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Case study: How bar codes boosted productivity for one Texas sheriff’s office

Switching to an automated bar code evidence management system is making input and retrieval faster and easier for the Comal County Sheriff’s Office


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Sponsored by QueTel

By Rachel Zoch for PoliceOne BrandFocus

Change is tough for any organization. Add in the need to maintain a clear chain of custody for evidence management and you have a significant challenge.

Implementing a bar code system automates the chain of custody, cutting down on paperwork and reducing room for error. (image/iStock)
Implementing a bar code system automates the chain of custody, cutting down on paperwork and reducing room for error. (image/iStock)

Last year, the Comal County Sheriff’s Office in Texas took on that challenge, transitioning its evidence intake and management from a semi-manual add-on to its RMS to an automated bar code system from QueTel.

Det. Sgt. Ronald Womack, a 30-plus year veteran officer who oversees the department’s evidence operations, was initially resistant because the transition would pose a significant burden on his staff of four – but the added functionality of the bar codes quickly won him over.

“I knew there would be growing pains,” he said, “but now that I have it and we’ve done a lot of work with it, I think the bar code system is really cool. It’s been a blessing in disguise.”

SAVING TIME ON EVIDENCE ENTRY AND TRACKING

The CCSO adopted the QueTel Evidence TraQ system last year, and although Womack’s team is still working to tag all the department’s roughly 45,000 items, he says they are already seeing the benefits.

Before adopting the bar code system, the department was using a “very limited, very bare bones” evidence processing module tacked onto its RMS, says Womack. Officers would file incident reports, and then evidence techs would have to use that information for intake and processing.

Now, officers log in using their unique employee numbers and bar code the evidence themselves before handing it over to the property room.

“It took away our need to have a lot of man hours inputting all the evidence,” said Womack. “It's already put in the system, so when we pull it from the one-way intake bins it’s already bar coded, and all we do is accept it and assign it a locker. That sped up the process.”

Womack says many of the officers, like him, were initially resistant to the change, but once they realized they no longer had to do chain of custody labels because the bar code provides that, they recognized that the change cut down on paperwork tremendously, saving them time and hassle.

“If you have 20 pieces of evidence, you have to put a chain of custody label on each one of those pieces of evidence,” said Womack. “You don’t have to do that anymore. You just bar code it. You put it in, run the barcode, boom, slap it on the evidence and it’s done. That’s your chain of custody installed on it, meaning that whenever it changes hands, whatever is done with that evidence, no matter what, you can always see what was done.”

This automated tracking also cuts down on the potential for discrepancies, he adds, a key safeguard for everyone involved.

“Anything you’re allowed to get into in an evidence room, you’re subject to recall five, 10 years down the road,” he said. “I could be retired and they could call me to court on a piece of evidence.”

ADDING SEARCH CAPABILITES

Another key benefit of the new system is that it can be easily searched, which Womack says is a “night and day” difference from before. Every piece of evidence, no matter how small, gets a bar code that is logged by the QueTel system, and an evidence locker holding multiple items can be assigned a bar code that can be scanned to list everything inside. The software can then be queried to list what’s in a given locker or where to find a particular item.

“We’ve been doing a massive item inventory as every item in here is being bar coded. If we have 10 pieces in an envelope and they’re in different bags, each one of them gets a bar code,” he said. “What I like about it that we couldn’t do before is I can go in and put ‘locker A’ and it’ll tell me everything in locker A. The other system didn’t do that.”

HAVE THE RIGHT SUPPORT IN PLACE

Womack credits his team with making the transition a success and says it’s important to have the right people in place.

“Anytime you go to a new software system, make sure that you have the people around you to grab the bull by the horns,” he said, crediting evidence tech Caitlin Buckman for taking the lead on implementing the bar codes.

Womack also emphasizes the importance of a software provider that will work with your agency to get the new software system up and running and provide ongoing support.

“Support was a key factor,” he said. “The team they have are very positive and very helpful. They didn’t just drop us by the wayside. They were very good to us, and they took care of us. You can call them and basically they’ll bend over backwards. Of course, there were a few bumps in the road during the transition like any time you merge two systems, but they were quick to correct those problems.”

He says the experience with QueTel has been very positive overall, and the department will likely expand with other modules, such as those for quartermaster or impound management.

“On a scale of one to 10, I give them a nine,” he said. “What we lacked is the bar code system. It brings us into the 21st century.”

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