Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office (WV) Virtual Evidence Room Tour – Part 2
April 12, 2021
In Part 2 of this 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 some tips about how to overcome some unique challenges he has faced as an evidence custodian.
Ben Townsend, the founder and CEO of Tracker Products, began the second half of the webinar by sharing a story about an evidence custodian he met several years ago. He said, “I was in Minnesota one time and there was this evidence room tech that believed his evidence room was perfect. I’ve gone through everything. It’s all there.
But, he didn’t know about the discrepancy report feature of our software. The day I was there, I showed it to him. He couldn’t believe it. He was so excited that he wanted to bring in his commanding officer to say, I want to show you that my work is perfect. And I was like… Wait a minute. Are you sure you don’t want to run these reports before you bring in the commanding officer? He’s like, Oh no, my work is absolutely dead on.
So, he scanned 20 items, and when he ran the report it came back with three errors. He was so embarrassed that he almost told me to leave. He said, I’ve got to go fix this right now. He found that the items were just misplaced. They were on a different shelf in the evidence room. So, it wasn’t the end of the world.
My point being…it’s all good until the commanding officer comes in and you don’t have an item that you’re supposed to have. It may be a simple mistake. And it was simple in your case, Willie, with the guns that were missing from your evidence room. But, I.A….they don’t know. And they’re going to tear that place apart, figuring out what’s going on.
I’m glad to hear that now you’ve got an auditing process in place. Every month you’re looking at your discrepancy reports. I feel confident that I could come in, look for items, and there’s a very high probability that all of the evidence will be easy to find.”
Willie said, “The two things I want to point out about your story is: Number one, I’ve been doing this for at least a decade and I’ve done discrepancy reports and audits all the time, and I’ve yet to get an audit that was perfect. I don’t care how good you are, there are errors. And the other thing everybody needs to hear is… I’ve made errors. No one’s perfect. But here’s what’s really different with our department. You do those reports, you log them in, and it shows that you are actively looking for errors and you’re actively trying to correct them.”
Ben said, “That’s a great point. I mean, it is important to do inventories and audits, and it also builds a record that shows you’re on top of what you’re doing. There’s a lot of people on here that may not be doing these things. That’s not good because that is neglect.
You may say that you don’t have time, but you’ve gotta be doing these things. You need to be able to show your department that you are actively looking for problems. Because, if a problem ever does come up at least you can prove that you’re doing everything you can.”
Willie said, “And we take advantage of the notes section in your software. Now, we don’t just say we found the problem, we actually put the details in there. So, if somebody wants to review the audit report, they can see what we’ve done.”
Ben said, “For the people that are on here, who were using our our old Legacy system, we did not store these reports like we do now. As a matter of fact, Willie – I’m guessing you know this – you cannot go in and delete these reports or manipulate or modify them in any way. I mean, it’s a record of what actually happened.
I know Willie doesn’t like to see discrepancies. Nobody does. But having a record that the problem existed, and you corrected it, is good. So, we don’t allow you to modify these reports. To me, errors are a normal part of life. And, showing that you found them and you corrected them, that’s a much bigger statement than… Here’s perfect report after perfect report. There is no such thing as perfect.
I’ll share a story about why we have unmodifiable chain of custody logs in the system… There was a murder case that was taking place and somebody made an innocent mistake. But, because of the way the old software was allowing changes to be made, it brought the system into question. And we do not want that.
I would much rather say, You know what? There was a problem. It has been resolved. It has been noted. That is much better than covering it up. I mean, somebody could certainly say, Hey, I’m not covering anything up. I’m just fixing the problems. And I don’t want the problems displayed. This is much better. It shows that you’re running a transparent evidence management department.
I feel pretty good about making that argument that it’s better to show the trail of the mistake, and to record the fix, than to have no problems listed at all.”
Willie said, “While we’re waiting for questions to come in, I should say that Colleen’s doing all the work in the evidence room. I’m just monitoring and supervising. You could probably eat off this floor; she cleans constantly in here.”
Ben said, “You have what looks to be an impeccable evidence room from everything I can see; it looks like a well-run operation. So, congratulations to Colleen and Willie; good work getting everything moved over and set up. I mean, it looks really cool.
Willie said, “It was a lot of hard work, but we’re pretty proud of it. Anybody is welcome to stop by. Just ask for me; we’ll give you a tour. I highly recommend that evidence custodians visit other evidence rooms in the area because it gives you great ideas.”
Ben said, “We just picked up a new client – it’s the largest one we’ve ever picked up… Baltimore. You had a lot on your hands, but for them, we’re importing their data from 2.7 million records. We have 55 million chain of custody entries that we’re moving from the old Legacy system to SAFE. You’ve got 8,000. Can you imagine?
I think they’ve got 10 people that work in their evidence room. Someday down the road, we would love to have them on here to share the experiences they’re going through right now. It’s a REALLY large implementation.
But, no matter the size of your operation… if you go through the process of converting from one system to another, and you’re trying to clean up within your existing room, clear out a couple of shelves and sort of mimic that process of moving evidence from what I call dirty shelving into clean shelving. That’s certainly a way that you can begin to segment your evidence from dirty to clean.”
Ben changed gears and said, “I do have a question here. Do you have any suggestions for how to organize a new evidence room? Is there anything you would do differently if you had to do it again?”
Willie said, “The only thing I can think of is adding a couple of sections that we forgot about. Also, make sure to check your attitude. For me, I thought it was a disadvantage to have everybody here when I was over at the old building. I had to run back and forth. I thought, this sucks, but it turned out to be a great advantage for me because I could move all this stuff where I wanted. Everything was labeled and ready to go. When I brought it here and we started sorting everything, it was just simply picking it up and putting it where I wanted. So, I wouldn’t do anything differently.”
Ben said, “Another question… somebody said, Are you destroying firearms? How do you go about destroying your firearms?”
Willie said, “We have ATF assistance. So, we take court orders only for the destruction of firearms. And ATF will cut them into little bitty pieces. We do return firearms, if it’s granted by the prosecutor. I triple run checks on every person the day they pick it up, because we had an issue a long time ago where we gave a gun to a three-strike felon. So, we do triple checks on everybody. I don’t care if it’s grandma walking in here.”
Ben said, “Someone is asking… When you moved everything from the old system, did you bring over the reports as well?”
Willie said, “We had it all on a laptop and we kept it for a while up there on the shelf. But then, we couldn’t get into it, so we relied on Tracker’s backup information.”
Tracker Products and The Evidence Management Institute want to give you something productive to think about during this time of uncertainty… a series of free evidence management training and panel discussions. Watch and comment on the webinars here. Or – to get in on the discussion, with nearly 600 other evidence custodians – join the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook.
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