Solving cases and exonerating the innocent.
The Modern Police Evidence Room
By Kathy Marks
Nearly every department has an evidence room or an evidence locker or even a large evidence storage facility. Important criminal cases and careers have been lost in those same rooms just as well maintained, well documented, and orderly evidence rooms have helped put and keep dangerous criminals in prison. Missing evidence also prevents those wrongly convicted of crimes and serving prison time from being able to have evidence retested with new technology.
When advances in DNA made proper handling of biological evidence absolutely essential, many departments discovered their biological evidence was not properly stored, could not be located, or had been improperly purged from evidence storage.
Property and Evidence are Different
Property includes items that are located as lost or recovered property and when properly documented in the evidence room, recovered property might be linked to criminal cases. Evidence includes items from both misdemeanor and felony cases retained for use in court cases.
Steven Berdrow, past president of the International Association of Property and Evidence (IAPE) and a Certified Property and Evidence Specialist, supervised the Property and Evidence section of the Burbank (Calif.) Police Department. He now does training and consultation. IAPE was created by and for law enforcement professionals to establish recommended standards for property and evidence departments.
Berdrow stated the biggest problem with evidence is universal, a lack of control over the inventory, that “much of the inventory in most property rooms does not need to be there and when a case has been adjudicated all associated evidence with that case should be eliminated because evidence and property not disposed of in a timely manner causes overcrowding and disorganization.” Berdrow also emphasized that on the other end of the spectrum, biological evidence must be retained in an appropriate manner.
Berdrow advocates separating evidence and non-evidentiary items, except in the case of guns, money and narcotics. These items (evidentiary or otherwise) should be stored in an area with enhanced security but easily identifiable as evidence or property.
Lt. Joe Latta of IAPE literally wrote the book on evidence and it is available on their website. He cautioned that biological evidence should never be destroyed in serious cases and the Innocence Project carefully monitors that. Thirty-eight states now mandate certain types of evidence in certain types of cases be retained, but every state is different in their rules.
Rebecca Brown of Project Innocence in Charlotte (Va.) said Charlotte is a national model for preserving evidence, but “simply put, it takes resources to accomplish Charlotte’s achievements.” She continued, “If the resources necessary to re-catalogue evidence are unavailable, what is most important is that evidence custodians preserve key evidence connected to old, adjudicated violent felony cases, so innocence claims can be addressed and real perpetrators of those crimes can be identified.”
Federal legislation, the “Justice for All Act” of 2004 requires that biological evidence be retained in federal cases. There are no national standards for handling DNA evidence in major violent state cases, but there is a current national DOJ-funded Technical Working Group on the preservation of biological evidence that hopes to issue guidelines on the state level by the end of 2012.
All Evidence – Property Is Not Equal
Prioritizing and preserving evidence and placing more importance on biological samples and other evidence from violent felonies than large items from misdemeanor cases are necessary common sense measures. Some evidence rooms are crammed with items that should have been returned or discarded years ago, while haphazard inventories and logs contribute to the confused messes.
It is vital to know what is being thrown out. Departments have found themselves on the national news for throwing out rape kits that might have collared serial offenders or allowed incarcerated inmates to be exonerated with new DNA technology. Space is always an issue and there may be pressure to clear out evidence or a general purge of non-essential evidence may be ordered. Evidence from cold cases was lost in past years because it may not have seemed important at that time but became critical with newer advances in technology.
Carbondale (Ill.) has a new, highly controlled state-of-the-art police department in the hometown of Southern Illinois University. Evidence Technician Steve Michaels explained their procedures that prevent many of the headaches faced by departments that do not have such procedures in place.
After an officer submits evidence by placing it in a pass-thru locker, evidence officers collect the items and they are entered into the records management system, given bar codes and routed to processing, storage, or the crime lab, as appropriate. Their state-of-the-art department’s new evidence room has evidence lockers with refrigerated inserts for DNA and rape kits.
What prevents headaches for Carbondale is their review and disposal procedure. Every item is given a review date, usually of six months, which means that in six months, the review date report will flag that item and if it can be purged, it is; if not, it is given a new review date. That is how they maintain control over the inventory and purge unneeded items. Items of value not returned to an owner are sold in police auctions held twice a year. Drugs are burned and guns are taken to a steel mill and melted.
They maintain a strict schedule of evidence room inspections with a yearly audit and multiple inspections. Michaels also reported their evidence room had a temporary drying room for wet biologicals. However, they installed two “DRYSAFE” Forensic Evidence Drying Cabinets from Sirchie as a permanent solution.
Technology and Storage Solutions
Steven Berdrow stated, “There are several good computer programs available for inventory control, as well as movable shelving systems that make better use of available space than fixed shelving.”
Designing or remodeling an evidence room to best utilize available space is important. Several manufacturers provide shelving, bar coding systems and software. Shelving can be built or purchased to accommodate special needs. Commercial gun boxes can be used for long guns and sidearms, and peg board can be used to hang unusual shaped items.
The best new technology for keeping items in their proper places is RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), often used by large retailers. This is a smart label that communicates its location to a computer, which compares the item’s location with where it is supposed to be and generates a notification if it is not in place.
Lt. Latta said administrators have good intentions and purchase bar coding systems, but if they only have enough staffing to bar code new evidence, the old evidence never gets bar coded or sorted in order to dispose of it. He said departments have no time to deal with the 60 percent of items past any statutory limitations on retention that could be cleared out.
Michaels reported Carbondale PD has over 7,000 items of evidence in storage, each bar coded. They have one large room with Space Saver rolling shelves, space for large items, and two small rooms for separating storage of drugs, guns and money. The submitting officer packages evidence / property, enters it into a computer program, and places the items into lockers in the evidence packaging area. Once the locker is closed, it cannot be opened by anyone but evidence officers.
Protect Integrity – Provide Accountability
When a new administrator takes over, it is a critical time to have an evidence inventory or that boss is going to own any mistakes made previously. It is also a good time to clear out evidence and property and to get rid of all the strange stuff that sometimes accumulates in the evidence room.
Berdrow stated that the IAPE advocates annual inventories of evidence and property and suggested breaking it up into manageable pieces, and compared it to eating an elephant, one bite at a time. He suggested doing one part of the inventory each month and inventorying the more sensitive items such as guns, money, and narcotics every three to four months. At the end of each year, there is a complete inventory. The evidence and property room logs should be handled just as carefully as the evidence itself.
Latta emphasized that inventory will only tell you what is there and not what is available for disposal. He said most departments do not do annual inventories and few have independent evidence inventories. The evidence inventory can take months and “95 percent of administrators have never worked in an evidence room and have no idea about how it functions.”
There are huge amounts of sexual assault kits left untested that departments don’t even know they have, and officers who worked the now cold cases retired years ago. There are items of clothing and other evidence that could be tested with today’s technology for biological evidence, but no one at the department knows the history of the case to even go to that box of evidence to test items.
Trained & Competent Staff
Steven Berdrow noted the importance of choosing professional staff for the evidence room, allocating sufficient man-hours to do the job, and providing appropriate training. “One of the biggest problems with the evidence room is they are inadequately staffed. If the Chief goes to his city council and asks for three patrolmen and one evidence custodian, he will likely get the officers but not his evidence custodian, because they are not seen as protecting public safety,” Latta explained.
According to Latta, those who do well with their evidence lockups often have someone with warehouse experience or from the military quartermaster corps who worked in supplies. Retaining consistent personnel in charge of evidence and property controls the number of people having access to restricted areas, allows for a smaller number of employees to require training, reduces the number of people in the chain of custody, and reduces changes in keys or access codes. Training and policy and procedural manuals should be mandatory and certification helps to professionalize the job and looks good when evidence custodians testify in court.
Latta pointed out the practical need for a procedural manual. One department had 300 rape kits left untested because the evidence custodian thought the detective was supposed to request testing and the detectives thought that every rape kit they submitted was automatically sent for testing. The lack of any written policy left kits untested and dangerous criminals on the street. He said two-thirds of departments don’t have any written procedures for the property room.
Restricting access to the evidence room is easily accomplished with or without technology. Berdrow noted that active or smart ID cards can allow an employee into only those areas where he needs access. He added, “There is a lot of fancy technology out there, but most of it is beyond the financial ability of most agencies and, frankly, is not needed. If employees, supervisors, and administrators would take property and evidence and its security seriously, there would be no problem.” Entry to evidence rooms should also be observed by surveillance cameras.
Carbondale PD has a Property Management policy and access is limited to Evidence Technician Steve Michaels, Crime Scene Specialists Dee Cross, and Jeff Buritsch and Sgt. Dunning, the supervisor. Accessing the room requires a proximity card and keypad code and they have a supervisor available after hours. The room is video monitored by dispatch 24/7.
Michaels said their Evidence Tech training is at least a 40-hour class and he has completed the course twice, once at Northwestern University and once given by the International Association for Property and Evidence.
Software & Evidence Management Systems
There are many evidence management systems. Some are integrated into the complete RMS for the department. Some departments have a separate evidence management system that interfaces with their RMS program.
Betsy McNutt of Sun Ridge Systems advised they routinely provide RMS for the evidence / property room, which is integrated into the rest of the system. Their RMS system covers all the department’s record management functions including the evidence room and as such is a complete system. The evidence function is an integral part with many information management systems and might be a consideration when reviewing systems.
Porter Lee’s Crime Fighter BEAST tracks evidence and facilitates evidence transfer to a forensic laboratory for analysis, promotes property control, and allows for extensive reporting capabilities. Russell Carrell from Porter Lee said they not only supply the evidence component of records management, but they work with departments to interface with their RMS and CAD.
Carrell said departments with RMS with modules including evidence often prefer to use the Crime Fighter BEAST from Porter Lee because it is a much more robust program with more functionality. Porter Lee will work with them to integrate the department’s RMS or CAD with The Beast and the information from the other program will populate the Crime Fighter BEAST.
Spillman Technologies’ RMS customers can use the integrated evidence management module to manage changes in the location and status of evidence items and this ability to track an item from the time it arrives at the agency until its release or disposal provides a complete chain of custody and links new evidence to records already stored in the system. Spillman’s evidence barcode & audit Interface allows agencies to track evidence items by attaching barcodes that contain the agency’s name, incident number, and evidence type.
Alan Biddle, Director of Development for SungardPS reported their evidence module has a strong inventory function and state rules usually apply to what can be cleared from evidence. The module can run reports to determine when items can be legally destroyed or other disposal made. He reported an inventory occurs about 50 percent of the time when they install a new system.
Evidence Room Protocols
Kathy Marks has been a child abuse investigator for 30 years. She teaches classes regarding domestic terrorism and is a previous contributor to
- Evidence and property should be separated, but drugs, weapons and valuables need extra security.
- Everything should be inventoried with a program that flags when disposal can be made.
- Proper training is essential and certification recommended.
- Biological evidence must be properly maintained and destroyed only when state and future national standards allow.
- Every evidence room should be governed by a written policy and procedural manual.
- Key or access cards should control access with logs to document entries.
- Surveillance cameras/video should be operated on a 24-hour basis.
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