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MANAGING AND TRACKING EVIDENCE – Do You Need to Upgrade?

April 5, 2022

In several blogs that we have published here, on Tracker’s website, and on our partner’s website – the Evidence Management Institute (EMI) – we refer to NIST’s Biological Evidence Preservation Handbook countless times. It is, without a doubt, THE go-to resource for the standards and best practices for dealing with biological evidence. It is also a fantastic body of information for general evidence management as well. 

Below, we include excerpts from NIST’s Biological Evidence Preservation Handbook, that you can use to gauge the health of your evidence management practices. We’ve also included some additional tips, and/or examples, from past Tracker and EMI blogs, that will show how the NIST guidelines can enhance your evidence management practices; from evidence submission to evidence disposition.

Bearing that in mind, let’s see what NIST has to say about the required functions of an evidence tracking SYSTEM…  

“Specific and accurate record-keeping is essential to [understanding] the circumstances of the storage, testing, transport, and procedures used in dealing with each category of evidence. The system for tracking evidence must have measures of quality control, ensure the accuracy of all record-keeping, and make it simple to retrieve evidence from storage.

Record-keeping includes chain of custody, security, and quality assurance programs. Records must document how evidence is stored and identify all persons who have reviewed or had custody of it during storage, such as representatives of the defense, the prosecutor, or law enforcement officials.

When selecting a tracking system, an agency should consider that it may need to store the evidence for an extended period of time.  And, the personnel associated with the case and responsible for the storage and tracking of it may change.”

Some NIST Limitations…

At Tracker, we feel it’s important to ask yourself if the evidence tracking system that your department is currently using can address these basic requirements. But, we’d also like to expand these requirements a bit. While the NIST handbook is certainly still relevant, a lot has changed since it was written in 2013. 

For example, in section IV-6, they wrote, “There are very few integrated evidence tracking systems available today that will track evidence from the point of collection through storage, processing, and presentation in the courtroom. Many agencies use more than one system to track evidence at different points in the process.” 

Clearly, that’s not the case anymore. But, in their defense, they also wrote, “Technology is changing rapidly, so considerations of factors such as integration with other systems and methods of accessing data—including web-based platforms—can influence a purchase decision.”

In a phenomenal webinar Ben Townsend – the Founder and CEO of Tracker –  hosted, he talked about the process of evaluating the evidence management software options that are on the market today.  He examined the important criteria and features that you should look for. This was NOT a session for selling software or evaluating specific products, this was meant to educate you about how to quantitatively evaluate the different options that are available. 

As an aside, the excerpts below may sound a bit cryptic at first, but we promise that we’ll put the puzzle together for you. 

RELATED: “JUST USE THE RMS,” RESPONDING TO FOUR WORDS THAT MAKE EVIDENCE MANAGERS CRINGE

In the webinar, Ben said, “What it really boils down to, is which system best meets the needs and requirements of your department? That’s what we’re shooting for in this evaluation process… your needs. Plus, what do all of these systems provide, and which one gets you the closest to delivering exactly what you need?

It’s important to consider things like: Dashboards, Statistics, Graphs, Searching and Extracting Data. These are all major necessities to any effective evidence management system. A great evidence tracking system should also document transactions, allow customization, provide reports, and assign tasks (including disposition requests) to everyone involved in the chain of custody of each piece of evidence. These are the major features and benefits of an effective software application. If your (current or future) system can’t perform these functions, you need to upgrade.

Let’s just pretend that you’re looking at three different software vendors for evidence management systems. You should be able to send this exact Excel doc to them (we will explain below) and say, Does your software have this? To what degree do you need to build it out to get it there? 

Or, if you’re considering Tracker’s SAFE software, simply rate each one of these components. In the end, that will give you three scores for three systems based on your requirements. Then, you can review them and know, “That one right there easily got us closest to what our requirements were.

If all of this sounds a bit cryptic, we suggest that you either read, “HOW TO EVALUATE EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS- PART 1,” or watch the aforementioned webinar, so that you can understand exactly how to rate your current and/or future evidence management systems.

Then, you will know what this form means, how you can complete it, and the ways the information can help you.  

Why bother when you know your current system is archaic? If you’re using an outdated system, this is an excellent way of documenting the things your current system can’t do. With this quantifiable information, you will see how that can negatively affect the integrity of the evidence, compromise the chain of custody, and potentially result in catastrophic liabilities for your entire police department. 

With this new information, you just might get the executive support you need to upgrade to a new, state-of-the-art tracking system. One that can even help to amp up your dispositions. By increasing dispositions, you will ultimately be creating more space. So… you’ll be saving time, and saving money (no need to build a bigger evidence facility), the two things that nearly every evidence custodian needs more of: Time and Space.  

RELATED:  USING YOUR EVIDENCE ROOM DATA AS AN ANALYTICAL TOOL

***If you haven’t read the article in the link above, or watched the related webinar, we strongly encourage you to. In them, David Bragg talks about how he used Tracker’s data-driven analytics to empower his command staff and help ease the burden of storage capacity limitations. It’s one of the most empowering interviews we’ve ever done. 

 

Okay… let’s get back to some NIST guidelines regarding the storing and handling of evidence. How do the following topics relate to the evidence tracking software tools you use? Let’s find out what NIST has to say,… 

“Location –  

Tracking the location of the evidence is just as important as identifying the evidence itself. In small agencies, evidence may be stored in just a few lockers, while in larger agencies there are many rooms or warehouses, and multiple physical locations. To easily retrieve an individual item of evidence or all of the evidence for a specific case, a tracking system must accurately and consistently provide the location of that evidence. 

Developing an intuitive scheme for evidence storage makes the system more manageable. Such a scheme will consist of storing like-size containers (e.g., envelopes, bags, and boxes) in areas designed for them and then filing accordingly by the case or tracking number. 

It is critical that property room personnel update the tracking system with new information if and when evidence is moved. If not updated, the tracking system will become useless and retrieval of evidence nearly impossible.

Case Status – 

Another key, but often overlooked element to efficient and effective property rooms and tracking systems, is the case status. Case status reviews must be conducted at least once a year to determine eligibility for disposition of evidence containing biological evidence.

***Tracker note: A modern, effective, and efficient evidence tracking system will provide the case/evidence status in real-time. With Tracker products, all stakeholders can access and view the information they need regarding the evidence associated with the case; from anywhere in the world, and in real-time. As an aside, nothing can be deleted from the case history, and anything that is added identifies the contributor.     

Labels – 

Proper labeling of evidence also is extremely important to a successful and efficient tracking effort. The label must include the case identifier, item identifier, type of crime, date/time that the item was collected. Also, where the item was collected, and the name or initials of the person who collected the item. 

It is also recommended that a description of the item in the package and biohazard labels be included, as appropriate. Any items that contain biological evidence are indicated as such either on the electronic property list or property record.

Many agencies write the labeling information directly on the packaging. Some use adhesive labels, with or without barcodes. While others may opt for pre-printed packaging. In all cases, the information must be readily available for as long as the evidence is maintained.  Consider the following questions:

Anyone who knows Shawn Hendersen of EMI understands that he is passionate about evidence management as a whole. But he has also described himself as a zealot when it comes to packaging procedures. The topic of labels, as part of the packaging process, is of particular interest to him. (Hey… we all have our quirks)

In a FAQ  article he wrote, someone asked, “The evidence labels we use fall off of some of our packages after a really short time. What kind of labels stick to most packages?” 

Here is a link to his VERY specific recommendations. BTW, It’s imperative to automate the labeling process. Handwriting information directly on packages is a recipe for disaster. And, if you don’t use a functioning barcode (yes, some systems actually provide barcodes that serve no purpose), storing, tracking, and locating evidence will be next to impossible.

So, how can your evidence tracking software help with location, case status updates, and the labeling process? 

  1. COLLECTION AND SUBMISSION

With Tracker Products, evidence logging begins in the field or in the evidence submission area. We know packaging is critical – and that’s why our system prints clear labels with all necessary information – no scribbled writing, no extra paperwork.

  1. INTAKE AND STORAGE

With Tracker Products, the intake process is easy.  You just inspect the package and two or three scans later, it’s ready for storage. It’s just that simple. Every action is securely recorded maintaining an unbroken, unimpeachable chain of custody. Location –  Need to find that item in an instant? Yes, our system makes that simple, as well!

  1. TRANSFER

Case Status Updates – Evidence needs to go to the lab for analysis or to court for trial. You can transfer items digitally and capture signatures or add attachments in the system. If you’re working with outside entities, you still have the flexibility to print release or transfer documentation from the system.

You can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your evidence management processes by simply understanding where you are today. If you also become familiar with the NIST Guidelines, as well as the standards and best practices that our friends at EMI recommend you will be able to identify your unit’s core needs. There is power in knowledge. Learn everything you can about what is and isn’t working in your evidence management process. That way, you can get the support and resources you need to create a roadmap toward excellence.  

Tracker Products and The Evidence Management Institute are giving you something productive to think about during this time of uncertainty… a series of FREE evidence management training videos and episodes of “The Evidence Show.  There are also Tracker and EMI  webinars you can watch and comment on. Or – to get in on the discussion, with over 750 evidence custodians – join the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook.