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Evidence Management – If You’re Not Getting Better, You’re Getting Worse

December 15, 2023

Let’s face it: in the past 10 years, evidence management – and law enforcement as a whole – has changed exponentially. From the staggering increase in digital evidence, to the rising demands for DNA testing, to the complications of processing and retaining fentanyl in overdose cases, there is no denying the fact that law enforcement – and evidence management departments in particular – have no choice but to do things differently. 

More efficiently, more effectively, and more sustainably than ever before. 

Let’s look at some of the most important things you should review first…

Policies and Procedures

When was the last time anyone in your evidence management department reviewed your policies and procedures? Most evidence departments are overworked and underfunded, so you may be thinking, We barely have time for essential tasks. How in the world can we make time to read something that was probably written 10 years ago? 

That’s exactly why you should review them. Policies and procedures need to adapt as the landscape of crime evolves. If your policies and procedures aren’t updated at least every two years, that’s a liability waiting to happen. 

As you review your policies and procedures, comparing them to federal and state guidelines is always a good idea. There will be many different layers of operations to review. 

For example, in the submission guidelines section, things like acceptable evidence collection techniques, evidence submission documentation requirements, and packaging and labeling procedures – for different types of physical evidence – should be addressed, among many other things. 

In the procedures section, you will want to review things like:

This process will help you to: Identify processes or procedures that require updates, define the purpose and scope of procedures, establish minimum standards for acceptability, identify required resources, define a sequence for task completion, and draft a new procedure document.

Automating the Evidence Management Process

Evidence Management

Whether or not you choose Tracker Products ‘ SAFE software, we’ll explain why automating the evidence management process is imperative with the current state of mounting evidence. Using paper and pen or settling for a stand-alone RMS isn’t a sustainable option anymore. It’s imperative to use evidence tracking software, specifically, from intake to disposition. Here’s why…

Time Efficiency:

Time is a precious resource for law enforcement agencies, and automating the evidence management process directly addresses this concern. With automated systems, evidence intake and tracking can be accomplished quickly and accurately. This reduces the time required for manual data entry and paperwork and expedites evidence retrieval when needed for investigations or court proceedings. 

Space Optimization:

The physical storage of evidence is a persistent challenge for law enforcement agencies, especially as evidence collections grow. Automated evidence management systems can help agencies optimize their space utilization. By digitizing evidence records and using efficient storage solutions, agencies can reduce the physical footprint required for evidence storage. This can free up valuable space within police departments and evidence rooms, allowing for better organization and more efficient use of facilities. Additionally, agencies can prioritize the storage of high-priority or active cases, further maximizing available space.

RELATED: THE TOP 5 THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN COMPARING EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE SYSTEMS

Automated Disposition:

Automated disposition is a powerful tool in addressing the issue of space constraints in evidence management. It enables law enforcement agencies to systematically review and manage the disposal of unneeded property and evidence items in a compliant and transparent manner. By setting predefined criteria and automated reminders, agencies can identify evidence that is eligible for disposal, subject to legal requirements. This ensures that space is not occupied by items that are no longer relevant to ongoing investigations or legal proceedings. 

Incorporating automated disposition into the evidence management process is a proactive approach to space management that helps agencies reclaim valuable storage space and ensures that resources are allocated to the most critical and relevant evidence. It strikes a balance between retaining necessary items for justice purposes and efficiently managing space – a constant concern for law enforcement agencies striving to operate effectively and responsibly.

RELATED: WHY A MOBILE APP IS CRITICAL FOR EFFECTIVE EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT

Streamlined Workflow and Efficiency:

One of the most significant advantages of automating the evidence management process is the tremendous boost in workflow efficiency. Traditional evidence management systems often involve manual data entry, paperwork, and time-consuming processes. Automation can streamline these tasks, saving valuable time and resources. Evidence can be logged, categorized, and tracked digitally, eliminating the risk of human error and ensuring a more accurate and efficient chain of custody. 

Enhanced Security and Accountability:

Automation provides a higher level of security and accountability in evidence management. Access to digital evidence records can be restricted to authorized personnel, reducing the chances of unauthorized access or tampering. Every action taken within the system is logged and timestamped, creating a comprehensive audit trail. This transparency ensures that the integrity of the evidence is maintained throughout its lifecycle. It also facilitates compliance with legal and regulatory requirements, which is crucial for maintaining the credibility of law enforcement agencies.

Evidence Submission Processes

Evidence Management

Improving the evidence management submission process is paramount to law enforcement agencies who want to maintain the integrity of their cases and ensure the chain of custody remains unbroken. 

The evidence management intake process begins with collecting items in the field and includes the initial digital documentation, packaging, labeling, and submission of the evidence for storage. 

To automate this part of the evidence lifecycle, agencies should focus on implementing digital documentation tools that streamline the initial recording of evidence. These digital records can include photographs, videos, or detailed notes, ensuring that all pertinent information is documented accurately and securely. 

By reducing the reliance on paper-based documentation, law enforcement can minimize the risk of data loss or misplacement, ultimately fortifying the evidentiary chain.

It’s important to note that police officers should be responsible for this part of the evidence lifecycle. Tracker Products’ SAFE evidence management technology allows officers to document and enter new evidence directly into the software on their mobile devices, bypassing the ineffective and time-consuming paper trail. 

RELATED: EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT – ON-PREM VS. THE CLOUD

After they package and label the evidence, officers put those packaged, labeled, and sealed containers inside evidence lockers for the evidence custodian to inspect, take custody of, and store. Establishing intake, processing, and transfer protocols and procedures is critical to the evidence’s integrity and ensuring sustainable evidence operations.

Also, standardized packaging is key in the evidence submission process. Agencies can benefit from standardized packaging protocols that prioritize preserving evidence integrity. Employing tamper-evident seals and specialized containers can prevent contamination, degradation, or tampering, thereby bolstering the credibility of the evidence in court. 

Equally important is the clear and consistent labeling of evidence with comprehensive information. Tracker Products’ SAFE technology allows you to create “required information” fields for officers before they can move to the next step in the process. A clear and consistent labeling system ensures quick retrieval and minimizes potential errors during storage and retrieval, a crucial aspect of maintaining evidence integrity. 

Lastly, submitting evidence for storage should adhere to established chain-of-custody procedures, proper digital documentation, and accountability at each transfer point to safeguard against potential breaches in the chain. 

By embracing digital documentation, standardized packaging and labeling, and strict adherence to chain-of-custody protocols, law enforcement agencies can significantly improve their evidence management submission process, ensuring that justice is served effectively and fairly.

Evidence Storage

Evidence Management

Storing evidence in conditions that preserve the forensic integrity and original condition of items is a key principle of evidence management. Efficient evidence storage operations utilize organization and filing systems in concert with appropriate storage methods and technology to maximize available facility space. 

Effective evidence storage is crucial to maintaining the integrity and chain of custody of physical evidence in law enforcement, forensic, or legal settings. Follow protocols for preserving evidence, including avoiding direct sunlight, extreme temperatures, moisture, or chemicals that may alter its condition. Regularly inspect evidence to ensure it remains in the same condition as when collected. Document any changes or issues.

Below are some high-level, general rules, but always consult your organization’s specific guidelines and legal requirements for evidence storage, as they may vary by jurisdiction and case type. Proper evidence storage is essential for maintaining the credibility and admissibility of physical evidence in legal proceedings.

Now, let’s look at some categories of physical evidence and high-level tips for their storage:

Biological Evidence (e.g., DNA, Blood, Hair):

 

Firearms and Ammunition:

Drugs and Narcotics:

Currency:

Documents and Records:

Physical Objects (e.g., Weapons, Stolen Property):

Electronic Evidence (e.g., Computers, Mobile Devices):

Trace Evidence (e.g., Fibers, Glass, Soil):

Facility Security and Safety

Evidence Management

Sustainable evidence management operations require facilities capable of safely storing and preserving evidence for the duration of custody. A secure chain of custody is predicated on security considerations that limit access to evidence to a controlled and known quantity. Evidence storage and management can present multiple safety issues that require planning and consideration to sustain a safe environment for evidence room personnel.

Providing security and safety in evidence management storage facilities is paramount to maintaining the integrity of evidence, ensuring chain of custody, and preventing tampering or theft. Here are several key considerations and strategies to enhance security and safety in these facilities:

Access Control

Implement stringent access control measures to restrict entry to authorized personnel only. Use electronic key card systems or biometric authentication to track and control access. Ensure that access logs are regularly reviewed to detect any unauthorized entries.

Surveillance Cameras 

Install high-quality surveillance cameras strategically throughout the facility, including entrances, exits, storage areas, and hallways. These cameras should provide continuous monitoring and recording of all activities.

Physical Security

Invest in robust physical security measures, such as reinforced doors, windows, and walls. Consider installing security grilles or bars on windows to prevent break-ins. Ensure that all entry points are secured with tamper-evident seals.

Alarms and Sensors 

Install security alarms and sensors that can detect unauthorized entry, tampering, or environmental changes (e.g., temperature and humidity fluctuations). These systems should immediately alert security personnel or law enforcement when triggered.

Fire Prevention 

Implement fire prevention measures, including fire-resistant construction materials, smoke detectors, and fire suppression systems. Regularly inspect and maintain these systems to ensure they are functioning correctly.

Visitor Logs 

Maintain visitor logs and require all non-staff personnel entering the facility to sign in and out. Visitors should be accompanied by authorized personnel at all times.

Temperature and Humidity Control

Maintain a stable climate within the storage facility to prevent evidence deterioration. Use HVAC systems with temperature and humidity controls to preserve the integrity of sensitive materials.

Backup Power 

Install backup power sources, such as generators or uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), to ensure that security systems remain operational during power outages.

Regular Inspections 

Schedule regular internal and external audits of the evidence storage facility to assess security protocols, identify vulnerabilities, and implement necessary improvements.

By diligently implementing these security and safety measures in evidence management storage facilities, organizations can minimize the risk of evidence contamination, loss, or compromise. This not only ensures the credibility of evidence in legal proceedings but also upholds the trust and integrity of the justice system.

Evidence Retention and Disposition

Evidence Management

One of the most important aspects of evidence management balances the effective retention of evidence with the efficient disposition after the required retention period expires.  Evidence submitted and stored in the custody of the evidence operation must be preserved and retained for the required duration of custody; however, without effective disposition processes, evidence operations will quickly accrue excessive storage volume, which impacts operational effectiveness and capacity.

Retention

Evidence items should be retained in the custody of the evidence management for the entire duration of the item’s required duration of custody until receipt of approval and authorization for the permanent transfer, temporary release, or final disposition of the item is received and documented.

Appropriate evidence retention is critical to all stakeholders in the justice system and essential to the equitable application of justice. Failure to retain evidence for the required duration of custody denies justice to victims and the acquittal of suspects who have actually committed alleged offenses.

The required duration of custody for evidence items is contingent on the following:

  1. State law, including statutes of limitation and evidence retention statutes
  2. Local policies, which may include policies of local law enforcement agencies, policies of associated courts of record, and prosecuting attorney offices
  3. Case and associated case investigative status
  4. Case and associated case adjudication status
  5. Offender term of sentence
  6. Offender term of appeals
  7. Identification of unknown offenders
  8. Receipt of approval for disposition from authorized investigator
  9. Receipt of any required judicial authorization for disposition

Items considered retained are all items stored as evidence or non-evidentiary property by the evidence management unit, whether in actual physical custody at the evidence management facility or in secure, temporary custody at external locations such as forensic laboratories, remote, secure electronic storage, financial institutions, or other external temporary locations.

Disposition

Evidence items should be efficiently removed from the custody of the evidence management unit after the expiration of the required duration of custody of the evidence item upon documented receipt of authorization and approval for disposition. With few exceptions, efficient and effective disposition practices and processes are required for sustainable evidence management operations.

Systematic failure to dispose of eligible evidence may result in storage capacity, organization, and sustainability issues for evidence management operations.

The optimal rate of evidence disposition for sustainable evidence management is indexed to the equivalent rate of evidence intake. Ideally, evidence management operations should dispose of evidence items at a 1:1 ratio to intake items annually.

Optimal rates, or disposition targets or goals, should not be considered as factors for approving the disposition of evidence. Approvals for disposition should be independently and exclusively based on the disposition eligibility of the evidence item.

Disposition rates lower than 0.75:1 (disposal to intake) ratios can create long-term systematic storage and sustainability issues for evidence management operations.

To ensure a continual disposition process for evidence management, the evidence management should schedule planned disposition processes at regular intervals for:

Intervals should be contingent on levels of evidence eligible for disposition but, at a minimum, should be planned annually to prevent excessive buildup of evidence in storage.

In conclusion, evidence management is changing profoundly in the modern law enforcement landscape. With the exponential growth in digital evidence, evolving legal requirements, and the need for efficiency and accountability, it is clear that agencies must adapt and improve their evidence management practices. 

Key focus areas include updating policies and procedures to align with evolving standards, automating evidence management processes to save time and space, enhancing evidence submission procedures for accuracy and efficiency, and implementing proper storage practices to preserve evidence integrity.

Moreover, the security and safety of evidence storage facilities cannot be understated, as maintaining the chain of custody and preventing tampering is paramount. Lastly, efficient evidence retention and disposition processes are essential to prevent storage overloads and ensure the equitable administration of justice.

Law enforcement agencies must continually strive to improve evidence management in this ever-changing landscape. Failure to do so can have serious consequences, including jeopardizing cases, compromising the chain of custody, and impeding the pursuit of justice. Therefore, agencies should prioritize these critical aspects of evidence management to ensure a more effective, accountable, and sustainable approach to handling evidence in ever-changing conditions.

Tracker Products and The Evidence Management Institute want to contribute to your ongoing education through a series of FREE online evidence management training classes. You can also watch the Tracker Products webinars and check out The Evidence Show! (recorded webinars).

To get in on the discussion with nearly 1,300 evidence custodians – join the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook.