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Evidence Management Webinar 5: Omaha Police Department Virtual Tour – Part 2

May 21, 2020

Featuring Ben Townsend, CEO of Tracker Products, and special guest, Staci Witkowski of the Omaha Police Department – a large organization with 600+ officers and hundreds of thousands of pieces of active evidence.

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In Part 1 of this webinar, 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.”

Here, in Part 2, we’ll see how Staci overcame the Omaha Police Department’s evidence management challenges, with the help of Tracker Product’s SAFE software. Let’s jump right in…

Ben said, “I’m looking forward to you talking about what it looks like today. Let’s start with… how many people actively work in the evidence room right now? 

Staci said, “I have four full-time evidence clerks and one part-time. I have a clerk-secretary, and two retired, part-time officers that do nothing but work on disposals.” 

Ben said, “So, that’s roughly six or seven full-time people. You operate an evidence room that currently has almost 400,000 active items in it. You bring in almost 6,000 brand new items a month. As it stands today, a little over 1.2 million pieces of evidence have been entered into the Tracker system by Staci and her team… over a long period of time. 823,208 of them have been disposed of, and right now you have an active 387,700 items of evidence in your evidence room.”

RELATED: Using Your Evidence Room Data As An Analytical Tool

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Ben changed gears, “So… let’s step back in time, to when you took over. [See image above] There’s stuff laying all over – these pictures are actually from the late eighties, early nineties – imagine everything like that, but with WAY more things stacked in front of them.” 

Ben addressed Staci, “So you walk in the evidence room and you’re like, Oh my goodness, I can’t believe this. Oh my God. And then you’re like… I’ll take it?

Staci laughed and said, “Yes. It was a challenge. But, at that point I was like, You know what, I can do this. I was very excited about it! The time that you will save the street officer, or the detective, by not having to fill out paperwork in triplicate, for each individual item? Man, if I could help initiate something that would help the rest of the department, and make that portion of what we do easier… And, also step into the 20th century by getting into computerization? I wanted to be a part of that.”

RELATED: EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE VERSUS PEN AND PAPER  

Ben said, “Explain to us… as you walk in, and you’re like, Okay, I need to clean this thing up. What – besides the new shelving that you put in – what were some of the other major things you undertook to get it to where it is today?” He shared images of their current storage status…

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Staci replied, “We needed to get all this stuff together and try and figure out, Okay… this is where the gun room is. All guns will go in here. This is the drug room. All drugs will go in here. Instead of having six different areas where you could find drugs or guns. It was imperative for us – with the size of the agency – that we could identify if we did, or did not, have something. 

It was basically like doing a hundred piece audit. You discover things like, Well they said it was destroyed, but I’m looking right at it.  Or, Hey, we should have this, but… we can’t find it. And then, going through a different storage area, we’re like, Oh, here’s the item that we couldn’t find before, they just mismarked where it was stored. Being able to have a location to put specific items on shelves, and different rows for specific things, really helped us identify if we had a discrepancy; plus things were easier to find.

RELATED: EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT: IF YOU’RE NOT GETTING BETTER, YOU’RE GETTING WORSE

Ben said, “I’m curious… the people that are in charge of your intake right now; how much time do they spend getting evidence into the room versus what they used to?” 

Staci said, “You know what… scroll through those pictures. I want you to go back to one of the EPU booking rooms. Yes, that’s it.” [See below] 

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Staci continued, “That’s our evidence/property booking-in area for our officers. Those are slam lockers. They’re pass-thru lockers. So, the officers will sit at the computer terminals – with supplies above – and they’ll enter in the evidence, they’ll tag it, prepare it, and they’ll put it in one of those slam lockers. On the backside of those slam lockers, in actual EPU booking, is just basically big doors. So, officers can come in 24 hours a day and put something in there. Then, when my staff comes in, in the morning, they can empty those out quicker. 

We also have five precinct locations. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday our staff goes out and collects evidence from those locations as well. Now, it might be only two or three [precincts] depending on how many items are booked in – and obviously we use SAFE to see what items are checked in [at each location] and that lets us know: Hey, yeah, there’s something at every precinct. Or, Hey, there’s nothing at our Northeast precinct. We can skip that one and just go on to the other ones that have items to be picked up. 

Usually, since we’re downtown doing a round trip throughout the city – throughout our precincts – it takes about four hours for them to make a complete run… and that’s going to our impound lot as well. I say four hours because, from downtown to our furthest West precinct, it is a 45 minute drive. So a lot of that is drive time throughout the city; just to get from one place to another.”

Ben asked, “How did you clean up 400,000 items? Did you use only the original evidence intake people or did you bring people in?” 

Staci said, “The police chief, at the time, was Alex Hayes and he was a very big proponent of getting this computerized. I spoke with him and said, Look, this is something that I’m going to need a lot of help with. We had administrative sergeants, at the time, and he reallocated them to me for about two to three months. In that time, those sergeants and I worked with some other officers. He spared about 20 different people, here and there, throughout that timeframe. They assisted in moving the items from those different storage locations, bringing it in, and giving it to some of our people to tag. Then they assisted in moving the actual items to the shelves in the new evidence property. 

RELATED: THE EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT ROLES OF CUSTODIANS AND OFFICERS

If you can imagine, you have people bringing stuff in. People doing nothing but printing labels. Somebody else just checking that it’s in the system, scanning it, making sure it’s scanned to the right location. So, it’s a big, ongoing thing. Twenty-plus people… some of them are really highly organized individuals. So that was helpful. 

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And, of those 20+ people, I’d say probably 15 were very tech savvy. So, they understood the mission and they wanted to see it accomplished because they worked in units that, Boy, this would really be helpful when I want to research something from my burglary case. Or Hey, with my felony assault case… I want to know what evidence has been processed by forensics, or if it’s at the court still? So, I had a lot of buy-in from a lot of those administrative sergeants who came down to help, and from some of their actual detectives and officers who also assisted.”

Ben said, “So it took you nearly seven years. If I understood you correctly, you’re telling me that last year is when you finally got to a point where it stopped becoming the daily task of going through all the old stuff. Is that what I understood?”

Staci said, “We had like a four year push; but the stuff doesn’t stop coming in. You still have to do your daily job. I mean we’re still intaking, we’re still having to dispose. We’re still trying to be a functional unit for our agency – as big as it is. 

Up until last year we had just homicides – for like the 1970s and 1980s – that we still needed to tag. I was going through some evidence boxes, and we found firearms. I mean, they just threw everything into a box then. Now, we only have about five or six old homicides, from the 1950s and 1960s, that we still have to go through. But, those are being done by our cold case. Everything else – with the exception of maybe a few items that are at the impound garage – that’s it. Everything else is now barcoded.”

RELATED: TACKLING EVIDENCE ACCUMULATION CHALLENGES WITH AUTO DISPOSITION 

Ben said, “Go back to the beginning. Imagine somebody else is looking at what you’re looking at… What are a couple of things you would say, like…These are things I learned, or these are things you better do because it’s going to make this successful or not.” 

Staci said, “Make a list of items that you want to accomplish – and know that you’re not going to get to that list all at once. Then you need to prioritize that list and say, Okay, what are the things that I want to make sure I get done first and second? And prioritize that list knowing it’s going to change; you might add in some things as you’re going through items. Don’t try to force everything like, Hey, I got two weeks to get this done. Don’t put a timetable like that on yourself. Be more worried about the accuracy. Really focus on what it is that you need from your agency. And you have to realize that you have to still work and do your regular job on top of reorganizing. But just make sure that you have a goal and something that you’re going to be able to achieve. 

You know, in your head, Okay, I got this done; it feels great. And as you’re doing that, you’re getting more people – your employees – to actually buy into that as well. Success is going to breed success. You’ve just got to keep that motivation going. 

It was daunting. I’m not going to lie. There were days that I pulled out my hair going, What have I gotten myself into? It’s just one of those things where you just had to stop, take a deep breath, look over at your list, write out your list again, and look to see what really needs to get done. But it’s a group effort and you gotta have help.”

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.