How to buy evidence management equipment

Evidence management... some might ask, “Is there any duller subject in law enforcement?”

However, the mismanagement of evidence has been the downfall of many agencies over the years. Indictments, investigations, and incarceration have been the fate of officers who failed to ensure the proper maintenance and accountability of the evidence and property in their agency’s custody.

Essentially the proper maintenance of evidence and/or property is being able to receive, maintain, account for, retrieve, and properly dispose of physical evidence that investigating officers recover or receive during their tour of duty. There are several methods that can be employed to assist the police agency in ensuring that property will be where it is supposed to be and in the amount and condition in which it was received.

Let’s assume that you have the wherewithal and the inclination to buy a system. Now what? First you have to establish what kind of evidence you need to manage.

1. Physical evidence
For the smallest police agencies, property can managed with the use of the Microsoft Excel program widely available on computers with the Windows operating system. The spreadsheet can be as large and detailed as desired or it can consist of five or six columns that allow for the inputting of a case number, property number, shelf location, and a brief description of the evidence. The property can be further divided by type, such as currency, drugs, firearms, and found property.

The main problem with this approach — in addition to the fact that it’s “proprietary” and won’t connect to any other system outside your office — is that someone has to “invent” your spreadsheet, maintain it, and then figure out how it might one day be upgraded. This is a patch, but it’s a patch that will work for a while during lean times.

Obviously, there are some much more elegant systems for managing your evidence than that — one such method of tracking evidence is with bar-coding. There are systems available that allow an officer or crime scene technician to bar-code evidence in the field. With the technology available today it is no longer necessary to transport unpackaged evidence back to the station for packaging and tagging. This method is well-suited to a large agency with the funds and staffing available to support and fully utilize this advancement in evidence handling.

It is highly recommend that any evidence custodian read and understand their State laws regarding evidence storage or disposal. Some States provide for the reselling of certain items of evidence (once it is forfeited – check with your local prosecutor/attorney), such as firearms. Often times found property can be converted to department use. Knowing how to safely dispose of hazardous evidence such as meth is critical.

There are books available that are extremely helpful in establishing department guidelines for the maintenance of evidence. Look for information that describes the various physical storage options available and what measures need to be implemented to protect evidence. Check with the forensic laboratory of your state to see if they have a handbook to help you properly handle and package evidence.

2. Digital evidence
Digital files are not like digital devices like cell phones and PDAs, which can be placed on a shelf and handled (for the most part) like any other piece of evidence. Here things get a little more complicated, but not so much so that you should be intimidated.

Every time someone lays hands on a piece of digital evidence, that gives the defense an opportunity we don’t want them to have. For example, if you put a DVD on the dashboard of your squad, you may lose all the data on it. At the very minimum you’ve created an opportunity for the defense to poke a hole in your evidence chain. Consequently, the operating instruction for the treatment of digital evidence is: touch it as little as possible. Although digital evidence is legally alike any other, from a practical standpoint it needs to be treated uniquely. So, when you’re looking at digital evidence management systems, you want to know:

• How the data is transferred from one place to another — is that via wired connection or secure wireless network
• How is the evidence chain accounted for in the system — essentially what are the ways that access is logged and permissions granted
• How the data is stored and what redundancies are in place to prevent data loss if the system fails due to power outage, etc.

There are some complexities and nuances to these systems, so you should make sure you get feedback from your neighboring jurisdictions about what they’re using, whether they’re happy with their system, and what advice they’d give if they were “in your shoes.”

3. Questions to ask yourself:
1. How much evidence — both physical and digital — does my agency handle in a typical year?
2. How many officers will have to have access to the evidence and property management software I eventually select?
3. Do the types of crimes in my jurisdiction warrant the purchase of a separate storage system to keep large numbers of confiscated weapons properly secured?
4. Does my agency make substantial seizures of illegal narcotics?
5. Is cybercrime on the rise in my area, and if so, what does that mean for my need to retain large amounts of digital data on secure server?

The proper and efficient management of evidence ensures that an agency will not “lose” hundreds or thousands of dollars in currency or pounds of dope — as well as the public’s trust. Failure to provide clear and consistent guidelines for the proper accounting and maintenance of evidence and property leaves an agency and its leaders vulnerable to disaster.

Any other suggestions? Anything we missed in the list above? Leave a comment below or email with your feedback.

Jan Myers contributed to this report.

About the author

PoliceOne Staff Reports feature contributions from our vast universe of subject matter experts. These sources include our own cadre of columnists as well as industry analysts, educators, and other noted specialists in their fields. P1 Staff Reports focus on an array of subjects including product reviews, product round-up features, “How to Buy” articles, and when necessary, product recalls and safety alerts. If you want to join our panel of experts, or have suggestions for topics we should cover here, please e-mail with your feedback.

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