Evidence Management: Cell Phone Intake, Processing, and Storage – Part 1
June 16, 2021
In this webinar, Matthew Porras from Ohio’s Westlake Police Department joined Ben Townsend – the Founder and CEO of Tracker Products – for a virtual evidence room tour. One topic they discussed is how West Lake handles cell phone intake, processing, and storage in their evidence management room.
Ben began the conversation by saying, “Today, we’re going to dig into the Westlake Police Department’s evidence room. Matt is going to take us on a virtual evidence tour, and we’re going to show off some things that I have not seen elsewhere.
Matt, why don’t you give us a bit of an introduction to yourself? Maybe walk us down the road a bit to understand how you got into Property and Evidence.”
Matt said, “Property and Evidence kind of came by chance. I started my career as a patrol officer in a different PD, which is nearby, and then I went to Westlake a couple of years after that. I’ve been in law enforcement for 20 years now, doing mainly patrol division up until about 2015; at which time I went into our Detective Bureau.
In 2014, we had a new Chief come in. One of the areas that he wanted to address was Property and Evidence. My specialty at the time, while moving into the Detective Bureau was crime scene processing.
I had gone to a Property and Evidence class through eOPOTA; a local training facility. The new Chief had known that and he said, Hey, you’re an evidence guy. You went to a property class. Are we doing things right?
It was already in the back of his mind that he wanted to expand the division and change a few things around. So, myself and another guy got involved with basically building a new property room from the ground up, which was nice for us. We got a chance to go out and take our time, go to other agencies that were local, and take things that we liked from them. Things that were based off of best practices and standards. And, we implemented it into our build. Like any municipality, we had a budget that we had to work around, so you don’t get everything you want, but you get the best you can.
I’m not a project manager per se, so it was one of the bigger things I’ve done as far as taking a hold of a project – with building and vendors and all that – and kind of run with it. So, what you’ll see here is what we were able to put together.
It’s still a work in progress. In 2016, the room that you’ll see was built out, and we started moving things in from our old evidence room – which had been an interior building – to this new facility one by one, which was nice.
We got a new software program and we were able to create that initial baseline of what we have, and what we’re accountable for, by bringing each item in one by one and retagging, recoding, and getting it into location. It created the perfect groundwork to become involved with Property and Evidence.
After I came out of the Detective Bureau in 2018, the Chief had hired two part-time officers to manage Property and Evidence. I was there to kind of look over them; as we had started the program and 2016. Very quickly after they were hired and started getting involved, they got reassigned to other areas in the department. The Chief came back to me and said, Hey, can you help out with Property and Evidence a little bit more hands-on? And I said, sure.
It’s one of our running jokes here in Property and Evidence… we always look at each other and say, No one would believe us how busy we are. It’s important work, but I just have a hard time convincing the other officers and people that I’m actually back here doing stuff constantly.
So, I essentially did part-time Property and Evidence management for two years, 2018 and 2019. I was doing half the shifts on the road as a patrol officer. I was doing the other half of my shifts in the property room; keeping it afloat. Feedback to the Chief was: We need someone back there full-time to really be able to sink their teeth into it. Not just keep it afloat, but be able to move it forward and to be able to do all the things needed to progress. So, the Chief created a position for a full-time property evidence guy.
I’m in my 20th year; I was looking for something different. I’ve got young kids. I figured, Hey, this is a great opportunity. Turned out to be my niche in law enforcement at that point in my career. And, it was an opportunity to stay with the city I enjoy working for, raise my family, and have a spot within the Property and Evidence that will secure myself here for a lot of years. It’s not a Trevor Bauer contract, but…”
Ben laughed and said, “If you somehow work out a Trevor Bauer contract – being in Property and Evidence – we will have a lot of people that are interested in how you pull that off!
So, walk me through this a little bit. The Westlake PD has about 50 police officers, which is not a ton. Explain to us what your geography looks like, because that has an impact on your evidence.”
Matt said, “We’re about 10 miles west of downtown Cleveland, with a major interstate that runs through our town – about five miles of it. Westlake’s about 30,000 residents, but by day it probably doubles to 60 or 70,000. The American Greetings card headquarters is here in town. We have a major mall, we have a major hospital. We have nightlife here. West of Cleveland on I-90, we are the first set of hotels on the highway, which does bring in some of the more unsavory characters.
There are probably around 10 hotels that we have in town that keep our Criminal Patrol people active. It’s an affluent town too. There are houses that go up into the multi-millions. On the other side of the spectrum is just your general apartment buildings and rentals and mid-range houses too. So, across the board, we have a lot that draws people into town.
Whether it be thieves looking to rummage through cars or drug dealers trying to peddle drugs into hotels, or just your normal white-collar folks trying to make a living. So, it’s a good place to live. It’s a good place to work. It’s a well-run city and I enjoy being part of it.”
Ben said, “Excellent. Let’s dig into some of the photos, and walk through your setup. We’re going to save the cell phone discussion for the end. Just walk us through these photos as we hit them…”
Matt said, “Sure. We discussed doing the build-out back in 2015. One of the thoughts was to keep the property room inside the main building. The issue with that was space… it’s always space, right?
So, one of the areas where we had some extra space was an exterior garage system with dual garage doors on either end. We housed cruisers in there and it was a general area for storage. But, it had enough space to build out a property room for storage and vehicle bays for bringing in anything that needed to be stored in a secure fashion while it’s awaiting processing.
One of the concerns when we’re doing this build out… we had this secure garage but oftentimes we’d have recovered vehicles in there. At the same time, during the day we might have just general people being escorted through. I wasn’t comfortable with the access to vehicles; not being secure within a cage itself. And that’s where we were able to put out these vehicle bays to give it an extra layer of security while we’re waiting and pending any type of processing.”
Ben said, “All right, the next picture is an extension of the last one. But, go ahead and explain what we’re looking at…”
Matt said, “Being a crime scene guy, I took a bunch of photography classes, so I knew to get a couple of different angles in there. It’s nice for officers because it’s a drive-through facility. The officers can come in and get out of the climate with any evidence that they’ve recovered from the scene. They’re not worried about getting out of a cruiser and walking in a snowstorm, up to the main doors and having stuff blowing all over the place. You get in the garage, you shut the doors down.
You see the blue line on the wall? That’s where I’m located. [That’s where] officer’s are able to get out of the car and inside the building to put their stuff into temporary holding in a safe manner. Which is important.”
Ben said, “Earlier, I asked what I thought was going to be an innocent question, and it turned into what I think may be the best part of our discussion today. If everybody notices… up in the top right-hand corner of the picture, there are green barrels up there. I was sort of joking around thinking they had gasoline in them or something dumb. But, walk me through what those things are, cause I’m really excited to show this next part off.”
Matt said, “A lot of agencies in Northeast Ohio utilize steel plants to destroy evidence. The steel plant that we use requires us to use steel drums to dispose of evidence when we’re sending them out for destruction. We buy these drums from a local place out here. When we do our dispositions or our destruction orders for property, we stuff those drums full of everything. And then we ship them off to the local steel mill.
We throw them on this little conveyor right here – multiple agencies come at a time – we throw everything onto the little conveyor. It picks it up and drives it over to the incinerator.
We’re not cutting up stuff and throwing it in the garbage out here. We’re getting rid of it down to dust. It’s repurposed into steel and then into someone’s building. We’re really pleased about that.
Like I said, we’ve used a couple of different facilities over the years. We’re really happy with the communities that are able to reach out to us and allow us to use their facilities to better our communities by not having stuff thrown into landfills.”
Ben asked, “What are some of the things you would put in there? And some things you don’t put in there for incineration?”
Matt said, “They give us a list of items that they don’t want mixed in with their steel things like: liquid, ammunition, anything that’s flammable or combustible, and they also want us to limit our plastics. So, they understand that we’re not going to be busting open bags of fentanyl just to put the powder into the drum. We basically put everything in there. Anything that we’re not going to donate, auction, or maybe retain for our own department.
We do disposals twice a year. I do a disposal order in March. I do one in September. We get everything listed over to a judge to sign off on. Then me and my partner go through our room – [it’s a] two man process – pull everything off the shelf that we need to, and throw them into the steel drums. And then the day comes that we have to drag them down to the steel mill and they take care of business for us.
Everyone’s always searching for ways to get rid of stuff. I think that everyone that works in Property and Evidence, that’s sometimes the hardest thing to be able to accomplish: getting to the point where you can get rid of something and then actually get rid of it.
We were in a bind this year because we had a drug seizure [that included about] a thousand little vape cartridges and the CML doesn’t want liquid. So, we were kind of hurting trying to figure out what to do with all these vapes. There’s a couple of incineration companies out here that will charge a per pound, but we were able to turn ours over to our Medical Examiner’s office. They were working on THC values for marijuana and oils and what not. So, they were able to utilize those to test their mechanisms. So, that’ll help out all the local agencies that are waiting on the new testing for THC as part of the way they changed the law.”
Ben said, “I’m getting comments coming in. It seems like everybody’s got their methodologies for disposals. William from Allegheny County, Pennsylvania suggested evidence custodians use their local hospital incinerator for any drugs or non metallic metals. For firearms, they can do a steel mill also, but… you do not incinerate your firearms. What do you do with firearms?”
Matt said, “Any firearm that has a value to it – and that we’ve had forfeited over to us – our Patrol Captain will take them and turn them over to an FFL. We’ll get credit at one of the local clothing stores there, so we can buy equipment for law enforcement purposes. It’s nice to be able to take something of value and get a return out of it.”
Ben said, “I had another question come in and I don’t understand. I think I may have missed something you said. So, let me just read the question and hopefully this makes sense to you. Someone said, I liked the community partnership aspect. Are there fees?”
Matt said, “With one of the incineration places locally there was a fee. They wanted to charge us per pound and there were a lot of legalities, but for the steel plant that we use in Northern Ohio, there are no fees. It’s just a matter of contacting their security people.
They’re already in partnership with the local Sheriff’s Department down there. And since they’re basically opening the door for them, they’ve graciously opened the door to other agencies. We just have to set an appointment about six months in advance, and then you’re on the clock. Just make sure you’ve got everything you need [to be disposed of] available. So, no, no fees for us at this point.”
Ben said, “Good to know. All right, well, let’s move on to some of the other pictures in the actual evidence room. As we go through these, you can quickly explain what’s going on here…”
Matt said, “This is a straight-forward processing room for officers. They come in, set up the tracking software, and they can log in their evidence. They can process what they need to in there. We use plastic bags with heat sealers. We also have paper bags and so forth.
But in general, obviously everyone’s going to know what this is, that works property/evidence room. I would’ve loved to have this room bigger, but it is what it is.
This is when we walk into our side. So, on my daily adventures, this is where I sit. We have a two man set up. The other guy that works with me was also a fellow that was in the Detective Bureau with me. He’s also helping me with property/evidence. He’s a patrol guy. He gets about a day a week here. So, anything that I know I need assistance with – whether it’s to test-fire a gun or running around town dropping things off – It’s nice to know that I have a little bit of help. It goes a long way. So, that’s where I get to sit nice and cozy during the day and take care of business on the property side.”
Ben said, “Somebody asked the question: Are those manual keypad lockers or digital lockers (in the 2nd image above)?”
Matt said, “In the upper right-hand corner, those are the Digilocks. Those are essentially like a hotel safe. Officers may be packaging something up when a hot call comes over the radio. What do you do with your stuff? So, they throw it in a locker and enter their own personal four digit code. That locks the door. They come back an hour later, put in their code to get their stuff back out and they finish what they were doing. Initially, we only had one, but realized we needed more.
Below those other ones, I do have one with a key. So, the key is hanging off there, just in case someone wants to lock it with a key and come back with it, they can do it that way as well.”
Ben said, “You have multiple options there. You’re handling the people that’ll work with digital, but somebody that doesn’t want to mess with it, they’ve got the keys.”
Matt said, “I’m here to make everyone’s life a little easier. I’m here to support staff. I’m not out there anymore making the big arrest or anything like that. I’m here to make sure that we’re getting stuff in. You know how important chain of custody is in Property and Evidence; making sure that everyone’s doing it right.”
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