Orange County Sheriff’s Department Evidence Room Tour – Part 1
February 10, 2021
In this webinar, James Nally from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department joined us for a virtual evidence room tour. This interview is part of our effort to help elevate, and unite, the world of evidence and property. The Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department is a large, multi-faceted law enforcement agency served by approximately 3,800 sworn and professional staff members, and over 800 reserve personnel. The intention of conducting these webinars is to bring people together to communicate. Ben Townsend – the Founder and CEO of Tracker Products – invited James on to discuss his best practices.
Ben began the discussion by saying, “I appreciate you being the first person – who’s not a Tracker client – that’s come on to do an evidence room tour. It’s important to note that these interviews are not about promoting Tracker’s software. They are about showing off different scenarios. So, thank you for being with us, James.”
James said, “I’m happy that you reached out to us. Our unit is pretty modern. I think we have a few things [to show] that are unique. We’re a large agency, so it’s not just me in this unit. I couldn’t do my job without all the rest of my folks. We have a total of 14 people, including our Sergeant – who is definitely a working supervisor as well. And you’ll hear him running around in the background or stamping off some disposals.”
Bed said, “Tell us a little bit about your department.”
James said, “The Orange County Sheriff’s Department Evidence Unit…since we are a relatively large agency, we have multiple locations. I know that’s a trend in law enforcement right now to get the property room out of your station – or your headquarters building – and stage it off site somewhere, but we’ve always been like that. We have three locations.
The building on the top, that’s our building. We also share that with the crime lab. The really nice convenience about that is, when you need to make crime lab runs, it’s right across the hallway. That helps us out a lot.
We have our vehicle lot down there on the left side. It holds up to about 150 vehicles, boats, RVs, motorcycles, bicycles, et cetera. It’s a secure facility. And then we have our warehouse over there on the right. That’s a 36,000 square foot warehouse.
In 2019 we processed a little over 58,000 [pieces of evidence]. As of May 13th, 2020, we’re right around 272,679 active pieces of evidence. And again, with 14 staff, that’s a pretty huge task to juggle.
Where does our evidence come from? Well, it comes from all over the County. We have 12 booking/collection stations throughout the county. In addition to the three harbors that we have, we also take in evidence from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, the coroner’s office, all of our contract cities, all of our jails, our transportation authority, our local airport and our court system. So it’s pretty complex.
And that translates to about 4,800 – 4,900 items per month that we deal with. In order to do that, you really have to have a pretty good process of running around the county every day, picking up all the items and bringing them back to one of our two warehouse locations.
This is our intake area…
We have 14 locations where we have lockers, booking stations, and packaging stations. [The screen that the officers are looking at] is our booking kiosk. For some of the oddball items – that you don’t see on an everyday basis, like tasers, blood evidence, liquid evidence – we have these videos that remind the deputies how to properly package, book, and seal those types of items. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about it. We’ve been doing it for about two years.”
Ben added, “They created these videos to help people understand… This is how we want you to package this stuff. Not based on instructions you have to read, but here’s a video. And we’re actually trying to get all of that stuff on YouTube and on our community groups. So that everybody will have access to all of that stuff. Maybe tell us about that process?”
James said, “I was tasked with taking a look around the unit to find out where we were lacking, or where our time was [being wasted]. Anyone in the evidence unit will tell you that Right of Refusal is very time consuming. From identifying an item that is improperly booked, packaged or sealed to making those notifications. With our agency, we actually require them to come to our central office and fix the item. By doing that, we’re able to educate them, and let them know what they did wrong. Rather than just throw it in the amnesty locker and let them try to make the correction at a later time.
One day, I came home and my 11 year old son had put together a pretty complex circuit board. And I asked him, How were you able to figure out how to solder and do all that stuff? And he said, YouTube, Dad. So, it got me thinking… if a kid can figure out how to work electronics from a YouTube video, then why can’t we do that for our deputies as well?
It’s very, time-consuming [to explain things time and time again]. Hopefully, the scripts that I’ve provided to the site will help people. So, at least you have a template. You can change some of the information to make it coincide with the way you require packaging. The videos don’t have to be professional, they could be done straight from your iPhone.”
Ben added, “You just basically thought about your son on YouTube, and you immediately translated that into, How can I make this better? A lot of people prefer to learn by watching videos, the idea of reading things… I cannot sit there and read something, but you give me a video to watch, I’ll figure out how to do it.”
James said, “We push each other in our unit. It’s more of a competition sometimes. And I think that helps elevate our work performance and come up with new ideas that help the unit.”
James returned to the topic of processing evidence by saying, “Once the evidence comes to our property unit, in Santa Ana, it goes on this wall and we separate everything out. It’s a sorting area. So the larger items, as you see in the carts on the right, would go out to our warehouse facility because of their size. And we split the carts into two. We have our safekeeping found items on the right and our evidence on the left.
We are having an influx of property from our transient population. It’s really critical to ensure that we put those items in a contained area where they’re not going to contaminate our primary evidence, because we’ve had issues with infestations and other contaminants within the area.
Next, we have our storage area in the back. It’s approximately 17,000 square feet. This is just one of several rolling carriages that we organize. If you notice here, we have colored tags. Every year, the tag on the property will change color to indicate what year it is. And then also there’s a label on the package as well, just in case the tag gets ripped off or separated, so we can still identify the item.
[The image above] is an example of the larger area of our warehouse. You can see that these are all small items, and secure items. So, money, dope, guns, swabs – in our small 6 x 9” or 9 x 12” envelopes – all stay in our primary secure location. All of the larger packages would then be transported by cart, out to our warehouse facility.
We have two vaults. One’s a 20’ x 12’ and contains a bunch of small file cabinets with drawers for envelopes. And then the other one is 18’ x 30’. And that has all of our large items in it. Kilos…”
Ben said, “I can see every one of the boxes on the shelves has storage location ID on it. I’m curious, do you store everything by case number inside those boxes?”
James said, “It is by case number, and it’s in chronological order. Originally these large box boxes were just one barcode, and you’d have to dig through the whole box to find your item. Now we’ve just purchased cardboard sleeves to separate the box, and it just reduces the amount of time it takes to find the item you need.”
Ben asked, “Would you do a chain of custody transaction, if you shift an item from one box to another?”
James said, “It’s all kept digitally through our database management system… the audit trail. And yes, we do consolidate every year. We moved, this year, to the other area and consolidated. And, the really cool thing about that is… you can sign that off as an inventory, or you can call it an audit, because you’re consolidating your boxes.
Ben said, “I know people love to know about organization methods and how you go about managing 280,000 pieces of evidence.”
James said, “A lot of it has to do with making that box just the right height and only accepting those specific packaging items. We provide the packaging. If it comes in, in the wrong package, that’s Right of Refusal.
We have our temperature controlled storage; remote alarm, freezers and refrigerators. We have two 20 x 20 foot freezers and we have one 20 x 20 foot walk-in refrigerator for the liquid evidence.
Our specialty storage area… we are part of the coron, because firearms and a lot of medications come in through the coroners evidence stream. So, we take a greater precaution with having fencing in front of that.
Our handgun rows go on and on forever. There are several of those rows for the handguns and long guns. We’re at just over 8,000 active cases right now with firearms.
All right, so now we’re switching gears to our warehouse facility.
It’s example of our warehouse facility. There are actually four of these rows that are identical to this. And if you notice there are boxes at the top, where it’s the hardest to get to with the forklift. You gotta be pretty seasoned when you first start over there. They don’t let you jump on the forklift and reach the top because there are fire sprinkler lines all over here. And the last thing we want to do is rain nasty water all over our good evidence.
The red square on the box indicates our long-term homicide evidence. Just makes sense. You’re not going to be getting into that very much, if at all. So, let’s leave it up there where it won’t be disturbed.
Just like any other warehouse, we have tons of bikes. We used to have tons of marijuana grow equipment, but since marijuana has become legal, we really don’t hit those grow houses anymore.
We switched from that to something called Slap Houses. I never knew what that term was until recently. A Slap House is an illegal gambling house that lends a hand to illegal drug activity and prostitution. We’ll hit those with search warrants and we’ll go out in the field and help investigations collect these….
These are big space wasters. These games are about eight feet long and you can put 12 players around that. We know we’ll never give them back because they’re contraband, they’re illegal at the time. So, the judges are still requiring us to hold them for up to five years before we can even seek their return. [In the bottom right photo], you can see some of the issues that we face with a whole row dedicated to nothing but flat screen TVs.
We also have our mobile evidence response team, which is kind of unusual. I don’t think every agency has it. Maybe it’s an unwritten rule that evidence officers would roll out with their investigations team and help process evidence in the field. This is completely separate from the CSI folks that are out there actually collecting forensic evidence. This is specifically to book the items in the field and to take the evidence from the field.
We use a device that allows us to transfer custody from one person to the other, which makes it really nice because then investigations and our deputies can get back to work. Whether they’re going back to the office to write the report, pursuing leads on the case, processing the suspect, getting their statements or taking them to jail; at least they can feel confident that the evidence is getting processed and transported back and they don’t have to do it.
If there’s a bunch of stolen property, that the deputies aren’t able to transport in their vehicles, or even if it’s one large item, like a piece of granite that was stolen from a tile place… We’ve been out on multiple capers where ATM’s have been yanked out of gas stations. They just can’t throw an ATM in the back of the patrol unit. So, we’ll come out – we have the right equipment with the dollies and the lift gates and all that – and it’s really helped to elevate our unit and get a little respect from some of the patrol people, because we’re saving them a great deal of time. So they’re very grateful.”
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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