Orange County Sheriff’s Department Evidence Room Tour – Part 3
February 26, 2021
In part 3 of this webinar, we finished the interview with James Nally of the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department – a large, multi-faceted law enforcement agency served by approximately 3,800 sworn and professional staff members, and over 800 reserve personnel. It was such a great interview that we hated to see it end. James continued the interview by saying…
“We do a little game… We have an Employee’s Academy, and they come through once every three or four months. These are people within our department. So, we make a list of all the things that you might find in the evidence room.
And as you give them a tour through there, they’re required to find where ‘they live’ [as a piece of evidence] within the evidence room. So, for instance, say one person is a safekeeping bicycle, and one person might be a knife used in a homicide, or one person is a buccal swab.
People walk through the unit and they look around to find out ‘where they live’ and they’re fascinated by all the stuff that they see. A lot of times, Evidence gets… I won’t say it gets a bad rap. It just gets pushed off to the side.
So, it’s incumbent to stay optimistic, motivated. I think a lot of property/evidence people are just amazing people; that take pride and ownership in what they do every day. And I’d like to see the whole evidence industry be elevated. And you can do that, not just by pressing your uniform every morning, where you come to work on time. It’s more about your attitude and the way you learn, and become knowledgeable, and little tricks of the trade that you can do to elevate your unit.”
Ben Townsend, the Founder and CEO of Tracker Products said, “Some of your mobile stuff…. I’m curious, when I’m thinking mentally of that picture – when you guys were out unloading the boat of all the marijuana narcotics – are you guys tagging that stuff? Are you using your mobile devices to process evidence at the scene?”
James said, “Well, there’s two ways that we typically do it. One is to take the laptop out there with all the barcodes, and do the whole nine yards. That takes a while, because that signal is feeding somewhere else with a wireless card.
So, if we’ve got to go out and collect stuff – like say you’re in a bad neighborhood in the middle of the night – you may not have that luxury of setting up all your mobile devices. In that case, we’ll let the investigator create the search warrant inventory, or the property inventory, then he will email that document to one of our staff who is in our downtown location. That staff member will just basically copy, cut, paste and print out all those tags and labels.
Then, once our guys out in the field bring the items in, we’ll ensure that if that list says there’s 37 items, then they walk over and ensure that all 37 items are labeled 1 through 37. Once they get down to our office, we make up the tags and the labels, and make sure that’s a validation process, or right of refusal. So, it allows our guys to take custody of it and bring it in. And then one of their representatives will come down with us and make up the tags and labels. But, we never get on the packaging side.”
Ben said, “I’m going to throw some questions out here that are coming in. How often do you guys purge items? Do you have times of the year you do it, you do it once a month. How often do you go through a purging process?”
James said, “Wowser, that’s a loaded question! Dispositions are complex. So, I kind of look at it in two ways: conventional disposition and non-conventional. We are a non-conventional disposition.
We are so big, and we have investigators and deputies all over the county. It would be a nightmare to try and coordinate every case that we want to get rid of. So, we have a system. We use in-house software tools to reach out to the DA’s office, and to the courts, to garner information on those cases. And, it’ll go through basically an assembly line.
On those lower end cases – misdemeanors – we would work up the information. Then it would be submitted to our supervisor, who would sign off on the authorization to dispo. And then it would sit in an online hold for 30 days. That gives the investigator, or the deputy, an opportunity to take a look every month. It’s listed by his or her name. They could take a look at it for up to a month and determine whether we’re good with getting rid of that or not. And on the 31st day or the first of the month, then those items are going to be purged from that predisposition list.”
Ben said, “I’ve never seen your evidence system. I’ve not been in your building. I hope someday to come to Orange County and check things out. But, the fact that you have roughly 270,000 pieces of evidence in your evidence room, and you’re bringing in 60,000 new pieces every year; without knowing anything else, I’m certain your disposition process is fairly stable because if it was not, you would have 500, 600, 700,000.”
James said, “Well, in all fairness, we do climb a little every year. It’s sometimes an overwhelming task to get rid of everything – item for item, what comes in and what goes out. But we’re trying to reduce bleeding, if you will, within our unit. I think a lot of evidence units are dealing with the same issues, more and more complex legislation that you have to deal with, with: firearms, sexual assault, evidence, marijuana, laws, and narcotics.
It just never ends. Digital media is now huge. Digital media is the nemesis for evidence people. So, hopefully, they’ll get it refined and someday it’ll be as easy as just going to a web-based media file and sharing it that way.”
Ben said, “I had a really awesome question come in. I know you shared earlier, that you’ve got 14 people in your evidence room. Let’s just assume everybody works 40 hours a week, that’s probably 500 hours a week that you guys have. I’m curious. Do you have any idea how much effort, every week, goes into the disposition process? Is it 250 out of 500 hours? Do you have any idea of it, roughly?”
James said, “Well, that’s a good question. I mean, everyone in the unit plays some role in the disposition process. In order to maximize all the research that goes into it, you can either take a few reams of paper over to the Detective Bureau and try and see if you’re going to get that paper back to dispo, or you can sit down and do it yourself.
And we found that that’s a more productive way as far as hours in the day. That is such an impossible question because no two days are alike. Sometimes the phones are ringing off the hook, there’s appointments lined up in our release area, and there’s just not a lot of time in the day to do disposition research.”
Ben said, “But, I think the greater point is: number one… everybody is involved in the disposition process. And number two, Orange County is not in that situation where you can’t say, I don’t even know the last time we did dispositions. And, I’m sure there are a lot of people watching today, where their daily jobs are so overwhelming, they don’t do dispositions at all.”
James said, “I feel for those folks. I feel fortunate and lucky that we’re in a unit that we focus on evidence. That’s our primary and only mission. But, I realize that far too often, in a lot of the training that I’ve attended, that some folks are: records, they’re dispatch, they’re fleet maintenance and on and on. So, to be dedicated to property evidence as a sole evidence officer is really the best way to go. And then even with that, you’re still overwhelmed at times, for sure.”
Ben said, “I think more people than not are in that situation, where they’re just so overwhelmed and they’ve got so many jobs. What we tend to try to focus on, as a software company, we want to look at a lot of different elements that go into it. We want to look at your intake process. We want to look at how you do everything you do. Because ultimately, what we’re trying to do is squeeze time into your day.
We’ve got to find a way to reprioritize and shift things around, to where you’re not spending the bulk of your day bringing evidence into the evidence room. Because the only way you’re going to get rid of as much evidence as what you bring in, is if you’re spending a lot of time on dispositions.”
James said, “I totally agree. And to do a time analysis is really the only way you can. One thing that I would point out is statistics are the key to getting what you need. Whether you need another body, or you need another process – like a database management system – to make your job a little bit more efficient and have extra time to do your dispositions. Those are the things that you have to hit your administration up with – in the realm that they can understand – with the fancy charts and the graphs, that show where your time is going. And, how badly you need stuff.”
Ben said, “I would encourage everybody that’s watching, to go back to the Facebook Community Page and scroll through the previous webinars we did. Another thing to throw out on that community page – if you don’t know it – on the right hand side, you can click on categories of posts. We categorize every post that comes in and there’s one called webinar.
If you click on that webinar link, it will take you through all the webinars we’ve ever done. And we’ve done some specific discussions on disposition. There’s no one answer out there that will fix everything. But, what we try to do is get a lot of information out for you to pick and choose from. Things that make sense for what you need to do.
We’re down to the last five minutes. So, I’m going to ask you questions [from the audience], and I need a really quick answer. All right. Number one. How do you destroy your ammo?”
James said, “That’s a great question. We used to send all of our ammo to a company called Timberline and they would destroy it for us. But now, you’re paying by the pound. So, we stopped doing that. Now, the majority of it goes to our range. We have a Bomb Squad. And from time to time, they’ll stop and pick up some of it as well.”
Ban asked, “Do you destroy your weapons at all?”
James said, “[In California,] our one approved facility has gone out of business. There’s different recycling companies that people are taking their firearms to, but, I would be really hesitant to do that. LSC Firearms Destruction… They are a great company. They go nationwide, and they’ll take the firearm apart, take the non-serialized components and pay the agency for that. And the caveat is they destroy all of the remaining parts of the firearm for you. And they’ll cut off the serial number, uh, and submit the serial number, the metal plate back to you for your records for destruction.”
Ben said, “Here’s another question that came in… this is specifically related to you. How did you establish your mobile evidence response team and do they get extra pay, or is it just part of it?”
James said, “We’re on call 24/7. So, we have our normal hours and no, we don’t get extra pay for that. It’s something we do out of pride in our dedication to our unit. I think we all would agree that we need all the help that we could get.
We really respect when we get ‘life without the possibility of parole conviction’ from our homicide guys. They’ll come in and they’ll let us know, Sometimes they’ll bring donuts or something. They’re just appreciative. That’s happened over years and years of positive, good relationships with them. And they always remind us that evidence is part of the prosecution team. That’s something that evidence folks tend to forget in their day-to-day monotony of dealing with all these trinkets of justice. So, just keep that in mind, those are big things… to have that good working rapport with your agency.”
Ben said, “I’m really going to put you on the spot with this. You were talking about how you take pride within your team, and you try to do things to keep people excited about what they do. Do you have examples of things you guys do internally… fun things you do?”
James said, “The guys are going to kill me… So, in the front office, it’s four of us guys and our office specialist; who just puts up with all the shenanigans. But, the reality is, we keep score on each other. No one likes to get their shortcomings pointed out, if they made a mistake or whatnot, but, we wound up keeping score.
Everyone’s got a scorecard in the unit and it’s an informal score keeping. But, if you forgot to scan an item, or you forgot to do something, that winds up raising its ugly head later on down the line. You’re going to get points deducted. And, very rarely, you actually get points added to your score card. If you find something, or you troubleshoot something that was of value.
So, that’s just like a general camaraderie between our unit. Not to say that we don’t have our arguments. There’s times where we don’t agree on things and we don’t get along.
One area of [our unit] was basically split into three areas. Our warehouse folks, our front office and back office. So, we’re like a family. We associate more with our folks in our unit – because we’re kind of in a closed environment – than we do with the rest of the general department. It’s like working in a family.”
Ben said, “My understanding is you’re within a year of retirement. How much longer?”
James said, “A couple more to go. The good thing is, we’ve got some relatively new guys in here that are very motivated. They take a lot of pride in what they do. They’ve already made some dramatic improvements to things that we were doing, just because ‘we always did it that way.’ So, they came in and recognized that there’s better, more efficient ways to do stuff.
That’s what you need sometimes, a fresh pair of eyes to come in and say, Why are you guys doing it like that? Why wouldn’t you put everything in DR order, so it’s easier to find? So, if I left tomorrow, or next year, I feel like our unit would be in really good hands.”
Ben said, “What comes across to me, is you have a concern, not only for your department and the way things are done, but you’re trying to advance things at a larger level and you will jump in and do things like this right here… You’re talking [to us] today is going to help people out immensely. So, I appreciate the fact that you’re just willing to hop on and do this.”
James said, “Absolutely. You know, unfortunately, when I sat on the board with CAPE, our association in California – talking to so many folks throughout the state – I heard the same complaints all the time: We don’t get enough training. We don’t get enough credit for what we’re doing, or enough pay and advancement career path.
So, that was kinda my mission… to help elevate our industry and create some of that in any way that I can. I would just recommend to anyone that if you ever have the opportunity to sit on a legislative committee, even if it’s an opposition legislative committee, do it. If you have an opportunity to go talk about evidence in front of your chief or your sheriff, go do it. Show what you know, and represent proudly that you work in the evidence unit.”
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