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Evidence Management Success: Nappanee Police Department

October 14, 2020

We interviewed Nik Havert – a detective and the lead CSI with the Nappanee PD – in hopes that other evidence custodians could benefit from the lessons he learned when taking over the evidence unit. We asked him to tell us a little bit about the size of his department and the community they serve. 

Nik said, “We are a department of 15 full-time guys, 6 reserves, IT staff, and a secretary. Most of our officers are road officers. We have two detectives – I’m one of the two, of course – and we have another CSI who is also a road officer. We’re in a town of about 7,500 people. We have a lot of factories here in town – it’s a large manufacturing area – so, during the day, when you have everyone coming for work, the town population probably swells to about 10,000.”

Tracker asked, “How long have you been with the police department? And what led you to your current position?” 

Nik said, “This is my 26th year. I was in patrol for most of my career and then the chief, at the time, said, You know, we’re thinking about opening up a crime scene investigator position. Would you be interested in that? And I said, Yeah, sure. That sounds really interesting. 

So, they sent me to the training and I just dove right into it because it really appealed to my love of puzzles… and other things like that. I started doing that and then we got a new chief and he completely reorganized the structure here. We’d only had one detective for many years. Then, they increased the size of the investigators departments to a ‘massive’ two officers. I started applying [to be a] detective and got one of the two spots. I’ve been doing that for three years now. I’m also a police trainer. I teach general subjects… physical tactics, pepper spray, taser tactics… a Jack of all trades/Renaissance Man kind of guy.”

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Tracker asked, “And how long have you been in the evidence management position?”

Nik said, “It’s gotta be about five… if not, closing in on seven by now? I haven’t really thought about that in a while.”

Tracker said, “Tell us a little bit about your evidence management history. Meaning, what tracking system were you using when you started in the evidence unit, and how did you progress to using the Tracker software?

Nik said, “Back when I was first doing patrol, everything was still on paper. It was still handwritten evidence logs sheets, transfer sheets, chain of custody sheets. And, it was that way for many years. Then we shifted to a report management system that had some evidence software in it, but it was not user friendly at all. It was so time-consuming to enter anything into this software and there’s a lot of duplication. Even just something simple – like a swabbing that you took at a scene – took so long. I timed the amount of time it took me to enter a swabbing into evidence and, without rushing, it was something like three minutes just to type and enter all of the stuff.

And then you factor that out to a scene where I’m taking multiple swabbing plus… like a robbery, where I’m collecting all this evidence. I told our chief, at the time, You know, if I work a scene with 10 items at minimum, that’s a half hour I’m doing nothing but typing evidence into this antiquated computer system. We might have calls backing up. 

And then, at one point, we switched to evidence tags where you would write the chain of custody on the back. Everybody hated that. They had wire ties that you would have to tie to things. It was just brutal. So now,  our newest chief… he came in and I – and a lot of the guys – told him: We’ve got to do something with evidence.

We had some officers – who transferred from other departments who would use more updated evidence software – and they were saying, Why are you guys still using this, or using these evidence tags? So, our chief actually reached out to the Tracker folks and started investigating it. And then, he would tell me about it. I said, Well, it looks good from what I can see, let’s give it a shot. We’ve been with it ever since 2017.

Tracker asked, “Are you on the SAFE version of Tracker’s software now? If so, how long have you been on that?”

Nik said, “We started with SAFE.” 

Tracker asked, “Before you switched to SAFE was there a breaking point – a moment when you knew – you needed a better system?”  

Nik said, “I think it was probably when I was first handed the keys to the evidence room. We hadn’t done a purge of the evidence room in a long time. I mean, a very long time. I walked in and found out that we had so much old stuff in there. And, to go through and inventory everything – to see what needs to be purged – you’d have to dig out old paper case files from multiple filing cabinets to look up these cases. And then, find out they’d been adjudicated or the statute of limitations had expired. It was so time consuming and I just started to say, There’s gotta be a better way. 

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We had so much stuff in that room. It was crazy. Plus, it needed some work. Like fumigation. We had some rodent problems. It was so gross; it was a massive project. You’re always told that with some of these high profile cases, you can’t get rid of anything. You can never get rid of anything. 

Well, of course you can. I can remember thinking… there was a pair of shoes that were taken from a shooting victim at autopsy. They really had no evidentiary value, especially when mice have been through this bag and made a home. But the chief would say, It’s from a homicide. 

I said, It’s worthless. It’s been contaminated. Yes, we can. And, having to get rid of stuff like that – with the old paper system of handwriting, having to dig through it – it was just so time consuming. It was like walking through a maze. That’s what really got us going with… We’ve got to find a new system. This is so out of date, it’s unbelievable.

I think our chief was impressed with Tracker because some other departments around here use it. So, he was reaching out to other chiefs asking,  Hey, what do you guys use? That kind of thing. A couple of people said, Oh, we really like this [Tracker].”

Tracker asked, “When you first started using Tracker yourself, how were you trained or what challenges did you have? Did it seem like an uphill battle?”

Nik said, “Not too much in terms of an uphill battle. The trickiest thing, at first, was giving all the officers their permissions to use the system. Making sure, Hey, did you get the email I sent, so you could go to the link? The guys would forget, so the link would expire.

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Or, some of our night-shifters wouldn’t have to enter any evidence – sometimes for a month or more – because they weren’t going on any calls that generated evidence. So, essentially what happened was… one of those guys would get to a call where he has to pick something up and then he goes to enter it. And, he realizes, Oh my link’s expired. So, they have to call me to send the link again. That was a bit of a slow, but nothing that we couldn’t overcome. 

The younger guys, they glommed onto the system so much faster than all the older officers who’ve been using the older system for so long. Whereas those wacky millennials just jumped all over it and they’re like, Oh, this is so much easier! 

We had a couple of guys who transferred from other departments who were already using it. So they helped train some of the other guys on it. Once the older officers saw how simple it was… you just enter this… click, click, drop in that, your case number is already loaded, print out the label, slap it on there. They were like, Are you kidding me? Seriously, it’s this easy? They were stunned by that. So once they got in the groove of it, everybody just loved it.”

Tracker said, “Tell us a little bit more about the actual physical process of intaking evidence. Meaning how much do the officers do, where do they put it? Where does it go from there?”

Nik said, “It depends on the scene. When they’re collecting drugs from a traffic stop, they’ll just package that themselves. They’ll bring it back to the station, photograph it more – if they haven’t already at the scene – seal it up, enter it, put the label on it, and then… we have temporary lockers outside our evidence room and they will put them in there. Sometimes, they’ll let me know, Hey, there’s some evidence or if they’re working with the other evidence guy, they’ll just let you know, He already knows. Then he, or I will transfer it into the evidence room, onto one of the shelves. If it’s a larger scene, they’re going to call me or the other evidence tech, and we’re going to go out and just bag up everything and put it directly into the evidence room.

I mean, normally when we do search warrants, he and I are always the guys doing evidence collection after the entry team’s gone in, and the initial sweep of the house is done and everybody’s in custody… We’re the ones going in to take photographs and pick everything up. That just streamlines the whole process. 

Every now and then the road guys will call if there’s something out of the ordinary, like… Oh, Hey, I’ve got this recovered, stolen car and there’s blood in it or something like that. I’m pretty lucky, in that the group of people I work with, I’ve trained them pretty well; where they know to at least get photographs of stuff on scene, like the shoe print in the snow that’s going to melt or the cigarette that’s still burning when they walk in at the burglary scene.”

Tracker said, “Let’s go back a step…  you painted a vivid picture of how overwhelming your evidence room was. Tell us a little bit about how you got it into order. Meaning, are you using the Tracker software to do auto disposition? Did you start off with an inventory? Just tell us a little bit about how you went from ‘before’ to ‘after’.”

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Nik said, “We do use the disposition. That was actually one of the first things that I set up. When I saw that feature, I was like, Oh, heck yes! The battle I have now is getting the guys to complete the task I send them for review like, Hey, do I still need to keep this? A lot of guys forget, although… I’ve gotta say, due to COVID-19 – when a lot of our guys were stuck without much to do – I said, Hey, this is a great time to catch up on all those tasks I’ve sent you in Tracker. Some of them actually did go through with their tasks, [saying] Oh yeah, I need you to keep this. I need you to keep that. Or, Oh no, that guy pled, or whatever

This is actually pretty good timing for a call [with Tracker] because we just did another purge. I try to do one a year, or so, to keep the stuff from getting overwhelming. Again, we’re a small department. But, we made a list of everything we had, and then we started going through and making lists of what types of cases they were from and then just figuring out… Okay, are these felonies or are they misdemeanors? If so, what statutes of limitations have expired?

We started going through this little by little and it was amazing how much stuff we found. We’re like, Good grief… this guy got sentenced to 50 plus years, or… We really don’t need to keep this bag of marijuana from eight years ago that someone pled guilty to and paid their fines. So, we started just digging through all that and did this massive project. 

My favorite thing still is… we had two tombstones in our evidence room that were forgotten because when they were put in the evidence room behind the door. So when you’d open the door to the room, you wouldn’t see them. It was a criminal mischief thing where someone stole these two tombstones from a cemetery – that’s not even in [our] town – and threw them in someone’s yard. So, that person then called us and we brought them to the station because we didn’t know what else to do with them. And, these things were from like 1996 or earlier. So, they’ve been down there for well over 10 years. I said, Why are they even here? And it’s because they were behind a door that no one ever saw them. 

Luckily, our mayor, at the time, knew the funeral director here in town. So, our chief, at the time, called him and said, Hey, can you help us out, we’ve got these two tombstones in our evidence room?  I heard he practically ran across this room and looked at them and said, Yeah, they’re from… He even knew what cemetery they were from. He got a hold of the guy who ran that cemetery. And we got those things back to where they should have been, but it was that kind of stuff that was just piled in there. 

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So, now what we do every June – no later than September – we do the same thing. But, we’re almost at the point now where we’re doing all of that in Tracker. We still have some evidence that’s in the old report management system that we have to go through piece by piece. But thankfully, we’ve been able to get more and more of that [evidence] out.

There’s still going to be some stuff that we’ll have to keep for a while yet – stuff where there still are outstanding warrants, but now it’s to the point where once we’re through that – all the oldest stuff – we can just go into the Tracker software and pull up, okay… Here are the case numbers, here’s the type of case, here’s the suspect names. And then, we just cross reference the suspect names to the database showing the latest court proceedings to see… he’s pled guilty,  or that trial is still pending for this lady. So, We gotta keep this, we can pitch that. 

And then, it’s just going in and clicking on all of the details, like, Hey, we’ve discarded this, here’s why, here’s who witnessed it. I mean, once we get to that point where we can get it into Tracker, it goes so much faster. It’s wonderful.”

Tracker asked, “Do you have a lot more room than you used to have?”

Nik said, “Oh yeah, for sure. I mean good grief… we’ve got plenty of shelf space now. My favorite thing is…when we do the purge, I always rearrange the shelves, so the oldest stuff is closest to the door. It’s quicker to move out when we do the next purge – and less distance you have to carry it – if nothing else. 

And now, all I have to do when we get to the Tracker stuff is search by shelf number. Okay… everything’s on this shelf…  One click and I can move it all to another shelf. Whereas before, in the old system, I would literally have to go through every piece of evidence for a case, click, open it up, change the shelf type, fill in the date for 20 plus pieces of evidence… You’ve got to do that manually for every piece. Probably in the next two years, we’ll have most of that older stuff out, and it [the evidence room] will be good to go.”

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Tracker asked, “Did anything come as a surprise to you when you started using the system? Like… did it have any features where you thought, Oh… I didn’t know. I needed that!

Nik said, “The one that I use the most is the duplicate feature; where I can just duplicate an item and all I really have to do is change the description. Meaning, it duplicates where I collected it,  the time, the day, the address, whose item it is. That saves me so much time. I’ve shown that to some of the other officers like, Oh, if you just duplicate, all you gotta do is just go in and change, you know, the bag of marijuana to the paraphernalia or whatever. Everything else will be the same… the date, and time, and place and all that. So that’s a really good feature that I like.

Some of the guys love the split feature where they find the backpack and then they find the marijuana in the backpack. So they see that the marijuana was in this backpack. I’ve done that for swabs and things I’ve collected; like something from a stolen vehicle… I’ve got a shirt – or whatever – and I take a swab of a stain from the shirts and I’ll split that. Some guys love that split feature because they like seeing that kind of tiered thing… where everything was when they collected it. Like… the backpack was in this, and there’s a box in the backpack and the marijuana is in that little box in the backpack. They love that.”

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