Evidence Management Webinar E15: How to Catch a Thief, Evidence Room Edition – Part 2
March 23, 2021
In Part 1 of this blog, Beth Bennett – who worked with the Raytown Police Department for many years, and became a Tracker Team member about 2 years ago – shared a story about a detective who was stealing drugs and jewelry from her property room. In Part 2, she will expand on what she learned from the experience, how it changed their evidence management practices, and respond to questions that came in from the webinar attendees.
Beth said, “As far as what we learned and changed… We had new packaging requirements. We were not able to package any pills within the pill bottles. The pills had to be in a clear evidence bag, and the pill bottle had to be closed and empty. Only ‘like’ pills could be packaged together. Also, I wanted a very clear description: color, size, shape, markings, quantity, because I wanted to be able to see all of them and be able to count them. So, that was huge.
Of course, we got some grief from some of the officers and detectives at times, but for the most part – especially for the people that were there during this whole process – they got it. They would kind of chuckle and say, Thanks to that officer/detective…
Then, the same thing with jewelry. No jewelry could be in containers where I couldn’t see it. And if the containers, the watch boxes, etc. were too big, they would need to be packaged separately in clear evidence bags, empty.
And then the jewelry had to be separated: only rings could be together. Only bracelets could be together. Only earrings. Only like items could be together. We also requested that they photograph items, to be able to help out with the value if this were to ever happen again. Because [in the past] we didn’t have hardly any photographs of the jewelry when we were trying to go back and see what was supposed to be there and what was not supposed to be there.
And, items for destruction should never be checked out, unless there was a really good reason. The same with items for court, those needed to come from the case officer. We had to double-check things like that.
So, we learned quite a bit from this. The second six-and-a-half years that I was there, we never had something like that happen again. This was the only instance I had, in all my 13 years in the property room, where we dealt with something like this. The biggest thing is just to trust your instincts and trust your training because that’s what it’s there for.
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Ben Townsend, the founder and CEO of Tracker Products – said, “Beth, thank you for sharing that. When you told that story to me earlier, I was like… Oh my goodness. We’ve got to get this out there for people to hear about.
By the way, I’ve got a lot of questions coming in from the audience now, but I’m going to tell you ahead of time, there are some hard questions here. I’m sure everybody here could imagine being in a situation – where you just don’t expect all the things you went through.
It’s the totality of it. And I think the thing you said – that everybody can empathize with – is you’ve got these I.A. people in your office, and now they’re looking at you because of the accusations. There is incredible pressure when it comes to something like that.
So, the first question I want to throw out – and I think it’s a very valid question – someone asked… I’m curious as to why your coworker waited for you to speak up. Sounds like she knew enough, and that she saw the red flags. Why do you think she didn’t say something?”
Beth said, “I think that she didn’t say anything because she hadn’t been the one that experienced the manipulation. She was a booking technician. I think it was the first time she’d worked in the property room, so I’d trained her to kind of take over, but nobody really knew my position beside me.
Pretty much just the property people understand what they’re doing. So, I was the one documenting it. He was dealing with me because she didn’t like him. And, he knew that she didn’t. I don’t know that he liked her either. I was the one that he had dealt with and checked all these things out.
And this wasn’t over a huge time span either. As I said, it was one to two months. I can’t speak for her, but I don’t feel like it necessarily was her place. I do feel like it was my place. She was great to be there for me, to have the support, and to push me to do what in the end I knew I needed to do.”
Ben said, “As much pressure as there was on you, she was in the proverbial, ‘lower position’ on the totem pole, that would’ve been even more out of the realm of thinking. I’ve never been in a position like that, so I cannot imagine the pressure that is building up as you’re recognizing these flags that are pouring in.
Okay, let me get into a couple of other questions… Any thoughts on how to obtain the values of jewelry at the time of submission? How did you guys handle that?”
Beth said, “The highway patrol is who did the entire investigation. I don’t know a good way to do that, because honestly, even when you see people put values on drugs or values on any items, it’s just the officer’s opinion. I would imagine for most other agencies, they would put $1 for every item. So, I don’t know what is a good way to go about that. We never really came up with a good way besides photographing.”
Ben said, “I love what you said about going from: I just throw every pill bottle in a bag, to … I want colors. I want sizes. I want descriptions on them. On a different note, it sort of bends my mind to think that after all of that, people would even push back on putting new protocols in place. But, that’s just the world we live in; when you ask somebody to do something extra, it gets that kind of pushback. Did you just look at it and tell them to shut up or were you nicer than that?”
Beth laughed and said, “Typically it was the people that weren’t there when it all went down. So, they didn’t understand the enormity of it all. The people that were there, we just kind of chuckled to themselves. But it’s good practice… even though it took this [situation] to get to that, we should’ve been doing all along. So, we definitely learned some really good things from having this happen to us.”
Ben said, “Another good question came in… Somebody asked, How often do you suggest doing full audits or random audits?”
Beth said, “From training, I learned that you need to be doing those annual inventories, but what I also learned is that to do that all at one time is just way too overwhelming, especially for agencies that only have one full-time person in there; and then maybe somebody part-time to help you. So I took the advice for my training and I split that up, and wrote down every single location I had in my property room, determined how many items were in each location, and then split it up by month; trying to get about the same amount of items inventoried each month.
I also learned from training that you should be doing the guns, drugs, and money three times a year. As far as drugs, we just had so many that I did a full inventory of the drugs one of the times in a year. The other two times I would do a random audit – 5 to 10% – but I’d look a lot deeper at the drugs on those two times.
I not only did the locations within the property room, but then in December, I would also inventory all my checked-out items, because that’s where a lot of items go missing over the years. What I’d found, when I got into the property room and did a whole inventory is that so many items, that had been checked out years prior, hadn’t been returned. And you go to the person and say, Where is this? And they have no idea.
They might have checked out a microcassette tape, and then unintentionally misplaced it, but nobody ever came back to them to ask them to turn it back in. That’s something that I always felt strongly about having… some sort of tickler file to be looking at your items checked-out too. So, I absolutely did inventories annually and split them by locations monthly.
Every single month, I would send those up the chain. I had discrepancies, there is human error, right? Every single month, for the most part, there might’ve been a few discrepancies, but I loved that. I was able to find those human mistakes, each month, as opposed to when I needed them for court.
We absolutely did find small things that might’ve been misplaced. Like a similar package in the wrong location, but we knew exactly where to look for it. And it was easy to find it. So, I was always able to send up the discrepancy report, as well as a report that I’d write up on every single location about all the discrepancies, and how I was able to fix those.”
Ben said, “I’ve got about 10 more questions rolling in; which is really good. Let’s try to pick up the pace on these, so that I can get through them all. The next one is… What were the extra items that he was checking in?”
Beth said, “It was an empty bag that he had duplicated, which looked identical to another bag. But he had forgotten to throw it away before he came back to me and it was mixed in with the bags.”
Ben said, “Was there any video evidence of any of his behavior after all of this came out?”
Beth said, “No. Honestly, I don’t know that we had cameras, because all of this took place in the supply part. Over the years we put up a gate and then we put up a wall in between because of filtrations. So, we have lots of cameras now in the property room, but all of this took place in the supply. That’s where my actual office was, so there were no cameras.”
Ben said, “Someone just posted a comment and a question: Never let a good crisis go to waste. Were there any other changes or reforms you took the opportunity to push for other than just packaging, pills, and jewelry?”
Beth said, “We made quite a few changes over the years. That’s what I loved about going to training over the years: the accomplishments that I’d made since the previous training. I was constantly making changes over the years.”
Ben said, “The next question is, Did you keep your disposition items in a high-security area?”
Beth said, “No, we didn’t. It was in our property room. We just have one property room that’s gated and secure. The only people that had access was me and my coworker at the time. But as far as extra security? No.
We didn’t pull firearms, drugs, or money until it was ready for destruction. For example, the drugs that are set for destruction, stay with all the drugs until we’re ready to burn them. At that time, two people pull them and sign off for them together. The items go into a barrel, the barrel is sealed, taped, and secure. Then, it’s not opened until those same two people are at the burn site and dumping it in.
We did the same thing with guns. They went into a big barrel that the two witnesses signed-off on. Then, once you’re ready to throw them into the metal recycling. The barrel is opened up.
With money, I sent it all to bank accounts. So, the finance department would cut the check to the state when we would send money to unclaimed property. At that point it was still in the safe; it would have to be deposited by our finance department. Then they could write one check to go to unclaimed property.”
Ben said, “So, another question… Did the detective work different kinds of cases, or was he a specific type of case person?”
Beth said, “I can’t remember; they switched around so often. He’d been there 10 years and I think he’d been in the detective unit for awhile. It’s not a big department; there were probably six or seven detectives at the time so he probably worked many different types of cases.”
Ben said, “This was just a comment somebody made… We have a burn room that holds drug evidence that has been approved for destruction. This is making me rethink that idea. We may go with Beth’s procedure of not pulling until ready to do destruction.”
Beth said, “We didn’t pull the drugs months in advance, we would pull it within a day or so – sometimes the day of the destruction – that way, all those items were still in the inventories.
When Ben asked Shawn Henderson, of the Evidence Management Institute, for his opinion on the topic, Shawn said, “We teach that the evidence that’s cleared for destruction should be held in a higher security area. But, that’s a great alternative… if you’re not pulling the stuff until you’re doing dispositions in real time.
What you don’t want is one single area where all of the stuff that you’re going to throw away – that everyone knows is not evidence and not useful for a criminal action – to be sitting in one location. Or, found property that you know is already off the books. Those are terrible practices. Real time disposition pulling is suitable.
The one thing I would like to reiterate and underscore – and it goes along with Beth and the drug identification issue – is there are two words that we need to remove entirely from the vocabulary of law enforcement: Various and miscellaneous. I promise you, in every property room or in every agency, you’ve got officers that submit ‘various white pills’ or ‘miscellaneous drugs.’
As evidence custodians, we’re not responsible for ‘miscellaneous’ or ‘various.’ We are responsible specifically for the actual item that’s going in. So, if you do nothing else today, but just stop allowing the use of miscellaneous or various, you’re going to go a very long way in having a more secure evidence room.”
Ben said, “We’re down to the last couple of minutes, and I’ve got one more question in here…
Of all the things you learned, is there any one thing that you would say, this is the biggest lesson I learned?”
Beth said, “Trust your instincts and your training. I think that that’s the biggest thing. I mean, I almost immediately felt, You know, this doesn’t seem right. But I just was too scared to come forward for a while.”
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