Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office (WV) Virtual Evidence Room Tour – Part 1
April 2, 2021
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Now, let’s move on to today’s blog… The excerpts below were taken from this evidence management webinar with Willie Johnson from the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office (WV). He joined us for a virtual evidence room tour last June (2020) and shared his experience with overcoming some unique challenges he faced as an evidence custodian.
Ben Townsend, the founder, and CEO of Tracker Products, began by saying, “It’s taken me a little while to get Willie to commit to doing this, so I’m excited to have you here today. We’re hoping that you can share some information about your years of experience, but first tell us a little bit about yourself. How long have you been with the Sheriff’s Office? How did you get into evidence?”
Willie said, “Well, I’ve been here way too long; since 1984. I got into evidence because we had an episode, about 10 or 15 years ago, where an officer was taking guns out of the evidence room. So, they took him out and I got ‘volun-told’. I started out as the evidence officer, then I moved to supervisor, and now I’m up in admin.”
Ben said, “Let’s start with… How long ago did you move into the new evidence facility?”
Willie said, “We moved into this new building in 2014.”
Ben said, “So, you had all your evidence in the old building and then the shift took place. Did you have any particular design elements when you built that building or was it like, Hey, here’s a room we’re going to throw some shelves on it?”
Willie said, “When the contractors came – this is an old Martin’s Grocery Building – they just renovated the whole thing. We got to keep some of the shelves that you can see in the background here.”
Ben said, “Let me give you a little bit of statistics about Berkeley County – the amount of evidence they’re dealing with. They have 8,000 items entered into the Tracker Products’ SAFE system: 5,500 of them are checked in, a few of them are active in court cases, and they’ve disposed of 2300 items. They bring in roughly 140 pieces of evidence every month.
The good news is, it doesn’t look like Willie’s anywhere near to being out of space. So there’s not a pressing issue on his plate, but disposition is still ultimately something that needs to be dealt with. We’re going to come back to that in a minute.
What I want to do now is go back five years. I think one of the interesting stories that you were sharing with me earlier, was your transition from the old evidence room to the new. Walk us through what you did to get all of this data into the Tracker system.”
Willie said, “We didn’t have any evidence in this new facility, which was a luxury. We paid a Sergeant – who took over the evidence room – eight hours a day for almost three months. Back then, we probably had about 3000 pieces of evidence. He moved each piece of evidence over to the new location, where they were housed, and everything was verified as it was being put into the system.”
Ben said, “If you are able to take all of your data from one system and bring it into another – which might not have been applicable to Berkeley County at the time – even if it’s not the cleanest stuff in the world, it’s going to save you time. In your case, you guys spent two to three months manually entering all that data into the system. That’s a significant amount of time and effort, but the good part of that is… all the evidence that is entered, is good, clean evidence. It forces it to be clean at that point.
Let me show off some pictures. First of all, here are some pictures of your facility. The upper left photo is the Sheriff’s Office. Is your complex somewhere in that facility or are you offsite?”
Willie said, “As you can see it’s actually a huge, old store grocery; the evidence room is behind the American flag in the center – to the back – and runs to the back, right corner. It’s a pretty good size.”
Ben said, “Let me jump ahead… instead of showing the new stuff, talk about these old pictures…”
Willie said, “That’s what I had back in the old building – when we found the officer was taking guns – when I had to take over; they were just regular shelves. He’s got labels on there. It says the officer’s name. So, if an officer was doing nothing the shelf was pretty bare, but if the officer was producing, then that shelf was full. It was such a chaos that the evidence officer, at the time, would give you a five day window just to find your evidence; it was that bad.”
Ben said, “The idea of storing evidence, based on an officer’s name – where one guy can be bringing in a lot and one cannot – that is a bad methodology for storing evidence. The chaos that it creates – where one person brings in a lot and the other brings in none – you cannot use this shelving space because it’s reserved for an officer who hasn’t brought in a lot. That’s just a bad methodology for storing evidence. My assumption is, Willy, in your new building you did not employ that strategy?”
Willie said, “I did not. They’re stored in chronological order, by case number. If the computers were to shut down right now, but the officer could tell me the case number and what type of item it was, I can find it without the computer even being involved.”
Ben said, “There’s validity to that. So, you store everything chronologically. That means within each section of your evidence room, you sort things by case number, correct?”
Willie said, “That’s correct.”
Ben said, “Here’s another really interesting picture. This is your evidence station at the old evidence location. What I find interesting is that your evidence is literally right there behind your desk, just under your feet.”
Willie said, “I was literally sitting in the evidence room. They didn’t have a special room for it. Now, there’s a room that’s locked up separate from the evidence room, so we can be in our office and people can visit without any security issues.”
Ben said, “Let’s call this next photo the cluster bomb…”
Willie said, “That was one of the end caps. Evidence was just set on the shelf and that’s where it stayed. I don’t know if you can see on the edges of the shelf, but the officer had it labeled: ‘requested’ or ‘verified.’ He didn’t even have a label as to what was on the shelf; it was like a mystery. We opened everything up to see what it was.”
Ben said, “We all have a past, as far as what it looked like before. And some people are dealing with this even today. Let’s roll into some of the new stuff…
What I find most interesting about this picture is there are more remnants of the grocery store, correct? I mean, those look like things that were left in the grocery.”
Willie said, “Yes they are. The long wall holds a number of long guns. On the back wall, you see boxes of all our small guns. And then the middle island is all our drugs and file cabinet. We’ve recently gotten rid of the file cabinets and put more shelving units in the middle; because the shelving units are accessible from one side to the other. Whereas, with these old filing cabinets you can only access one side.”
Ben said, “Here’s a picture of what your current evidence room looks like…”
Willie said, “The shelves on the left are the grocery shelves again. And the shelves in the back – that are behind me now – are from an IRS center that was shutting down. They gave us all those racks for heavy stuff.”
Ben said, “So, what are we looking at in this picture?”
Willie said, “This is outside our drugs and guns area. It’s secured within the secure evidence room. You can see the new shelves in the middle; after we got rid of file cabinets. As I said, we can put items on both sides now.”
Ben said, “This next picture looks like all your temporary storage.”
Willie said, “Yep. Pass-thru lockers. We’ve never had those in all my career here. So, in 2014, we got pass-thru lockers.”
Ben said, “Just to confirm… all of your officers are logging into our system and they’re entering all of their evidence?”
Willie said, “We chose not to let them print the sticker, because we had so many problems. So, they’re logging it in the system, putting it in the lockers, and then we’re taking it out and putting a sticker on it.”
Ben asked, “Do they write anything on the package? Do they do anything to assist you? Or do you literally go to the locker, see an empty package, and you’ve got to line it all up?”
Willie said, “Most officers will write on them or find a sticker of their own and put it on there. And we get some officers who go the extra mile and will put it in the system, print out a chain of custody form, and put it in there with the item. And then you get your occasional few…. You have to look in the temporary lockers and see what they logged in.”
Ben said, “What were some of the problems you were having with them labeling their own evidence?”
Willie said, “They were printing the wrong size. They were putting the wrong information in it. It wasn’t uniform the way we wanted it . So, it was just easier taking that task away from them and we’ll take care of it.”
Ben showed the next picture and said, “This looks like your processing area?”
Willie said, “Across the hall from those lockers is a room that is secure for police officers. We just don’t want the public to walk through. The officers can go in and process the evidence with paper, plastic, all that stuff. And then when they’re done, they just walk across the hall and drop it in the lockers.”
Ben showed the next picture…
Willie said, “We have the luxury of having a huge vehicle evidence bay. Officers love it. We used to have a little shed out back in the old building and half the car was sticking out of the shed. Now you can pull the car in and shut the door and we process it at our leisure.”
Ben said, “That’s an old loading dock, correct? I mean, trucks would roll up to that area. It seems like inheriting an old grocery store is an ideal scenario, at least for the evidence room; between all the shelving, and the space, and the height, and the loading docks…”
Willie said, “The only problem we had was that when the people were building the building, they used the evidence room to bring in all the materials to decorate the interior. When Parker County came over to this building, we had to wait an additional three months because the evidence room wasn’t secure. Once they were done, we moved over.”
Ben said, “So, we’re back to your old picture. You told me an interesting story earlier, and I really want to elaborate on this. We want to look at this next picture. So, this is your gun room. Tell me the story about the missing guns and how you went about figuring it out.”
Willie said, “We had an officer leave and it’s customary to do an entire inventory of everything. A while before that, we had a drug raid – where there were 17 guns taken – but in inventory we were missing three. They just didn’t exist.
The evidence officer that left was very uncomfortable. It was something stupid that he or I did. Eventually, the new evidence officer, Colleen, and I started doing an audit every month. And every time we did, we made sure guns were on the audit. We checked guns and eventually figured it out. Small guns are always done every month. Guns seem to be the hot item in the country; and it was the hot item here.
And, because of the money issues that are going on across the country, we don’t even keep money here for a week. As soon as Colleen gets it, she puts it in a small, portable safe. She calls me, all the money comes out, and goes into a bank account.”
Ben said, “This exiting officer… he’s the one that pointed out the guns were missing. Is that correct?”
Willie said, “The exiting officer said, Look, I’ve got three guns missing. I know I put them in here. And, then we started looking for them.”
Ben said, “But, internal investigations got involved?”
Willie said, “They did. They were getting ready to launch a full audit. They were going through interviews; the whole nine yards. Colleen and I had some time to keep looking. You have to understand, our department doesn’t have a lot of money. And, those gun boxes cost money. So, if the box is in good shape – and we’re releasing the gun – we take the gun out, save that box, put a new sticker on top of the old sticker, and then use it for another gun.
The old officer inadvertently put the sticker on the wrong side of the box, and didn’t cover the old sticker. So, when he put it on the shelf, the old stickers were facing out. The three guns that were ‘missing’ were actually in those boxes, but we were scanning the wrong sticker. It’s a simple little thing… Do you use old boxes? If you’re very meticulous about making sure you destroy the old ones, you shouldn’t have a problem. But, it happens.”
Ben said, “I’ve said time and time again, mistakes are going to happen. That’s not even a question. I think it was very interesting that when you did the discrepancy report, it just came back and wound up being nothing. But, it almost turned into a full blown investigation.
I’m guessing if they had launched the investigation, it might’ve involved opening every box in your evidence room. It would have been found one way or another, but doing that inventory – and especially having that inventory be a routine part of what you do – it really helps cut down on that. My guess is, you couldn’t do inventories in your old system, right?”
Willie said, “In my old system – which was not Tracker – I had never done an audit. If somebody asked for property, I’d just better be able to find it. That was our previous way to do an inventory.”
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