integrate with an existing RMS or even a newly installed one, since the RMS has important records and databases that must be cross-referenced with those in the standalone software, and because RMS records are tied to active or dormant cases.

Frustrated with an RMS that lacked the flexibility desired for evidence management, the property and evidence room at Rome (New York) Police Department chose a standalone software program offered by ERIN Technology. While most evidence is entered and tracked almost entirely in the ERIN software by Rome PD’s evidence operation, some interfacing is still necessary. However, “We didn’t build an interface,” explained Officer Albert Ciccone, who heads property and evidence for the agency. “We could have had our vendor build an interface, but once we started using the RMS we quickly discovered the interface wasn’t needed. ERIN automated everything and gave us more features than our RMS vendor could provide for property and evidence management. After evidence is logged, we can save it to a PDF, then transfer that to a file in the RMS. This way, investigators can open up the system with a secure login, view everything about evidence for a particular case, and see chain of custody—but they can’t make any changes to the information.”

Rome PD likes the fact that they can customize certain parts of their software. For example, the agency has a drug special investigation unit that has its own specific, separate site within the software. “There’s a lot of things this unit does and evidence they collect that they may not want every patrol officer to see,” Ciccone said.

Other aspects can be customized as well, such as extensive data on vehicles: tow company, VIN number, and registration. Such customization “saves us time because we can always find this exact information every time, versus looking at the case in our RMS and having to search for information by case number,” said Sgt. Donald D’Aiuto.

Substantial Time Savings

The Green County Sheriff’s Office in Standardsville, Virginia, also uses the ERIN Technology program, and has found it valuable for gaining accreditation for its evidence management. “We had no problems passing the accreditation,” noted Detective Lonnie Tuthill, a forensic investigator and property/evidence technician. Using the evidence software was “the only way we could get organized with our evidence room,” Tuthill said.

A major benefit Tuthill has witnessed with the software is significant time savings. For example, prior to adoption of the software, Tuthill was routinely subpoenaed to preliminary hearings for cases involving probable cause and chain of custody before the cases moved to a higher court. “Once we got the automated evidence software, I started printing off the chain of custody reports from it and presented them to our district attorney,” Tuthill said. “He fell in love with this capability in the software, and now just asks for copies of these reports, which means I don’t have to go to court.” Also, Tuthill continued, “local defense attorneys can access these reports, too. They no longer argue about chain of custody.”

Multiple agencies benefit from common RMS evidence module

Whether an agency uses an RMS-based evidence program or standalone software is probably a matter of choice and comfort level. In some instances, the vast amount of data and records to track, plus calls for service, could drive what type of evidence software to use. The Daly City (California) Police Department has for years used an RMS program from Sun Ridge Systems, Inc., which contains an integrated evidence module. Since the RMS has so many different records and data all in one system, it made sense to use the module, and has streamlined cross-referencing.

“It is extremely important to have an automated software program that integrates RMS, CAD, and property and evidence because our agency is handling calls for service, creating incident records, working with dispatchers, and dealing with all kinds of records with which evidence is associated,” said Rose Meere, Daly City PD’s property and evidence manager. “With our modern society, law enforcement needs to get information really fast. When we’re taking in evidence, we need access to people’s records, property items, and data.”

Other law enforcement agencies in communities within the same region as Daly City also use the Sun Ridge Systems RMS. This has proven to be a boon to Daily City PD officers and detectives, as they can use the records portion of their RMS to check on other agencies’ reports and search for people identified in the reports as possible suspects tied to various cases housed in the RMS. In fact, noted Bryan Morehouse, sales account manager for Sun Ridge, the company makes a special product called “Collaborate” that ties other agencies together so that records can be shared among them. Collaborate allows for queries of both records and property and evidence items associated with those records.

“Let’s say I’m performing a traffic stop, see a VCR or Blu-ray player in the vehicle and want to look up these items in the RMS of other agencies to see if they’re stolen,” Morehouse said. “I can check on this within all of the other agencies’ databases in their RMS for contacts and entries.”

UCR reporting targets stolen property not recovered or held by agencies

One especially important facet of evidence management that automation should address is stolen property. According to Alec Gagne, president of Crimestar Corporation, law enforcement agencies must submit crime reports to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) program. Why is this important? “Because a chief of police or a records supervisor must be concerned with both the physical items in the agency’s possession and with property that was stolen and still missing,” Gagne said.

Technology, such as an evidence-management software program—particularly one integrated with an RMS—may not only lead to the recovery of property, but it may also lead directly to the suspects. The agency must produce FBI Uniform Crime Reports so that there is a chance that the stolen property might be recovered and returned to the agency’s property and evidence department.

“Usually, only a property system that is tied to an incident reporting system—an RMS—will handle this type of property reference,” Gagne said. “Standalone systems do track property that is stolen, found, or that becomes evidence. The issue is that they are only designed to track property already in the property and evidence room’s possession, and not intended to keep track of items that were reported stolen and have not been recovered or that are not in the police department’s possession.”

Crimestar RMS is tied to UCR, and provides the ability to produce Part 1 (offenses or major crimes) and Part II (property stolen) Uniform Crime Reports.

Don’t automate a bad evidence management process

Inarguably, automating evidence management is essential—yet, software to accomplish automation should only be deployed after conducting a meticulous needs assessment. After all, cautions Craig Hartley, Jr., executive director of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA), “Automating a bad process generally results in a bad automated process.” For an evidence and property management needs assessment, Hartley recommends the following checklist:

  • Documentation of chain of custody requirements
  • Audit and tracking capacities requirements
  • Geographic issues regarding evidence submissions and collections
  • Court integration requirements to include destruction authorization
  • Integration requirement with laboratory services
  • Ability to identify and provide special security for drugs, guns, cash, and expensive articles
  • Training requirements for staff
  • Ability to conduct inspections against the established process

CALEA does not recommend any one type of software solution over another, but Hartley advises that law enforcement agencies searching for software solutions consider existing software capacities and the ability to integrate with any other software. It is also important to consider the cost for installation, training, maintenance, and support; staffing; and current relationships with other public safety organizations that require special considerations.

CALEA has established specific standards for evidence management and all other aspects of a law enforcement agency’s operation as a measuring stick for its accreditation process. Many agencies seek accreditation, in part, because the process itself forces them to strive for the highest standards in all facets of department operations. “Agencies often use our standards as a model to develop policies that complement these standards,” Hartley said. “And they believe in the importance of evidence management so much that they are willing to have an external organization such as CALEA evaluate what they have done relative to CALEA’s standards.”

As for automating evidence management, Hartley has some valuable advice for all evidence managers: “It is important that any evidence manager is in total control of the automated solution for evidence management and that he or she understands the functionality of the automation process and can identify areas that may have audit risks.”

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is a freelance writer covering topics related to technology for law enforcement, including the advantages of automated records management systems. His office is located in Oregon City, Oregon.

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