The Upside of Quarantine
Written by Shawn Henderson   

This article appeared in the May-June 2020 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that issue here.

THERE’S NOTHING QUITE LIKE A GLOBAL PANDEMIC to help us focus on evidence room safety issues. Although it might feel like we’ve been sheltering in place forever and there will be no end to quarantine conditions across the country, we will all eventually return to that endless stream of evidence pouring through our doors. So, it’s a great time to leverage an opportunity to evaluate safety protocols and trends for evidence custodians—not just to protect us from COVID-19 exposure, but from all of the hazards that accompany the routine storage and management of evidence.

A Unique Moment in History
It’s a rare occurrence in law enforcement evidence rooms when things slow down enough to catch our collective breath, and rarer still when something happens to catch our attention. For a brief period after September 11, 2001, the world slowed down for a minute and provided a somber moment of pause. Several years ago, when fentanyl exposures were on the rise in agencies across the country, there was a heightened awareness of the potential dangers related to handling evidence. Never in recent memory have we experienced both factors in such large doses for such a long period of time.

COVID-19 is a real threat to public health, and there hasn’t been enough of a uniform response throughout law enforcement to make any generalizations, but the pandemic has undeniably impacted law enforcement evidence rooms everywhere. Informal surveys on the Facebook Evidence Management Community Forum suggest around 30% of agencies have established either stay-at-home or work-from-home measures for evidence custodians; and 80% reported reduced levels of evidence coming into their agencies. As things return to normal levels, both in terms of work hours and work volume, it’s important to keep safety as a prime consideration.

Three Safety Challenges: PPG
There are a myriad of potential hazards lurking in our evidence vaults, most of which can be mitigated by the proper use of appropriate personal protective gear (PPG). Under normal conditions, most evidence operations have ample stores of PPG. But these are not normal times, and normal may be a long way down the road. Many evidence operations have had their PPG supplies stores depleted due to the increased demand and more widespread use of PPG by all agency employees.

It’s important to note that truly protective PPG meets standards and requirements established by OSHA and other safety standard organizations. Homemade cloth masks lack the same protective qualities as N95 respirator masks. There is no standard or testing for the effectiveness of these masks in providing actual protection from viruses or any of the other contaminants and hazards that can be present under normal working conditions. It’s true that cloth masks are probably prettier and more colorful, and many government authorities require their use, but until actual testing of their effectiveness can be studied and published, evidence custodians should rely on proven materials for safety.

The second piece of the PPG trifecta is a quality disposable nitrile glove. Nitrile gloves are less likely to cause skin irritation than their latex counterparts, and can protect against pathogens and chemical exposures in the evidence room. Like respirator masks, agencies should consider selecting nitrile gloves designed, tested, and approved to meet safety standards. The National Fire Protection Association has developed an extremely useful standard for selecting PPG, including nitrile gloves, which has been published under NFPA 1999 Standard on Protective Clothing and Ensembles for Emergency Medical Operations. As much as we might hate to admit it in law enforcement, a good rule of thumb for PPG is, “Hey, wear what the fire guys are wearing.” Fit and protection are equally important when it comes to nitrile gloves. Make sure you stock glove sizes based on the hand sizes at your agency. “One size fits all” can be roughly translated as “one size protects some.”

Often overlooked, the last piece of essential PPG is eye protection. If we’re really serious about protecting against exposure and transmission, eye protection is a critical component of truly protective PPG. One of the most vulnerable organs in the human body is also one of the least protected. Many retailers have placed plexiglass barriers between point of sale employees and customers for the same good reason that restaurants use sneeze guards over the salad bar. People are walking pathogen chimneys and the eyes are not only the window to the soul, but also an open door to exposure. Requiring eye protection for evidence custodians can protect against both pathogen transmission and chemical exposure.

The Original Social Distancers
In an informal survey on the Facebook Evidence Management Community Forum, 65% of respondents indicated that their respective agencies had either reduced access or suspended public evidence return practices in response to the pandemic. In many ways, evidence custodians have acted as the original social distancers. We operate behind closed and locked doors, and most of our interactions take place across a counter or window to maintain a secure chain-of-custody environment. Our primary exposure risk related to potential viral transmission happens in one setting: whenever and wherever property and evidence are released outside our vaults.

As workloads return to normal levels, and courts begin to open again, we will resume many of the suspended or reduced services we have provided to outside stakeholders in the process. Several agencies have found creative solutions for reducing exposure risks while maintaining a pristine chain of custody. Whatever methods we explore to protect our employees and citizens from exposure, chain of custody should remain the prime consideration for evidence movement. If we can’t maintain the chain, it’s probably a bad idea for evidence management.

Some agencies have adopted contactless property-and-evidence return practices, similar to retailers, to reduce contact and maintain social distance. A good order of operations for contactless property-and-evidence movement involves three steps and might seem more like a dance than a transaction. First, establish a clean neutral zone for the exchange. When release has been approved and authorized, provide a method for positive identification and documentation of the transfer in the neutral zone. After identifying the recipient and obtaining appropriate documentation, facilitate the return in the neutral zone. This may require a few awkward entrances and exits depending on the design of your facility, but it can maintain both chain of custody and safe exchange of property and evidence for all parties.

Take Clues to and from the Crime Lab
Outside of property-and-evidence releases, evidence custodians are often responsible for submitting evidence to crime labs for further analysis. Some labs have suspended in-person submissions altogether; others have maintained business as usual. Because crime labs are subject to much tighter standardization and controls in order to maintain certification, they are a great resource to model practices that can be translated to local agency procedures.

Lieutenant Scott Gosselin with the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory shared some of the quarantine-related impacts on their operations. “Our submission procedures have not changed much,” said Gosselin. “Our hours remain the same and staffing remains the same. We have asked that if evidence is taken from individuals who are known carriers of the virus, that when possible, allow the item to sit and not handle for 30 days. Our staff, when receiving evidence, always wear gloves and, depending on the circumstances, may wear masks. We have also installed plexiglass at our receiving area. We initially saw a downturn in evidence being submitted for processing, but we have had some days which appear normal for submissions while others still seem to be low.”

The Maine State Police Crime Lab quickly adopted measures to provide service and reduce exposure risks through creative scheduling and repurposing areas within the facility. Gosselin detailed some of the initial measures that Maine State Police took that can be a great blueprint for your operations. “When the crisis began, we worked diligently to cut staff in the building down by two thirds,” said Gosselin. “Our lab staff of approximately 21 resulted in approximately seven staff being on site in the building on each day. This change allowed the building to be less congested and minimized the risk of close interaction in labs and other common areas.”

To bring the lab back to normal, Gosselin added, “We are currently working on a plan to bring all staff back to full-time in the building. We are engineering controls and practices in the building which mitigate the potential for consistent time in a workspace that is within six feet of another. This includes reapportioning lab space as office space temporarily. We are developing a plan to allow lab work at certain times, which limits the number of staff in the lab at any one time. We have purchased extra PPE for our crime scene teams and individuals. We have also taken extra time to frequently wipe down handles, knobs, railings, bathrooms, and those things which we believe would be common mechanisms of viral transmission in the building.”

Crime labs across the country have followed a similar model in providing continued services to their customers. Ellen Spain is the forensic evidence manager for the Virginia Department of Forensic Sciences, who implemented similar safety protocols at their facilities. “It is pretty basic,” said Spain. “We clean doorknobs, any public area three times a day (closing from 12–1 p.m. to really do a good midday cleaning). We social distance by changing everyone's hours. They now can work nighttime hours and weekends. We never have an agent directly in front of us and we clean the counters right after they leave.”

The keys to safety and success through the pandemic are simple and straightforward. Distance, flexibility, creativity, and a lot of bleach solution can provide real solutions to meet the unique needs of your agency and the stakeholders that depend on you and the evidence you manage on a daily basis.

What Can We Do?
Ultimately, most of us can only directly control our attitudes, awareness, and our approach to safe evidence operations. At the Maine State Police Crime Lab, Gosselin underscored one of the few potential positive outcomes from the pandemic. “Our most significant impact has been our push to turn this crisis into an opportunity to catch up on backlogs and online training and literature review,” he said. “Almost every section of our lab has seen a significant decrease in backlogs. We have not yet determined if this is necessarily due to a decrease in case submissions or if it is because staff have been more productive with the current schedule of alternating time in the lab and working remotely from home.”

Regardless of whether you’re fully operational, or still limited to working from home, or somewhere in between, the opportunity exists to use this time to improve the safety of your operations and prepare for the road ahead. Check your PPG and spend some time researching best practices and standards to improve safety moving forward. One thing we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that evidence-room hazards are real and ever-present, but appropriate safeguards and practices can yield a safe working environment regardless of the type of hazards we encounter on a daily basis.

The work that you do is vital to the integrity of evidence at your agency and the equitable delivery of justice to all the stakeholders in the system. Appropriate use of PPG and improved procedures and safeguards will enable your agency to continue to provide services throughout the remainder of the pandemic. Use the downtime to ensure safety for your unit and make plans and provisions while the opportunity exists. Justice never sleeps and now, seemingly, it has demonstrated a fairly good resistance to the coronavirus. The safety of your work environment can be a huge key in keeping the wheels spinning and ready for a return to a new and safer normal.

About the Author
Shawn Henderson is the executive director of the Evidence Management Institute, providing training and consulting services to law enforcement agencies and corporate clients in the area of evidence management. Henderson is retired from the Carrollton (Texas) Police Department where he served as the supervisor over the crime scene and property-and-evidence units. He has served on the board of directors, instructed evidence training classes, and designed curriculum for two evidence management organizations: IAPE (International Association for Property and Evidence) and TAPEIT (Texas Association for Property and Evidence Inventory Technicians).

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