Evidence Management Inventories: Why, When, and How-To
April 13, 2022
Law enforcement is obligated to, and responsible for, everything inside their evidence management facility. If evidence custodians don’t know what they have inside their facility, then they’re really not taking their obligations very seriously. The chain of custody defines credibility. Part of that credibility is based on the willingness to hold themselves accountable for doing things the right way and an evidence inventory is a crucial part of the process.
A lot of times it’s the technology that we have available to us that helps us actually accomplish an inventory. If you don’t have the technology – depending on the number of items that you have in storage – sometimes they’re just not possible.
For the Carrollton Police Department, they went 50 years before doing its first inventory.
When the new supervisor, Shawn Henderson, took over, he said, “It was kind of like a jazz composition of storage and I couldn’t work in there, because it drove me crazy. One day I realized… We’re going to have to do something drastic to make this change. So, I took every piece of evidence off of every shelf, and out of every drawer and I dumped it on the floor. It was about 70,000 items!
I was really proud of myself because it felt like that committed us to reorganization. I went to show a co-worker, Mary – who’d worked there for 10 years before I arrived – how committed we were to this evidence management process. We couldn’t look back anymore! For me, it was like, ‘Damn the torpedoes full steam ahead moment.’
But, when she saw what I’d done, she just started crying; totally broken by what appeared to be an insurmountable problem. In hindsight – and I think she would agree – that although it was painful, it did commit us to reorganization.
So, we put barcode labels on packages that didn’t have them before, relabeled some things, and started doing the hard work of getting prepared for the first inventory the law enforcement agency had ever done.. in its 50-year existence. After about 3 months, we were ready to start our inventory process.
***RELATED: Routine Inspection Template (This link will take you to our FB Community Forum. You can download the PDF that’s on the lower, left-hand side of the page)
There were two or three of us working back there with barcode scanners, scanning different locations, and putting all this stuff into the system. Then, with Tracker Products, it only took two or three weeks to scan through that first level of evidence for the initial inventory.
Even if you’ve got 70,000 items, if you’ve got the appropriate equipment and good technology – like Tracker Products SAFE software – it’ll take you days or weeks, not months or years. But, again, that’s contingent upon having all the information you need, in a single evidence tracking database.
Unfortunately, after we scanned everything, we realized there were still thousands of items that hadn’t been entered into the evidence management system. I think we had like 1200 items that we were just flat unable to locate. We had to go back through old documentation, back through cumbersome logbooks, and back through disposal records, hoping to whittle that list down to zero. Sometimes the data didn’t sync up with the barcode. It was a pretty laborious process to finally account for most of the missing items and get them into the system.
As part of the inventory process, you begin to reconcile and research because you want to be 100% accountable for 100% of the items that are in your custody.
Doing the first inventory – after 50 years of neglect – some things had just slipped through the cracks. We found items – that were listed as disposed of – still in our possession for years, and things that weren’t in the evidence management system. There were so many different types of issues that would normally be discovered within a year – if you do an annual inventory – but after 50 years you find 50 years worth of those mistakes and issues and it becomes a massive problem.”
That example clearly illustrates Why Inventories are Important. Let’s jump to when…
When to do Inventories
As for the topic of When to do Inventories… The general rule is annually. But, that doesn’t mean that you have to inventory everything at once. You can divide the number of items you have in storage by 12 (months of the year). So let’s say you have 60,000 pieces of evidence in storage, divide that by 12 and you get 5,000. That way, each month you can plan the time to inventory an average of 5,000 items.
Another way of thinking about when to do inventories is to do drugs one month, do money the next, do firearms next, and, biological after that. Biological evidence, narcotics, currency, and firearms are a top priority. They absolutely MUST be inventoried at least once every year.
After those four inventories are done – over the same number of months – you still have 8 months remaining to inventory the rest of the evidence. Again, make it quantifiable. How many items are left to inventory? Divide that number by eight, and that’s how many items you need to inventory a month.
But, if you find that you can’t complete the rest of the inventories in that time, stop where you are, and spend the next four months inventorying your guns, money, drugs, and biological evidence again. Then, go back to where you left off, and begin inventorying the rest of the things you didn’t get to last year.
How to do Inventories
As for the How-To… Make sure to do evidence management inventories with at least two people present. That’s not just for security and accountability, having two sets of eyes on an inventory process catches a lot of mistakes, and it will save you a huge amount of time. If you go it alone, it’s very difficult to retrace your steps and find the source of that mistake.
If you’ve got the right technology, the right personnel resources, and the right storage and organizational patterns, an inventory is really simple. And, it’s sustainable. It begins with a list of what you say you have.
Each item from the inventory list should be physically located or accounted for during the process. So, you want to make sure that you have actually put your hands on that package, that the package is physically in the building. Not just that you have a list of it, or you think it might be up there in the corner, you actually have to put your hands on it.
At the end of each inventory, you’re going to basically have four lists. A list of what you say you have, a list of what you actually have, a list of things that you thought you had but you don’t, and a list of things that you have, but never knew you had.
It’s the reconciliation of those lists that’s incredibly important. Once you get the discrepancies, you’ve got to figure out the issues with it. It takes some time to investigate them, but the reason you’re doing inventories is to catch mistakes. So, it’s imperative that you fix them.
And remember, there’s nothing wrong with finding errors. Inventories are supposed to tell you what the problems are, so you can go about getting these things resolved. This gets you a lot closer to things being where they need to be, so that when it comes time to do a random inventory, or an audit everything is where it’s supposed to be.
Remember the Carrollton Police Department that went 50 years before doing their first inventory? Let’s tell the rest of that story…
In an Evidence Management Institute article, called The Evidence Vault That Time Forgot, they wrote, “The Carrollton Police Department had an evidence storage facility – with approximately 25,000 square feet of space – that was grossly disorganized and hadn’t been inventoried in over 50 years. The issues needed to be addressed, but they didn’t have the resources, manpower, or support from the administration (at that time) to fix any of them. They just had a to-do list from one of the evidence custodians, Mary, who had been compiling suggestions for years.
Mary was keenly aware of some acute problems that needed to be dealt with, and she’d spent the last 10 years trying to communicate them to her chain of command. There were critical issues with the way evidence was handled; the way evidence was processed, documented, stored, and disposed of. She had a list of 45 to 50 things that needed to change, and she sent them to every new incoming supervisor.
Although her recommendations were valid, they remained unheard for over a decade.
When a new supervisor – Shawn Henderson – joined the team, he was the first person who actually listened to her input. Together they decided to develop an action plan that would eventually lead to doing the first complete inventory in the 50-year history of their law enforcement agency.
It was daunting, given the number of disparate issues they had to tackle, and the fact that approximately 70,000 items were stored in the crowded evidence facility.
At the time, they had lackluster tracking software that – although it was being used – was incredibly inefficient. They had a barcode system, but never took the barcode scanners out of the box.
Shawn said, ‘It might as well have had little pictures of Garanimals that you matched up, in order to make sense of what we had because we didn’t use the barcode system properly. If your barcodes aren’t indexed to anything in a software system, it’s a pretty empty symbol.’
Their antiquated system had officers complete a property report on a piece of paper and that piece of paper was turned into the evidence unit, it was then transcribed by a clerk and that clerk put everything into the system. That meant, one person was responsible for logging all of the evidence for a 160 person department!
The result? It was a disaster. They had a massive backlog of files that needed to be updated. Some of the information was on paper, some of it was in logbooks, some of it was on computers, but they didn’t have a single, definitive source in order to perform an inventory.
So, they started exploring all the different pieces of the puzzle. The first thing that they had to do – before they could ever entertain the idea of an inventory – was to get a single comprehensive source that gave them a list of everything that they were supposed to have in storage at the time.
Shawn said, ‘The first thing we had to source was better technology. We needed an evidence tracking system where the officers could enter data directly into the system. Having a single clerk responsible for inventory, just wasn’t efficient, it was wasted and redundant work. You’d have to enter the same information over, and over again – which I was well aware of – I just didn’t know how that impacted our evidence management operations; how it slowed us down until I literally looked at 13 linear feet of files of paperwork that needed to be updated and put into the system.
So, we started leveraging different resources to help with our data backlog, but we really had to find and source a technology solution that was going to become that single-source database. It took us a good six months of data entry – done by volunteers and officers that were on light-duty – in order to knock out that data backlog.
That’s when we brought Tracker Products’ evidence tracking software onboard – a technology provider for evidence management – and that was huge for us because it gave us the tools to eventually perform an inventory, and finally start getting rid of evidence that was eligible for disposition.’
Five years after Shawn became supervisor of the Evidence Management Unit, he printed out Mary’s original list of suggestions and highlighted everything they had accomplished.
Shawn said, ‘I think for the first time in her tenure as an employee, she was able to look back and see that she had finally been heard. That the things she had talked about for years – and hadn’t felt like anyone was listening – were finally being addressed.”
He added, “I just went to her 20-year retirement party yesterday and thanked her because she’s the reason that I’m with the Evidence Management Institute today. If it hadn’t been for Mary urging me to take evidence management issues seriously, I could have spent three years playing solitaire in my office and not done a damn thing. But, listening to her and understanding the urgency, I decided to roll up my sleeves and start implementing change. All I really had to do was listen to Mary’.”
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 over 750 evidence custodians – join the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook.