What an Evidence Management System Can Do That Pen and Paper Can’t!
March 10, 2022
As an evidence management software provider, we see countless Police Department Evidence Units: big and small, modern and outdated, overcrowded and room-to-grow, secure and vulnerable, temperature controlled and exposed to the elements.
After years and years of seeing everything from stolen headstones to body parts, you would think that nothing could shock us. But, one thing does… the sheer volume of evidence units that still use pen and paper to enter, maintain and track evidence.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of why Evidence Management Software (EMS) is the clear winner – from an unbiased standpoint, of course – let’s talk about the basic requirements of a successful evidence operation.
***The words below that have been “bolded,” are not meant to shout at you. We’ll explain why we’ve done so at the end of the excerpt.
According to a section of the NJ Division of Criminal Justice guide, “The property and evidence function is an integral and essential part of every law enforcement agency. Every day, police officers come into custody of lost or stolen property, contraband, and any manner of evidence. The law enforcement agency is charged with establishing a system for the secure and efficient classification, inventory, retrieval, and disposition of these items. To accomplish this goal, the law enforcement agency must specifically:
- Establish a system of documentation to track property from its receipt to its eventual disposition.
- Establish a secure and orderly storage facility to meet the needs of the particularagency.
- Establish a property officer to be responsible for [managing] the department’s property and evidence.
- Provide for periodic and special audits of the contents of the property storage facility to insure continuing accuracy.
- Provide for the proper and timely disposition of property and evidence.
- Provide policy, training and adequate supplies for the consistent marking and packaging of property.
- Establish written policies and procedures to be followed by police officers in all aspects of property handling.
The maintenance of an orderly, accurate and contemporary record system is essential to the overall property function. The property record system should include a centralized [data] filing system and a system of property reports and receipts to record the details of each property transaction. These records serve several purposes:
- Inventory of items in custody;
- Inventory of items that have been disposed of, released from custody, or destroyed;
- Chronological record of the chain of custody of each item.
In addition, the records of a property transaction may in fact become evidence themselves to verify or dispute some fact about that item of property.
The maintenance of the property records should be assigned to the designated property officer to ensure that the type and manner of entries are consistent.
Each law enforcement agency must have a centralized [data] filing system which contains information on all property that is taken into police custody. This single source filing system provides consistency and uniformity to the overall property records system. Any inquiry about property should begin at the centralized filing system, where sufficient references will identify the appropriate detailed records.
There are several important principles to be followed in maintaining a centralized filing system. These principles apply whether the centralized record is in a bound log book or a computerized database.
First, the data must be permanent. It must be maintained for a considerable period, and the individual records may have data added, but not deleted.
Second, the centralized filing system must be secure against damage, destruction or theft. Here, the electronic system provides more simplicity through data backup with off-site storage. A log book would require either secure containment, such as a fireproof safe, or frequent photocopying with off-site storage.
Third, the centralized filing system must be accessible for all authorized personnel. Officers must [be able to enter], track or locate property in the absence of the property officer, therefore [they] must be able to review the centralized record.”
If this excerpt resonates with you, it’s important to note the year it was written… 1989. So, 33 years ago – yes, thirty-three years! – the NJ Division of Criminal Justice had policies and procedures in place that are still recommended today. Not only that, they were already talking about the benefits of a digital evidence management system over pen and paper.
Before we move on, we’d like to ask you to scroll back up to the beginning of this excerpt from the NJ Division of Criminal Justice. Notice all of the BOLD words? Ask yourself, Which evidence tracking solution would help me accomplish all of those things; efficiently, effectively, and sustainably; pen and paper or an EMS?
Need a little more convincing? Consider these excerpts from an article by CaseGaurd, “Many, if not most, modern evidence management software systems are designed in such a way as to allow the police officer logging the evidence to directly input data such as case number, location, date/time, suspect name, and so on, into the evidence management system, thus allowing some or all of that information to be printed on a bar code label. Such an evidence management system completely eliminates the need for an old school paper evidence form, paper logbooks, handwritten transfer receipts, etc.…
We occasionally hear from evidence room managers, “Oh no, I can’t trust that to anyone else, I’ll continue to do the data entry myself.” While that is certainly your prerogative, why in the world would you not want to use your new evidence management system to its full potential? You, as an evidence room manager or technician, will still have the ability to review the data for accuracy and correct it as needed. Since the Officer has to get the information to the evidence room one way or another, why not eliminate a few steps in the process and save everyone some time? Duplication of effort is costing your agency time and money in lost efficiency.
The advantages to trusting the officers with data entry are many. First, we all have officers in our agencies whose handwriting can rival that of an ER Doctor; being practically impossible to read. Mistakes are bound to happen when you cannot clearly read what was written. And while we’re on the subject of mistakes, what makes you so sure they aren’t submitting handwritten mistakes NOW and you’re simply duplicating those mistakes when you transfer the information into your database? Chances are, your new evidence management software is specifically designed to catch and correct many common mistakes, something those old paper forms will NEVER do.
Additionally, modern evidence management systems often have features that cannot be duplicated on a paper form, such as displaying latitude and longitude of the recovery location for each piece of evidence or maintaining an automatic, unalterable chain of custody. Fields within your software can be made “required,” thus eliminating the possibility of important information being left out. Try doing that with a paper form. Detectives, too, will appreciate not having more forms to rifle through as they review cases, and the added accuracy and ease of searching for information within the evidence management system will make their job much easier.
Officers are going to need to get the information to you, either by handwriting it (the old way) or typing it into your evidence management system (the new way). Given the choice, most officers will probably tell you that they’d prefer to type. Couple that with the ability to do almost all of it in the field on [cell phones] or tablets, and they’ll make the decision easy for you. If you continue to insist on handwritten evidence forms, along with that go handwritten evidence tags.
Your new evidence management system uses bar code labels that cannot be printed until the [required] data is entered into the system. Do you really want each item of evidence to bear two labels, the original handwritten one, completed by the officer, and the barcode label printed in the evidence room? And what happens to all of those paper forms once the cases are disposed of? Are they stored for years in file cabinets locked away in a basement somewhere? Shredded? Ignored?
Embrace change and do it right. Trust your new evidence management software; a lot of thought went into designing it. Before you know it, everyone will have accepted it and you’ll all appreciate the new “better” way of submitting evidence.
Once evidence packages start coming to you bearing the barcode label with all pertinent information, all you’ll need to do in the evidence room is verify that the evidence was packaged correctly, note any lab work needed, double-check that the data is complete and accurate, assign the evidence items to their new storage location and pour another cup of coffee! The time saved for evidence room personnel is such that you will actually have time to conduct audits, organize your evidence room, [do dispositions] and make all of the improvements you’ve been talking about making for years.”
Well, we couldn’t have said it better ourselves! And, you know when that was written? 2015! What was true seven years ago is even more relevant now.
As a side note, we often hear that evidence units would LOVE to upgrade to a digital evidence management system, but financial constraints prevent them from doing so. To that we say… poppycock!
Here’s an example of overcoming financial constraints…The Bowling Green Police Department in Kentucky (BGPD) is a client of ours. When David Bragg took over the evidence unit, he decided to use evidence room data to convince his command staff that the evidence facility would be at capacity by 2019.
The command officers took that data, presented it to their city manager, and then presented it to their board of commissioners. They looked at the data and realized that, Yes, you are in need. So, the board of commissioners approved a two-story, 10-car-bay, bulk-storage facility, on their headquarters site.
You can get funding for a digital evidence management system too, you just have to use your data and potential liability issues to do so. We have countless articles and webinars that can help you convince those in leadership positions that they need to make some changes before something forces them to.
The lack of an effective evidence tracking system has been the Achilles Heel for most police departments for a very long time. By automating the process, evidence managers don’t have to manually rifle through a mountain of paperwork, or check multiple systems to gather the item’s history.
For example, Tracker Products software automatically sends the submitting officer a retention review request to approve the disposal of the item, if appropriate, or request to keep the item for a specified period of time before the next review. This consistent review process systematically identifies unnecessary evidence in a timely manner, which means only pertinent evidence is warehoused.
Another evidence management challenge seems to be a disconnect between the systems that officers use to log evidence in the field, and the systems evidence managers use to track it. With Tracker Products, evidence logging can begin in the field or the evidence submission area. The intake process can be as simple for evidence custodians as inspecting 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.
In short, accountability of evidence is critical for the effective prosecution of criminal cases, but effective evidence management systems don’t only address the evidence itself, they should provide easy access to those involved in each case-specific chain of custody: Evidence custodians, case officers, and other approved internal and external contacts. With Tracker Products, all stakeholders can see the evidence associated with a specific case, from anywhere in the world.
In short, what can a digital evidence management system do that pen and paper can’t?
- Eliminate illegible handwriting.
- Reduce input errors.
- Eliminate duplication efforts.
- Intuitive platform = ease-of use
- Each user is given a unique sign in code, so you know who entered what and when.
- Documentation can begin in the field from a cell phone or tablet.
- Officers cannot submit evidence until all of the required fields have been filled in.
- Generates a detailed information label including a barcode.
- Automated workflow assigns tasks to individuals who need to take action.
- Unalterable chain of custody. New data can be added, but nothing can be deleted.
- Data is encrypted and protected on site and/or in the cloud.
- Searches only take a few clicks.
- The software is customizable.
- You can collect data and generate reports that will help you get additional resources.
- Less chance of lost or stolen property.
- Audits and Inventories are much easier and faster.
- Chain of custody is more detailed and accurate.
- Eliminates most paper (property cards, reports, release forms, etc), which saves you time and space.
- Much easier to manage cases.
- Automatically sends case-specific contacts real-time updates
- Reduces liability.
- Better and faster organization in the property room.
- Auto-disposition will increase your annual disposals and create more space.
You can protect the integrity of your evidence management process when you implement evidence management software. Digital records of evidence allow you to quickly search and find what you need, whether it’s needed for court, being sent to the lab, or being pulled for disposal; you’re just a couple of clicks away from locating it.
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 800 evidence custodians – join the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook.