Evidence Management: Omaha Police Department Virtual Tour – Part 3
May 29, 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.
Completely revamping an evidence unit is a major challenge. As such, Ben asked, “I’m curious… on those days when you wanted to pull your hair out…. Can you give us an example of when you were like, What the heck is going on around here?”
Staci laughed and said, “There were a lot of them! But, one of them would be… When we first started out, we had 17 standup refrigerator-freezer units! So, one of the days that I wanted to pull my hair out – and head off – was when we were moving items from the 17 stand up refrigerator-freezers. Unbeknownst to us, one of the outlets blew during the night, and things started to melt down onto paper envelopes.
We were in a panic going, Okay, we have evidence that’s wet! What are we going to do? We set it all over tables, got fans to help dry it; trying to make sure the integrity wasn’t lost. And it was just like, You’ve gotta be kidding me. Then we started really panicking, thinking, We’ve still got other refrigerator-freezers. So, we started checking those. We discovered most were on a power outlet, but one was on an extension cord outlet, and that’s the one that had blown the fuse.
Those were the days where you’re like, Oh my. But, that’s how they used to run things. They actually had a checkoff sheet on one of the refrigerator-freezers that had duct tape holding it shut. So, that would be a hair-pulling-out day. But, it got better. And, I’ve got a nice walk-in refrigerator and a nice walk-in freezer now, so we don’t have those problems anymore.
It was a lot of work. Here’s the thing… anything that’s worthwhile is a lot of work. Now, it’s a lot easier to maintain.”
Staci asked Ben to pull up a few photos to show how they’ve organized their evidence facility. The one below is their walk-in refrigerator.
Staci said, “Those are items that used to be in the refrigerator portion of those old 17 refrigerator-freezers. There could be chest cavity blood from autopsies… You’ll also see those square boxes, that’s our DUI urines or our urines from our rape kits. Obviously those will stay in there until the cases have been adjudicated.
I can send information out through SAFE, run a search query on urine, and then send that list out to the officer with the case number to have them do the research, which is helpful. There’s also a light-duty officer who is working on them and making sure those cases are adjudicated, so that we can get rid of those items.”
The second photo, below, is their “C Asile.”
About this photo, Staci said, “Those are smaller banker boxes. So, anything that would fit in there, wouldn’t fit in – what we call – our envelope shelf aisle. They’re 12 x 18” boxes that fit on that shelf and we can put three of them on there. You can run a query on each box. There are a lot of screwdrivers, pop bottles… things that would maybe have been found at a burglary scene, or off an auto-theft, or DOP. It’s a very long aisle that we don’t research too often. The statute of limitations on our burglaries and DOPs is three years. So, we have plenty of time to come back and get those items researched.”
Ben shared another photo…
About this photo, Staci said, “So, this aisle is a little bit deeper and we use long leaf bags. Those items in there are felony assault items: clothing, tennis shoes, coats, sweat shirts; bigger bulkier items that we don’t necessarily want to put in a box. You don’t want to package clothing in plastic because it creates mildew and mold. You can bag them up in like a grocery bag size, paper sack. Sometimes we’ll put items in there and we put a container label on the outside. The aisle on the right is a felony assault and you can see there are empty spaces, because we’ve already researched that aisle. The only thing that goes in that aisle is felony assault evidence.
When that starts getting full, we’ll run queries and send it up to our felony assault unit and say, Hey, can you review these cases and see if there’s anything that we can get rid of? Typically we look for that three-year rule and then we send it on.
On the other side of that is the sexual assault aisle. Any of the sexual assault clothing – not the kits – but any clothing or bedding goes on that side and then it goes all the way down. That way we also know – since we don’t get rid of anything because sexual assault has no statute of limitations – we can eventually transfer that upstairs to our longterm sexual assault/homicide storage location.
Having an aisle for each of these different items really helps us because we know where we need to research and who we need to send that [notification] to. And, usually what we try to do is research two different areas, so that two different lieutenants in our Detective Bureau have things going on.”
They moved onto the next slide…
About this aisle, Staci said, “This is our small envelope aisle. On this particular side, it has a lot of our discs. Our ‘Dream Unit,’ basically downloads all body worn cameras, the cameras inside the cars, or any stuff from, say the QuickTrip or a bank that had surveillance. The white envelopes in there are the master copies and the yellows are checkout. So if it goes to court, we always keep a master.
Up until two years ago, we didn’t really have that felony assault aisle and sexual assault aisle… We changed that because we figured, You know what? This is so much easier than trying to figure out what’s in those smaller boxes. We’re still evolving. You still find better ways to do something.”
Ben agreed, saying, “Yeah. You can wear yourself out with ‘How’s the best way to do something?’ And you’ll spend so much time trying to figure out the right way, versus just doing it… Adjust, if you need to. Come back and do things again, but just get it started.”
They moved to the next slide…
About this image, Staci said, “This aisle is kind of our catch-all; like backpacks, and bags, and large purses…things like that. Briefcases, suitcases, things that come in from found-property, or off of narcotics search warrants, or something of that nature. We couldn’t figure out what else to put on there and it was like, Oh well these fit really well in there, so let’s put this stuff there.”
Questions were pouring in from attendees, so… Ben asked and Staci answered…
Q & A
Question: “If you have large and small items collected from a case, do you separate them based on size of packages, or do you just store it all together?”
Answer: “Say you have a rape kit, the clothing of the victim – or the bedding where it occurred – and a CD/DVD of an interview. The CD/DVD of the interview would go in that envelope space. We actually have specific shelves for the rape kits because of their size. And then all the clothing would go in that sexual assault aisle. But each item the officer enters is its own item and its own package. So that kind of determines where things go.”
RELATED: THE DELUGE OF DIGITAL EVIDENCE
Question: How do you handle a case with multiple serious crimes – such as a robbery, rape, ADW – as far as choosing what section to store it in.
Answer: “It depends on how it’s packaged. If it’s clothing, and it’s a sexual assault, everything will go to the sexual aisle because we will not get rid of anything on a sexual assault. If it’s a DVD or a CD of an interview, it’s going to go to the envelope aisle.
Except on a homicide. If there’s a homicide, everything goes into one banker box. But, with our homicides, it’s usually two to four banker boxes on average. So, CDs would go in a homicide’s banker’s box, but that’s the only exception.”
Question: When you started entering data into Tracker’s SAFE software, did you start with the newest items and go to the oldest, or did you start by location?
Answer: “We would try to stick to our system of the new things coming in. Then everything that was before… try to adapt it to what we were trying to do. Dumping [information from] the old system was a good and a bad thing. Good in the sense that it gave us [all of the information]. But, the system we had before also had things that were stolen [from the evidence unit]. If it had a serial number, it got dumped in as if we actually had it. And, until you went to actually look at the item to see, Okay, well where’s this item? What was stolen? So, we had to go back and do a bunch of item-entry errors to get rid of the things that were stolen items, not actual items.”
Question: What is your approval process for getting rid of evidence?
Answer: “A lot of it depends on the statute of limitations for the crime. If it’s over six years old – and it’s not narcotics, or homicide, or sexual assault – I’ll review the case and I’ll dispose of it. When I say I’ll review it… somebody else has researched it and given me a report that basically says… he has served his time of two years – for whatever crime – and I’ll sign off on it.
If the statute of limitations is still going on, we will not send it anywhere. From three to six years, we’ll send it to the actual Detective Bureau unit, for the Lieutenant of that unit to make a determination.”
Question: You approve your own dispositions? Are you telling me there’s no court involved? There’s no County? There’s no sending it to the chief. Is Stacy as capable – of making a determination on destroying evidence?
Answer: “As a Lieutenant? Yes, I can. Now… I do property crimes. The ‘person crimes’ has to go to the unit Lieutenant – which is robbery, felony assault, and homicide. They will make a determination depending on cases. If it’s gone federal, most of the things that we’re sending up for those unit detectives/supervisors to approve, the person’s already been in and out of jail for that particular crime. So, we’ll send it for verification. And then they will contact the County attorney, et cetera if need be. But, burglary, auto theft units… those are property crimes and yes, I am the Unit Lieutenant. We’re able to make those determinations without any court interference.
But, everything has to have been researched. We have a report that’s a specific report. It’s called a 200 D. Everything that we want to get rid of has to have that with it and be approved by a supervisor. Otherwise, it cannot be disposed.”
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 webinar – of 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.