Preparing for an Evidence Room Audit – Part 1
April 26, 2021
In this webinar, Ben Townsend, the founder and CEO of Tracker Products, invited Shawn Henderson, the Executive Director of the Evidence Management Institute, onto the show to discuss best practices when preparing for an audit.
Shawn is uniquely qualified to discuss this topic – and many others – as he was previously a police officer with the Carrollton Police Department for 18 years. Eleven of those years he served as a sergeant, and five of those years he spent as the supervisor for the department’s evidence management and crime scene investigation units.
As an officer and supervisor, he developed a curriculum, created policies and procedures, and provided training across multiple disciplines throughout his career. Now, his mission is to elevate evidence management practices, via training and consulting across the industry.
Shawn Henderson (left) and Ben Townsend (right)
Ben started the conversation by saying, “Shawn has been both an ‘auditee’ and an auditor, so this topic is right in his wheelhouse. When I think of audits, the IRS comes to mind, but that’s not what an audit is in this case. Shawn, will you clear up any misconceptions that there might be, and tell us what an audit is and what it is not?”
Shawn said, “It depends on your agency and it depends on what you’ve called each particular process. Some people refer to the process of inventorying their evidence – looking and making sure that what you think you have is actually what you have – they will call that an audit. There is a bit of an audit function, but an inventory and an audit are completely different.
When I’m talking about an audit process that I do for clients, I’m looking for compliance. I’m looking holistically at the agency to make sure that their evidence operations fall within best practices, and that they’re in compliance with their own written policies and procedures. I’m also measuring workflow.
For me, it’s a global evaluation of evidence operations at an agency. In our training class, we recommend annual audits and annual inventories. That’s two separate processes. Today we’re talking about the audit portion of that process.”
Bensaid, “So, the title of this webinar is Preparing for an Audit. That would lead me to believe we have something to speak about in preparing for an audit. But how does the concept of preparing for a planned audit different from somebody just showing up out of the blue? Can we prepare diligently for an audit?”
Shawn said, “I think there are things that you can do to prepare yourself an audit process, but it’s not something that I recommend doing just because there’s an audit that is about to start in your agency.
You could certainly try to clean things up and make sure that there’s no evidence out of place, but really, that’s not the purpose. We’re not looking for the aesthetics of your property room. We’re looking at the environment that you store your evidence in. We’re looking at the conditions that you store your evidence in. We’re looking at whether or not you’ll comply with policy routinely, not just cleaning up and making a show.
One of the things we should probably talk about here at the beginning… There are really two types of audits that you can do: There’s an internal audit where you audit your own operations. For this type of audit, you take a look at whether you’re compliant with policy – or maybe even have an outside person help you that’s from a neighboring agency, or from a different element within your municipality or your county. I would still consider that an internal audit that you can do on your own.
I’m an outside auditor. I’m an independent, objective observer and evaluator. So when I come in, it’s a totally different process. There are things that you can do to put yourself in a position to undertake either of those processes.”
Ben said, “You’ve been on both sides of an audit. Let’s talk about your experience with being the ‘auditee.’ Will you give us a story from back when you were at Carrollton PD, about at time an audit was taking place? Just walk us through what that looked like…”
Shawn said, “My first experience with an audit didn’t happen because I wanted an audit. It happened because I took over the property and evidence unit at our agency a number of years ago, and didn’t know much about evidence operations. Over the course of the first 6 to 12 months, I listened to the concerns of people that worked in evidence management at our agency. Collectively, we decided, Hey, we’re going to fix this problem.
So, we came up with a proposal. We had some technology needs, and that’s where I met you. We had some facility needs – where we just weren’t storing evidence appropriately. We had some organizational problems. We had widespread systematic problems that we needed to solve. So, we came up with a business plan, calculated the cost, and we sent that project plan up through the budget process.
Our chief, at the time, said, Yeah, I think there are problems. The city manager said, Yeah, there are some legitimate problems here. But they wanted to make sure that their money was being invested wisely and have a reasonable expectation that they were going to get a solution.
Without my involvement at all, the city went out and found an independent evidence management auditor to come in and evaluate our operations. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t know it was coming, but it ended up being a great experience, and something that I’m passionate about to this day, because it validated our concerns.
We had an independent guy come in, look at our operations and he was able to tell the chief, and tell the city manager, and tell the city council, Yes, these problems exist. Exactly like they said they did.
And they went ahead and wrote the check and we were able to start fixing things because of the recommendation from that outside auditor. He was also able to give us some information and some ideas that we had never considered before. Having a fresh lens, looking at your evidence environment is a good thing. So, even though I didn’t ask for it, I had benefited from it tremendously.
That’s one of the reasons why I do what I do with the Evidence Management Institute because he was able to come in and help me fix problems, make recommendations, and get somebody to listen.
It’s very difficult for evidence custodians to get somebody to listen and to get someone to validate their concerns. I really feel like that’s one of the things that an audit does… it validates the concerns that you already know exist.”
Ben said, “I have so many questions that I want to ask you, but I’m going to hold off because we should get into our next section where we talk about the actual idea of preparing for an audit. This is a list of things that Shawn and I are to go through here, but it’s not some master ‘thou shalt do list,’ it’s just some of the best things you can do to prepare for an audit.
I’m not talking about what to do after the auditors come in, we’re talking about getting you into a position to prepare you for something like Shawn was describing. Not only did his preparatory efforts work to his benefit, the auditor validated everything.
It had a very good result for you, right Shawn? I mean, that did turn out well.”
Shawn said, “Yeah, they wrote a big check and we had the money to get software, equipment, and staffing. We had a plan, and we had a mandate to go out and execute that plan. So yeah, I’m a huge proponent.
And whether you’re looking at an internal process – where you’re auditing your own operations in a formal manner – or you’re going out and finding an external auditor to come in, there are some things that you can do to prepare your unit for that audit process.
First, I want to stress that you’ve gotta be transparent. The whole goal of an audit process is to find problems. We all know that problems exist. As an agency, there is a tendency to hide or excuse our failures, mistakes, or problems.
It’s very uncomfortable to have someone come in and point out areas that you already know need to be addressed. If you’re transparent from the beginning, you’re going to help that auditor process. You’re going to help identify those known problems. Really, the purpose of an audit is not to just find problems. The purpose of an audit is to point you to a solution and to equip you with the tools and materials you need to solve problems for your agency. And that’s what they’re going to find.
I mean, if you’ve got an auditor that comes in and just signs off and says, This is beautiful, don’t change a thing. They’re probably not looking very hard at your operations. There are always things to improve. In my class I teach about sustainability, efficiency, and effectiveness. Those are the three words that you’ll hear over and over again. There are always things that you can do to become more effective, more efficient, and more sustainable as an operation. And that’s what the audit process is designed to ferret out.”
To the audience, Ben said, “I hope your evidence operation is willing to be very transparent in what you’re doing. The more tightly you’re holding onto problems, the worse that is generally going to go for you.”
Shawn added, “The thing to keep in mind… these aren’t adversarial relationships. The auditor is not coming in looking to punish people. We’ve all got the same goal… to do what’s best for the evidence at your agency. We want to provide the best environment and a strong chain of custody.
We want this to work for all the stakeholders in the justice system. We’re all on the same page here. This is just a fresh set of eyes.
The next step in preparing for an audit, that I would do – even if you don’t have a dime in the budget to do anything – is to become deeply acquainted with your own agency’s policies and procedures. Those policy manuals exist. They probably haven’t been cracked open in a while. Most of us have them online, and the more intimately you know policy and procedure at your agency, the more significant your advantage will be in the audit process.
The other resource that you can become very well acquainted with are the evidence related statutes in your state. Those are going to govern a significant portion of what you do as an agency… or what you ought to be doing. And you can determine for yourself whether or not you’re in compliance with those statutes.
The third thing that you can learn about on your own, is best practices and standards for evidence management. That’s a free resource. Whether you use the standards and best practices on the evidence management.com website, or another set of standards, commit to learning from the information that is freely available on the internet.
So… learning your laws, learning your policies and procedures, learning best practices and standards, that’s all free. I mean, that doesn’t cost you anything, and it’s an incredible education for an evidence custodian. If you understand those three things on your own, then you’re going to be well-prepared for that audit process. Because if you’re trying to figure out whether or not you’re in compliance, you’ve got to understand that baseline; that body of information that comes from laws, policies and procedures, and best practices.”
Ben asked, “What is your advice on trying to hide problems or make your operation look better than what it really is?”
Shawn said, “A good auditor – someone that has been around the block a time or two – is going to be able to find problems. I mean, you can’t put lipstick on a pig. I mean, trying to make something look pretty? People see past that. This is not the Prom King and Prom Queen that we’re running for. We’re trying to make our evidence operations more effective, more efficient, more sustainable.
If someone has to dig through a few layers of gloss and sheen in order to find the decay, it just slows down the process. It’s not beneficial to you, because ultimately as an evidence custodian, you want someone to validate your concerns. If you don’t have any, it might be indicative of the fact that you don’t understand your own area of responsibility deeply enough to figure out what’s wrong.”
Ben added, “Or you haven’t talked to anybody else or done any training, because everybody has a litany of things that can be improved upon. So, I would think it’s always better to walk into the chief’s office with a plan for making these things significantly better. You should be proactive about your concerns, get them out there and have the audit confirm what is already there.
Let’s get into the software… using the software to review data points. How important is it having valid data and knowing what you’re talking about with your data?”
Shawn said, “It’s critical. If you’re in desperate need of an audit to begin with, you probably don’t have a very robust software solution. There are a few pieces of data that you’re going to need, regardless of whether it’s an internal audit or whether you have someone come from the outside. You’re going to have to find certain pieces of information, regardless of how that information is collected and stored.
The auditor is going to need to know how many items you have in storage. If you’ve got an evidence management system, like SAFE, as soon as you log in you know the answer to that question. But, most agencies aren’t in that set of circumstances; they don’t know the answer to that question.
And, at a smaller agency, if it’s 3,000 to 4,000 items and you don’t know whether it’s 3000 or 4,000, that’s a problem. I’m working with another agency soon that’s much bigger in scale, and they still don’t know how much evidence they have. So, it’s all an economy of scale.
Also, knowing how many items you’ve disposed of in the past year is a critical piece of information. That’s going to have to be determined during the audit process.
Baseline information that the auditor will want to know is: How long does it take you to perform intake on any given day? If you don’t have an understanding of those different metrics, then you have no idea how efficient you are or how effective you are as an agency.”
Ben said, “I think you not only need statistics on your evidence, but also how you use your time. You’ve really got to sit down and look at how much time you’re spending doing certain different tasks. Being able to quantify that is going to go a long way in some of those data points. I’m curious, Shawn, when you do your audit process, do you ask for time spent on any given task?”
Shawn said, “Most agencies don’t really know that, but that’s one of the things we definitely measure. It’s not like we click a stopwatch, but we try to get an average amount of time. I mean, at every stage of the life cycle, you want to know roughly how much time you’re using.
And, you can extrapolate – based on the average number of intake items every year – how much time you spend on that particular process. So, is it four hours a day that they’re spending on intake? How many people, how many hours, how long does it take to perform this task?
Where I came from, I knew that we had one person spending eight hours every day on intake.
It took 40 hours a week for our agency to accomplish our intake process. That was a measurable quantity. That was a known quantity.
When we implemented your software, our intake time went from eight hours a day, down to about an hour and a half every day. So, we were able to reduce our intake time by 75% almost immediately. That means more time for other things, because another thing that a good auditor will do is to help capture those inefficiencies in order to better use that time in a different area… like work on dispositions.”
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 webinars here. Or – to get in on the discussion, with nearly 600 other evidence custodians – join the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook.
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.