Evidence Management: Omaha Police Department Virtual Tour – Part 1
May 15, 2020
Featuring Ben Townsend CEO of Tracker Products, and special guest, Staci Witkowski of the Omaha Police Department
In this webinar, we took a look at the evidence room at Omaha’s PD and interviewed Staci Witkowski; who led one of the most thorough clean up projects we have ever seen. We learn what took her to this project, what she saw when she first stepped in, and what she did to make it one of the best operations out there. The Omaha PD is a large organization with 600+ officers and hundreds of thousands of pieces of active evidence. They average 60k new pieces of evidence every year. Let’s get started…
Ben opened the webinar by saying, “I’ve been thinking about doing this for a long time with Staci; getting her on the line and running through the Omaha Police Department’s evidence room. It’s always cool to see the vantage point of a much larger operation. To me, the difference between a small and a large operation is just the numbers. It’s the same stuff. It’s the same things you’re dealing with. They just deal with it on a much larger scale.
The Omaha police department became clients of ours about eight years ago. Staci, when did you come into the evidence room? How long ago was that?”
She responded, “I first started back in 2012 -13 when we started to transition over to Tracker and then I went back out to uniform patrol for a year, and then came back in 2014 so basically since 2014.”
Ben said, “My introduction to the Omaha Police Department would have gone back about eight years ago. And, what I’m going to love to show off here today, is the transition from where they were, to where they are right now. As we get into some of the particulars, go through some of the screenshots, and Staci starts to tell her story, you’re going to see a major overhaul. Where they’re at today is a very different place than where they were at eight years ago. Staci, maybe give us your background with the Omaha PD. Just tell us some things about you before we get into your evidence room.”
She responded, “I’m Lieutenant Staci Witkowski with the Omaha Police Department. I’ve been an officer for 26 years. My first 20 years I worked the street; working uniform patrol in various parts of Omaha. Did a short, two-year Detective Bureau with the sexual assault unit. And then the last six years I’ve been assigned full time down to our evidence property.
So, I initially came in, like Ben said, about eight years ago and started working on transitioning over to an actual computer system. We were completely paper. Everything was in triplicate. We had about 10 or 12, four-drawer filing cabinets; full of hard copy reports that we’d have to go through to find out where something was located, and then have to go and figure out which room it was actually located in. These are some pictures from the late eighties, early nineties of the cleaned up property room that became overrun.
When they ran out of space, they just would say, Hey, we are going to claim this storage room on whatever floor of the police department and now we’re just going to start putting our shelves in there. You can see some of the bottom pictures, there’s old shelving that has just stuff kind of set in on it [and in front of it]; that’s what it used to be.
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When they ran out of room, they just would claim another coat closet, empty office, a storage room in the garage. There were 14 different areas, throughout the department, where they had things stored. When Ben came to us – we started to computerize – we realized, Wow, we have a lot of items. Why do we have so many items? And it came down to… we didn’t dispose! The civilians, at the time, were the ones running the evidence property unit and they don’t have the authority to destroy anything without an officer giving approval and doing a report. They didn’t know to say, Hey, can you research any of this and can we get rid of some of this stuff?
So, we had two jobs that we really had to do. One: becoming computerized with the help of Tracker’ SAFE; getting everything barcoded…
At the same time, we were creating a new high-density storage area, with shelves and different rooms, that we housed different things in. Our building, that’s downtown, we used to have a firing range inside in our basement. They did away with that, gutted it, did all the lead abatement, and then created a high-density storage system for us; which is now our main evidence [area]. And we’ll get into some pictures of that later.
But, it was all going on at the same time. So, you have loads of stuff, that technically you don’t really want to move into the new facility because it should be destroyed. At the same time, you have to tag everything to ensure that you actually have the items that you think you have. It was a pretty big, daunting task and it’s taken several years to get all of those 14 plus rooms gone through to get them down into the rooms that we have now.
We have a separate drug room, a separate gun room, a room that just has safety deposit boxes for our money. We have a room that holds nothing except homicide evidence. We have a room that has homicide and sexual assault evidence only. We have a walk-in refrigerator, a walk-in freezer. We have an offsite impound lot. We have a garage for larger items that we typically wouldn’t store down in our evidence property. And then we also have just our main evidence area that has everything else.
I’d say that we are 98% barcoded. But, everything else we have gone through and physically touched the tag to identify it and put it into the computer. It was, like I said, a very large task, but we’ve gotten it done. SAFE has definitely made it easier to do.
When I was talking about the disposals… that is really key to maintaining an evidence unit. Omaha police intakes 5,500 to 6,500 items a month. So, basically 71 or 72,000 items a year. You’ve gotta be able to dispose of items, where you can, or release it back to the owners. Otherwise, you won’t have any space.”
Ben asked, “How did you wind up in the evidence room, after 20 years on the road?”
Staci said, “Our police chief, at the time, knew that I was looking for a change. I had already done the sexual assault unit, and it just really wasn’t my cup of tea. So, he was like, Hey, I’ve got this project; I know you like projects. And I was like… this is something I want to be a part of. So, that’s kind of how I got brought into running the evidence property unit.”
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Ben asked, “What do you remember when you walked into the evidence room for the first time? What went through your mind when you saw it?”
Staci responded, by saying, “Oh my God… it was horrible. Horrible. I’m like, How do you find anything in this chaos? Everywhere you looked… every nook and cranny, it seemed like something was jammed in there. “We actually had 17 refrigerator freezers. It was just crazy. Crazy.”
Ben shared his first impression by saying, “I remember the very first time I went down to the basement; I walked in the door and there are five people sitting in the intake area. And, over in the corner, there were these huge stacks of documents. I asked, What are those? And that’s when I learned… what they would do every day – all day long – the officers would fill those out, put them at the back end of the stack down at the bottom, and every day the people in the evidence intake, would grab what was on the top of the stack – it’s probably weeks old at that point – and they would enter it into your old mainframe system. And I asked the question, Do they do anything other than that? And the answer was, We don’t have time to do anything more than just enter it into the system. So, my thought was like, Well, that’s got to change!”
To see how Staci helped to fix the Omaha Police Department’s evidence management challenges – with the help of Tracker Product’s SAFE software – check out “Webinar 5: Omaha Police Department Virtual Tour – Part 2!”
Tracker Products and The Evidence Management Institute want to give you something productive to think about during this time of uncertainty. This is the fifth, of twelve, in a series of free evidence management training and panel discussions. Watch and comment on the recordings here, or – to get in on the discussion – join the Evidence Management Community Forum.
Tracker Product’s SAFE evidence tracking software is more than just barcodes and inventory control, it’s end-to-end chain of custody software for physical and digital evidence, resolving each of the critical issues facing evidence management today. To learn more about Tracker Products, CLICK HERE.
Or, if you’re interested in Evidence Management Training from our partner company, VISIT EMI HERE.