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Evidence Management Webinar Series Episode 10: COVID 19 and Crime Labs – Part 1

December 14, 2020

In this webinar, Ben Townsend – the CEO of Tracker Products – hosted a panel discussion with Scott Gosselin from the Maine State Police Crime Lab and Michele Foster from the Canton Stark County Crime Lab, to talk about the impact that the COVID 19 pandemic has had on crime lab operations.

Ben began by saying, “The topic we have for you today is the COVID-19 epidemic, and how it is impacting the world today; specifically from a lab perspective. This is the first time we have gone outside of the arena of evidence custodians. I’ve brought in a couple of lab directors to get some feedback about the challenges our labs are seeing during this epidemic. 

While our guests do handle evidence, their primary job is processing evidence for analysis and testing. So, let’s start out with some introductions. I want to introduce our panel members here today. I’m going to start out with Scott Gosselin. Why don’t you tell us who you are and what you do?” 

Scott said, “I work for the state police here in Maine, and I’m a Lieutenant. I joined the state police back in 2000. [Then] became a detective and worked with our evidence response team. I ended up promoting my way through [to be] a Lab Sergeant, where I became a liaison for all of our crime lab clients; which would be our law enforcement agencies, our prosecutors and defense attorneys. [As a] Lab Sergeant – which is a very unique position – you work with all of the clients and come to understand all of the different evidence processes that are being done throughout the state; and all of the different software systems that all of our law enforcement agencies are using. 

From that point, I ended up promoting to Lab Director where I’m in charge of grants, overall steering, and personnel at the crime lab. So, I still maintain contact with all of my law enforcement brethren. We are a police run crime lab and we’re accredited through ASCLD. It’s been a heck of an experience and I never would have thought my career would have taken me to the crime lab, but sure enough, it did. And I’m very, very happy about it because forensics has really become my life.”

Ben said, “Great. Thanks, Scott. Let me introduce Michelle… Give us a little bit of a background about how you wound up where you are.”

She said, “I’m Michele Foster. I’m both the quality manager and the lab director for the Canton Stark County Crime Laboratory, which is located in Stark County, Ohio. My background – as far as the laboratory – I started back in 1987. I was a scientist in biological evidence and trace evidence. I also did crime scene work. 

Over the course of the years, the laboratory has restructured. We’re sort of a unique entity. Our laboratory serves one county within the state of Ohio. So, all local law enforcement agencies have, in a sense, a cooperative agreement for our services. We are funded through local government funds and the laboratory has been in operation since 1972. Currently, we do controlled substances, alcohol analysis, firearm operability, bullets, fingerprint processing, as well as fingerprint comparisons. So, the laboratory has streamlined. 

I mentioned my background was in biology. That was one of the disciplines that now goes to our State Laboratory system. I honestly thought I would be at a lab grunt my entire career, but circumstances change. I went from quality manager; and then quality manager and lab director positions were combined. So, I still see casework, I review reports, and am also involved with any type of budgeting requirements we would have as well.”

Ben said, “Let’s flip back over to Scott for a minute. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the crime lab? What is the main thing that you focus on there?”

Scott said, “Unlike the crime lab where Michele is from, we do not do the analysis of blood for drugs and alcohol. We have a DNA section and we have a chemistry section that does all the biological screening for our DNA unit. We have a firearm section, a latent print section, and a fire debris section. 

We have a pretty small crime lab here in Maine. We have 22 scientists that do all the work for the state of Maine. All of the homicide investigations – which are only between 25 and 30 a year in Maine – those cases come to us. Any police evidence from across the state will come to us, including the federal evidence in most circumstances. Maine only has a population of about 1.3 million people, so that’s the population size that we serve with 22 staff.”

Ben said, “Over to Michele. Give us a quick background on the Canton Stark County Crime Lab.”

Michele said, “When Scott says he’s small, we are like…. really small. Including myself, there’s a staff of six. We have two analysts that do the chemistry, the drug analysis, and alcohol analysis. Two casework analysts that do the firearms and fingerprints. We have an evidence receivable person; and then myself working as the lab director and quality manager. 

We had about 4,200 submissions. Right now, the law enforcement agencies pretty much just drop off with us. And then it’s an in and out type process. What goes in, comes back out again. So, everything that’s done for the agencies is then also linked to the County Prosecutor’s Offices.”

RELATED: CHANGING THE CULTURE OF EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT WEBINAR PART 1

Ben said, “Let’s get right into the topic today. We’re in an unusual time. How is COVID affecting what you’re doing? We’ll start with Scott.”

Scott said, “The first thing that we saw change – from our point of view – was… Chiefs were less certain about when to bring in their evidence. If they had evidence that might’ve been coronavirus-contaminated, we had questions about that. And, of course, initially we were trying to figure out how we were going to deal with that from a lab point of view. 

Additionally, the Chiefs were more reluctant about letting their staff leave their jurisdictions to travel outside of an area because most states have curbed travel; [there are] restrictions moving in and out of state. That even translated to leaving one county – to travel through four other counties – to get to our crime lab. Because again, we’re the only crime lab in the state of Maine. So, they were traveling from their county – which may not have any cases – to a county that did. 

We were also dealing with staff members who had a lot of questions about being in tight spaces and in offices they share with other people. How were we going to deal with that? Were we going to be able to transition to [having] some people working from home? One of the questions that was really prevalent, at the very beginning, was how do you manage an operation of lab staff in a telecommuting environment.

That was very difficult because you can only do so much work at home before you have to get back into the lab. And, then how are you going to manage a lab environment where you need to have time for everybody to work in the lab by themselves; not working on top of each other? We have some labs in our crime lab building that have benches for six or seven scientists. 

But we’ve worked through it. I’m sure we’ll get into what our remedies have been for those challenges, but those are the very first things that we saw.”

Ben said, “Michele, what are you seeing from your end? Does any of that correspond with what you’ve dealt with?”

Michele said, “I think for the most part, yes. Our situation is a little different in that we have plenty of lab space. We only have two people per section. However, we needed to address things in terms of evidence submissions and how things are coming in. [For example]… How are we going to function in that way, but also to protect the health and safety of our personnel? I think one thing being in a laboratory though, we’re already used to the PPEs. Those are things that we had available to us, fortunately, because they’re always something that we had to have in supply. 

Our law enforcement agencies, unfortunately, weren’t prepared for that type of thing; so a lot of questions arose. Our laboratory was able to provide them with some supplies because the law enforcement agencies are on the front lines.

A lot of our concerns was the delivery of the evidence and how we’re going to handle that; protecting the people that are delivering it as well as ourselves. We really needed to see what direction our law enforcement agencies were going to go. And, also with our prosecutors and our county jurisdictions about how they were going to handle cases. So, a lot of the lab internal work was going to be the same for us. It’s just we did have some issues in terms of receival and return of evidence.”

Ben said, “So let’s just jump right into that. Tell me what changed about the intake process. What changes did you make?”

Michele said, “For us, we positioned our room differently. So, when someone brought in evidence, they would actually set down the evidence and they would be at a six-foot distance from the receivable person. Our signature pads were kept at a distance. We made sure we had disinfectants and things that can be wiped down and easily cleaned between people coming in. 

Also for our laboratory, personnel wise, everyone is checked when they come in, in the morning… Do you have a fever? The receivable person also has masks and gloves available. If they have concerns about transmitting anything, they have the PPS available to them directly in the receivable room.”

RELATED: CHANGING THE CULTURE OF EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT WEBINAR PART 2

Ben said, “So the people you’re serving… have there been COVID-19 cases. Have been people shown up to your office that were testing positive?”

Michele said, “We have not. I don’t know if Scott’s had any. But at least at this point in time, we don’t have any indication that anyone – that’s come in to deliver evidence – has been tested positive. There are designated evidence technicians that come into drop off the evidence. We do always have known clientele that we’re dealing with on a regular basis.”

Scott said, “Same thing on our end. We have a window where we intake evidence. It’s sort of like a drive through window, except it’s in our building, and our clients come up to that window. We didn’t really have to worry about having a long line of people waiting to drop off evidence because our evidence submissions were really down. Again, like I said, I think there were a lot of Chiefs who are reluctant to let their officers leave their jurisdictions.

Our submissions are, however, on the uptick a little bit; almost getting back to normal. So we’re now worrying about officers who are in line. Yesterday, we had to start putting marks on the floor where folks needed to stand, because we need to provide social-distancing. 

Another thing, here in Maine is we’re considering getting some plexiglass up at that window within the next couple of weeks. Our folks all have access to masks. And, just to reiterate what Michele said, I think that we’ve been in a really good position – probably better than most other state governments – as far as PPE goes. Everything that comes into our building, we handle with gloves. We expect the folks bringing it [evidence] to us will tell us if there’s a danger for fentanyl, if there’s a danger for blood biohazard, or if there’s a danger for anything else. 

So, in my mind, COVID-19 is nothing different. We ask our folks to communicate with us about the evidence that they’re submitting, and we take the relevant precautions for that. But I think that from a crime lab point of view, we’re in a better position than any of the state government. We have the PPE available, we have the safety glasses, we have the face shields, we have the gloves. 

I think they were surprised, when they started doing an inventory around the state, asking about who had the gloves. I was almost ashamed to admit all the hundreds of boxes of gloves that we have, because our burn rate for gloves is so high. Interestingly enough, we have a contract with the folks who supply our gloves – a contract that our CDC here in Maine didn’t have – and we are supplying our CDC with gloves. Certainly a lot of changes, as far as that goes

We do have people that are assigned to wipe down the door handles and all of the surfaces in the public areas; even more so than the autoclaving and sanitizing that we do in all of the labs. To begin with, we’re going through and all the public areas, sanitizing those a couple of times a day, we’re going through a lot more hand sanitizer, for sure.

One of our lab staff mentioned to me, not long ago, that she thought it was really interesting that people in the general public were kind of getting a feel for what it was like to ‘live in a crime scene’ – like we do all the time. You want to be so cautious about what you touch, because you don’t want to take anything with you and you don’t certainly don’t want to – if you’re sick – leave anything behind. And it’s not a crime scene, but this virus… there are so many unknowns about it.”

Ben asked Scott, “I’m curious… are there things that will permanently change going forward. Is there anything that you’ve seen that you would say, Oh yeah, that definitely will stay in place forever?

Scott said, “I think the ability to work from home. And the ability to do teleconference meetings is going to change the way we work. It was difficult getting people to move out of the labs – and come into the lab a couple of times a week to get their work done – and then go home and write reports and do research. Now, I think it’s going to be a very difficult transition, getting them to come back.

I really think that the ability to use Zoom and GoToMeeting and Skype and Team Meetings on Microsoft… I think all of those platforms are really going to become important because in the state of Maine, we have homicides that occur six hours away from our crime lab. And our Attorney General’s office requires meetings for every homicide case. So, those folks who are processing those crime scenes up in Northern Maine have to travel four or five hours to get to our crime lab, to meet with us. 

Whereas, moving forward, we’re probably going to be doing a lot more Zoom or GoToMeetings where we can do a lot of that online, and talk about the evidence that they plan to submit so that we have an idea of what to expect when it gets here.”

Ben said, “I would have never expected that answer, but I think that is a very unique perspective. And I think that’s exactly how the landscape starts to change when you’re forced to do something different. Michele, let me flip it over to you. What do you think  is going to change out there?”

Michele said, “I’d have to agree with Scott. I think that it’s forced us to really look into other avenues of communicating with each other and getting information across. Something [else] that we’re looking at is online training. Hands-on training is going to be difficult for some labs this year. If you’re an accredited lab, which we are, you’re expected to do continuing education. I think people are going to be relying on what we can get online at this point. It’s a plus that it’s available, but the downside is that hands-on, one-on-one, physical processing is important for certain disciplines.”

Ben ended Part 1 of the webinar by saying, “From our perspective,we realized that all of a sudden the world was going to be at home, locked down, and there was going to be no travel. I think we were under the opinion very early on that this was going to go a lot longer than what people initially thought. And, now I’m of the opinion that we could see 2020 go by and there won’t be travel or gatherings for training. All of this landscape is going to change permanently. 

That’s why Shawn from the Evidence Management Institute is starting a free eight-week evidence management training course, and it’s all online. Because again, there’s a reality that you have to continue to progress while you’re in the environment that you’re in.”

Tracker Products and The Evidence Management Institute want to give you something productive to think about during this time of uncertainty… 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.