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Just Use the RMS: Responding to Four Words that Make Evidence Managers Cringe

February 19, 2019

“We realized we can’t manage evidence with an RMS system.”
– Capt. Regina Nowak, Spartanburg Police Dept. (South Carolina)

Evidence management is a complex and dynamic process. Beginning in the field at collection all the way to that glorious day of disposition; every moment and movement requires careful documentation and attention. Evidence managers understand the importance of using the right tools to accomplish the mission, and cringe when presented with the four words that can bring sustainable evidence management operations to a screeching halt: “Just use the RMS.”

To combat the RMS imperative, it’s become increasingly important for evidence managers to understand the value and function of RMS systems and to be able to communicate the deficiencies and unintended consequences of relying on RMS for evidence management. Understanding the initial attraction of a single system solution for law enforcement executives is a critical step in building a case for maintaining the right tools for managing evidence.

So why RMS?

An RMS (Records Management System) is great at one thing, managing records. A great RMS makes reporting and case filing a seamless and integrated process. However, the utility of an RMS is best suited for the initial stages of investigative documentation, which include reporting the incident, approving and filing criminal case work, and archiving case records for court or closure. There is very little movement or change to RMS cases once they’ve been filed unless new information is produced after the initial investigation.

Traditional RMS processes are linear and static, regardless of the type of case, there isn’t a lot of variation between one type of case or report and another. RMS vendors, like almost all other software companies, look for opportunities to expand their services to meet other areas of need for the agencies they serve. This becomes a particular challenge for meeting the needs of evidence management and other dynamic or non-linear processes like training or evaluation processes; any area that requires a cumulative or collaborative approach involving multiple stakeholders or work groups. Think about all the potential interactions and transactions related to any piece of evidence. That might involve the submitting officer, investigators, crime labs, attorneys on both sides and the owner of the evidence; each with a different relationship and responsibility to that single piece of evidence.

If it sounds too good to be true…

The holy grail of all law enforcement software is the one stop shop for all of your agency’s needs. The problem is that the magic single solution just doesn’t exist. The technology needs and variety of technological processes is much too diverse to expect one system to perform all required functionality with any degree of excellence. A single solution system generally fails to provide adequate functionality outside of the original wheelhouse of the software.

So if one solution can’t meet the needs for your agency, then should you just resign your IT department to working with ten unrelated software systems for every little task? The short answer is no. One solution that fails to meet your needs is just as ineffective as ten solutions without integration. Finding the right balance to meet the needs of all the stakeholders is the key to a successful integrated technology strategy.

The right tool for the right job…

Throughout many areas of law enforcement, we’ve learned that having multiple tools to accomplish our goals makes sense. In use of force scenarios, we equip officers with both lethal and non-lethal force options to address the needs of the situation. We expect them to use the right tool for the job. However, when it comes to technology integration and software, we try to force our technology tools to accomplish tasks that they simply weren’t designed for and then expect better results.

Evidence managers need capable technology solutions that address the unique and changing needs of the justice system. Quality evidence management software systems integrate and automate the full spectrum of physical and digital evidence management processes from submission documentation and labeling at intake through final approval and recording at disposition. They provide a detailed and complete chain of custody record that also provides real time data on storage and movement. They facilitate critical accountability processes like inventories and audits and a wide variety of functions directly linked to managing evidence.

These critical features are just the tip of the iceberg, and many of these features are simply not functional components of an RMS-based solution. It’s no wonder that evidence managers cringe at the idea of “just use the RMS” when it comes to evidence management, it’s not the right tool for the job. However, knowing that as an evidence professional, and convincing top-level executives of the same truth requires more than just an angry response when you’re given the bad news.

Responding to the RMS imperative…

If given the chance to respond when you hear those four little words, there are five things you can do to help your agency make a decision that will best serve the needs of your unit and the needs of the justice system when it comes to evidence management. Even if your agency hasn’t latched on to the single solution myth quite yet, these practices will help you build a case for multiple scenarios where you’re forced to choose between cost and chain of custody.

  1. Look deeply into your own operations.  It’s really difficult to communicate the potential and real risks associated with any major change if you’re not acutely aware of your own operations. It’s never too early to start measuring workload, intake and disposition numbers, inventory levels, time spent on critical tasks, available staff hours and job responsibilities. Equally important, develop a list of how your current technology impacts your operations, and draft a set of technology requirements to perform your operations. Law enforcement executives have the difficult task of balancing priorities and require specific, articulable facts to make decisions. It’s natural to respond to change negatively out of an emotional response or fear, but understanding your own operational environment makes it much easier to communicate known facts over unknown fears.
  2. Measure the unintended consequences.  After careful consideration of your own operations, and your existing evidence management technology capabilities, review your list of critical tasks and processes against the features of the RMS. How will your basic functions be impacted by the change of systems? How will the RMS solution resolve or change core processes? Will the new system provides the capacity to resolve tasks, manage digital evidence, approve dispositions or conduct inventories? How will barcode scans be handled through the new system? How will the new system generate critical reports or provide real-time data about your operations? Software vendors rarely sell their products based on what they can’t do, it’s up to you as the educated consumer to advocate for the agency from an informed perspective.
  3. Measure the hidden costs.  Moving to a single system solution always seems like the cheaper option up front, but can cost an agency much more than anticipated in terms of actual costs. An RMS solution that slows the documentation, labeling of evidence can add cumulative lost hours to inefficiency. Throughout the evidence management operation, these small inconveniences can add up to significant losses in terms of time and staff hours required to perform basic functions. One of the glaring issues in most single system RMS solutions is the inventory function. How long will it take to conduct a full inventory using the new system? One by one, the lack of functionality in a single system solution can add up to months of inefficiency throughout your operations.
  4. Translate it to the street cost.  The core business of most law enforcement agencies is patrol and investigation. The more you can translate the impact of a single solution system in terms of keeping officers on the street and investigators in the field, the more likely executive decision makers will listen and understand. A good evidence management system provides the strongest possible chain of custody, but it can also act as a force multiplier by returning officers to their core duties measurably faster than using a system designed for records.
  5. Communicate the impact up the chain.  You may not be able to impact the final decision related to technology change, regardless of how significantly you will be impacted by the change. As an evidence manager, your key role is to advocate for the strongest possible chain of custody that you can provide. Document your fact based concerns, share them with your chain of command, and inform them of the potential consequences or costs of change. You can control what you say and how you say it. Police executives are not always provided with a full perspective on the impact of new technology, your voice could be the one that resonates with the final decision. It certainly can’t happen if we choose to say nothing.

Understanding your needs, and understanding the context of the role of RMS and evidence management systems within your organization is a critical step in advocating for sustainable evidence management practices. Learning how to effectively communicate those needs with your agency’s executive leadership is the next step to changing the culture and managing change for your organization. Mastering both of these skills can help you lead your agency towards an integrated technology strategy that meets the needs of all stakeholders in the process.

About the Author

Shawn Henderson retired from the Carrollton Police Department in July of 2018 after serving 18 years as a police officer. For 11 of those years he served as a sergeant, and five of those years he spent as the supervisor over the department’s evidence management and crime scene investigation units. As an officer and supervisor, he developed curriculum, policy and procedures and provided training across multiple disciplines throughout his career.  Shawn is now the Executive Director at the Evidence Management Institute where he has a simple mission: To elevate evidence management practices, training and consulting across the industry.