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Evidence Management Webinar Series Episode 10: COVID 19 and Crime Labs – Part 2

December 17, 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. In Part 2 of the interview, Ben shared some questions from attendees and got some very interesting answers from his guests. 

Ben said, “We have some really good questions rolling in. So, I want to sprinkle these in here. Someone asked, Do people drop off evidence randomly or do they have to schedule appointments to bring in evidence? Michele, what’s your answer to that?”

She said “We have our regular clients that we pretty much know when they’re going to be here. However, we service a lot of smaller law enforcement agencies as well. For them, it’s more of a random type of thing. We really don’t have a lot of overlap between agencies. We try to have our larger agencies focused on set times, and then the intermediate, or the smaller agencies come in when they can.”

Ben said, “Scott, do people just come in all the time?”

He said, “Interestingly enough, we had one full time person dedicated just to an evidence receiving window. She was working 40 hours a week; five days a week. And, we realized that she would have big gaps of time for people coming in. We decided to transition that person to three days a week, from 8am – 3:30. Those are the drop in hours on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we will certainly take in evidence, but we hope people will call before and make an appointment with us. 

The reason why we do that is because it frees up that person on Tuesdays and Thursdays to do other things. They can help out with the technician duties in our labs. And usually, with homicide cases, when people are going to drop off 30 or 40 items of evidence, we ask that they make an appointment because we would like to schedule them on a Tuesday and Thursday where other people are not waiting for them to get done at the window before they can drop off their one or two items.”

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Ben shared another question from the audience, “As far as processing goes, are you keeping up with everything? We’ll start with Scott.”

Scott said, “We’re actually catching up on our backlogs like we’d never been able to do. In our latent print section… a year ago we had a backlog of about a hundred cases. We have a backlog of six cases right now. In our chemistry unit – they do the biological screening for our DNA unit – last year, at this time, we had about a backlog of 110 cases. We are down to a backlog of 20 right now. Our DNA unit usually hovers around 250 for backlog cases, they’re at 185 to 175 right now. So, all of our sections are doing very well.

I don’t believe it’s because they are any faster right now, during the virus – or they are any more efficient during the virus – I believe submissions are down and we’re taking the opportunity to capitalize on an opportunity here.”

Ben asked, “If you go back to the beginning of this [pandemic], did you realize this was going to be an opportunity for that, or did it just sort of happen that way?”

Scott said, “I felt it was going to be an opportunity; largely because if you look at people transitioning to working from their homes, you gotta figure that property crimes are going to go down because there’ll be less opportunity for residential burglaries. On the State Police side, here in Maine, our calls have dropped off the radar. We’re used to having two or three pages of calls on our CAD system. Now, we don’t even have a full page of calls. coming in from the field.”

Ben said, “Let’s flip to Michele. How about you?”

She said, “For us, in the past couple months, we’ve had a decrease in submissions. However, our County Prosecutor system has cases that are required to continue by law. Cases in which there may have been evidence collected and presented as secret indictments. So, it sort of controls the flow. 

In the past two months [there has been] about a 25% decrease in our submissions. But as of May 1st, the State of Ohio is supposed to be incrementally phasing things back in, at the direction of the Governor. Fortunately, our drug chemistry section has things out within 30 days. So, we generally don’t have a backlog in our drug chemistry. 

And, our firearms and fingerprints… this has given them an opportunity to do some catch up. So, we aren’t having any backlog in that area, as well. Unfortunately, as things get back to normal, I’m sure that the volume will increase again.”

Ben said, “Given that the inflow has decreased a little bit, have you guys taken this opportunity to make changes inside your lab? I know that at Tracker Products, we’ve done some significant things; things that we just never had the time for in the past. Is that something you’ve experienced?”

Scott said, “Just to comment on what Michele was saying… our core cases here have dropped off the radar because all the courts have gone home. I will tell you, one really interesting twist to all of this is that our discovery requests have gone up quite a bit. Probably by 200%. I think a lot of the attorneys are at home with more time to work on their current cases. So, we’re getting inundated with requests for discovery. Whereas before, the court system was going so fast, they wouldn’t even have time to request discovery and now they do.

But to answer your question about opportunities for other projects… one of the things that we’ve done in Maine is worked on a bunch of capital improvement projects. Like putting in a new lift – coming up and down the stairs – working in our garage to install new lighting. Because most of the time, those spaces are full of people or full of evidence. And so, because they’re not now, we’re taking that opportunity to do some of those projects.”

Ben said, “I love to hear the idea of not slowing down. I hope people are taking this opportunity to catch up on things and do things you’ve never had the time to do before, because this will eventually end and you’ll be back in the day to day. To me, it feels like November. For us, November and December, when everybody goes into Thanksgiving and Christmas mode; the world slows down. It’s like – for the first time in my life – November, December came and March and April.

Okay, switching gears… I had somebody post on here that they’ve been purging like crazy. Michele, are there things that you guys have done that you just never had time to do before?”

She said, “We had some changes we wanted to make; as far as looking into our computer upgrades. It’s a good time for us to do that. Also looking at our drug chemistry section…  validation of a new procedure. We have a little more time to be able to focus on those since the case load is not as heavy as it was before. And, for the laboratory, review of protocols is an ongoing process; improvements we want to make with our report-writing skills. So, it gave us some time to meet and talk about things like that.”

Ben said, “I’m curious… as this thing [COVID-19]  began to unfold, did you find that you became a source of information? Where, all of a sudden, people were looking at you – as scientists – like you were in-the-know?”

Scott said, “What’s interesting on my front is that I am not a scientist; I’m a State Police Lieutenant. So, I’m just managing the operation over here. I work with our quality manager to manage the operation. But what’s fascinating about that, is all the other lieutenants in the State Police were calling me up, asking me about the virus. Like I was a virologist or something.

I think to some extent, people were looking for answers, but not so much about the virus, it was more about the PPE and how to protect themselves. A lot of law enforcement agencies in the state were caught unprepared with the fit testing. In the state of Maine, it’s something that we certainly had been doing at our crime lab. We were ready with millennial masks. We were ready with N95’s. We were ready with half- face respirators.”

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Ben said, “This is a question that came in from Kelly O’Donnell… it’s a really good question. Do you have any understanding of how long COVID-19 will live on the surface of an item? I’ll start with Michele on that…”

She said, “I think, as a laboratory, we’ve been so prone to dealing with biological substances – or even with some of the drugs such as fentanyl compounds – we assume everything is contaminated. So, anything coming into the laboratory is treated that way. We have fume hoods, we have masks, we have gloves. The staff has all the available devices to protect themselves.”

Ben said, “My assumption is you’re far more worried about fentanyl exposure than a COVID exposure. Is that correct, Scott?”

He said, “It certainly is. We keep Narcan at our evidence receiving window, because you just don’t know when that’s going to strike.”

Ben said, “With COVID-19, anything could come in the door and have it on it. Are you giving evidence handlers any direction on that? I’ll start with Scott.”

Scott said, “About five weeks ago, we got a call. An officer was involved in a shooting and there was a chase involved. The subject, who had been shot, ended up testing positive for COVID-19. There were firearms involved that needed to be analyzed. We were fielding calls from the investigators at that scene, about What do we do with this evidence? And our suggestion has been… when you know something to be COVID-19 contaminated, leave it in the evidence locker, let it sit for 30 days; to the extent that you can do that.

Now, if they’re at our evidence receiving window, they tell us that they’re absolutely sure it was from a COVID-19 related scene – they have positive confirmation from the CDC or from the hospital – then we certainly are not going to ask them to take that away, bring it back to the lab and let it sit for 30 days. At that point, we don’t want to allow them to handle it more than it’s already been handled. 

So, we put it in a secure location and we’re going to let it sit for some time, just because there are so many unknown variables about this virus right now. Unless there’s an absolute exigency to deal with the evidence – because we have somebody on the run who has been committing homicides and we need to solve the problem immediately – we’re going to let it sit for a little while; probably for about 30 days. And that’s something we’ve been discussing with our lab staff and trying to promulgate with our client agencies.”

Ben said, “Going to Michele… has misinformation been a problem?”

She said, “Not for us in particular. In the state of Ohio, our Governor has been doing almost daily briefings along with the State Department of Health. They’re really on the ball as far as updating people and addressing concerns; which has been very beneficial for a lot of people.

If there is confusion, it’s on how to clean and disinfect; which are two different things. As long as hand sanitizers have 70% ISOpropyl, they say that’s effective. Here, dilutions of bleach have been used. Also, the EPA has postings on different chemical solutions that are approved and how long it might have to be on a surface to be effective. We have a product, that we got from one of our vendors, that is an alternative to bleach. But again, every cleaning agent has an effective period. So, I think that’s the hard part is finding the appropriate thing for your situation.”

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Ben asked, “How long do you think that lockdown is going to be going on? Please tell me not very long.” 

Scott said, “I think that it’s going to vary wildly from state to state. If you look at the State of New York, versus the state of Maine, they have a vastly different problem than we have here. Public transportation is not a big thing here in Maine. Folks generally don’t live on top of each other. 

And I think that as states start to plateau, I think they’ll start loosening restrictions up. But then, as restrictions loosen up, there might be a second wave or so. And I think they’ll be very conscious of that. I also speculate for long term care facilities… that’s really where the problem is going to be.

A lot of us in law enforcement have parents in long term care facilities and it’s a problem because you can’t visit them. So, they’re isolated because they may be looking at a very long time to try and protect those folks by not allowing visitors into those long term care facilities.”

Ben said, “Is there anything either one of you would share with us as we come to the end?” 

Scott said, “I’ve been assigned to build a website – to communicate with all of the sworn officers in the state – to give them a resource to talk about the different processes for sanitizing when they bring criminals into the county jail. They [can also] go there to see what the other states’ Motor Vehicle Divisions are doing about expired registrations and expired licenses. We’ve given them resources about how to sanitize their leather gear…. what the crime lab is doing differently at evidence intake, and making sure these officers have that information. Not just locally, but around the state.”

Ben said, “Michele… any last words you want to send us off with?”

She said, “I think more than anything is for people to be aware of their surroundings, aware of what they’re approaching. It may seem silly to be wearing those masks, but wear what’s available to protect yourself. As far as cases and evidence down the road… laboratories can handle what’s coming in. We’ve already addressed that type of scenario, but really it’s the law enforcement officers out there that are really having to pay much more close attention to everything that’s going on in addition to what they already had on their plate. So, I would just say stay safe at this time.”

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.

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Or, if you’re interested in Evidence Management Training from our partner company, VISIT EMI HERE.