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The Top 5 Things to Consider When Comparing Evidence Management Software Systems

May 11, 2022

For those of you who are not using a digital evidence management system, or are stuck with a RMS product, odds are at some point you’re going to want to upgrade. Bearing that in mind, we felt it was important to provide information and resources that you could use to independently evaluate the evidence management software options that are available on the market today. 

We aim to take the confusion out of the equation when it comes time to choose an evidence management software system. While Tracker would love to be your provider, we know that every police department has unique challenges, needs, and goals. Frankly, we may not be the right solution for everyone, and you have the right to know that before you invest in an upgrade. 

Of course, we hope that when you are fully informed and have compared Tracker’s evidence management software to others on the market, you’ll find that our SAFE software solution is a state-of-the-art, full-spectrum evidence management system that will empower you to run efficient, effective, and sustainable operations for many years to come. 

It can be very difficult to discern the differences between evidence management systems, especially if you haven’t tested any of them yet.  We have a free downloadable spreadsheet that is pre-populated with 49 factors to consider.  You can rank the importance of each factor and add additional fields for consideration. Upon form submission, the Evidence Management Comparison Worksheet will be automatically delivered via email attachment. 

Most people don’t understand what they’re getting into when implementing new evidence management software. They just look at the price and say, Oh Hey, that’s the cheapest one. I’m going to go with it. Which is okay, so long as you understand what you’re NOT getting.

Before you jump into completing the worksheet, and long before you actually choose a new evidence management software system, let’s review the five most important elements of a top-notch evidence management solution. The system’s: Architecture, Dashboard, Graphs and Statistics, Searching and Data Extraction, Digital Evidence Management, and Transfers and Disposition.

The Architecture

Simply put, architecture means… Where does the evidence management system “live?” Is this a browser-based system, or am I installing it on my hardware? Generally the closer the product is to a cloud-based/browser-based application, odds are its newer architecture. 

There are a lot of products on the market that are 20 years old and you have to install them onto your hardware. In a traditional digital document storage system, files are stored on-site on computers, external hard drives, and other machines. These may be shared and retrieved through the use of a Local Area Network (LAN), which could be connected to the Internet, but not always. Only devices directly in the network can utilize this data, and if the hardware becomes damaged for some reason, the information could be lost forever.

Evidence Management

Advantages  of a Cloud-Based EMS Over On-Premises Computing

Cost 

If you compare the cost of hosting your application and data on a cloud solution, you’ll find that it is cheaper than setting up the servers yourself. Hosting SAFE in the cloud allows you to forego the cost of purchasing servers and hardware for setting up your own data center. You also minimize the need for IT professionals to manage your servers and the utility bills that come with running a server.

Security 

Many people assume that browser and cloud-based systems are less secure than conventional computing methods. However, especially today, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course, storing vital case information on remote servers could pose certain cyber-security risks, especially with hacking on the rise. However, precisely because these concerns are so prevalent, providers have worked to make their systems as protected as possible through encryption, backups, advanced login functions, and other safeguards.

Scalability 

In the digital age, law enforcement agencies and police departments can collect more evidence than ever before. Smartphone videos, text messages, emailed documents, and other information could be crucial in bringing justice to victims. However, in a traditional LAN system, digital storage space can become a major issue. In order to avoid investing in yet another expensive external hard drive, officers might be tempted to erase old, seemingly useless information or keep only the clearest evidence from a case. Ideally, it would be easy to keep all the evidence ever collected throughout an investigation just in case it becomes pertinent. With a browser and cloud-based system, agencies and organizations can immediately and inexpensively add on greater remote storage capacity.

Instant Access 

Another key benefit of these systems is that they are simple and efficient to use. Approved officers and investigators can log in and view evidence from any device at any time, so long as they have the appropriate logins. SAFE’s mobile application makes our browser and cloud-based software even more convenient and evidence tracking is updated in real-time.

Dashboards, Graphs, and Statistics

Great dashboards are clear, interactive, and user-friendly. They need to communicate information at a glance through efficient data visualizations that will enable users to extract actionable insights, identify trends and patterns, and find improvement opportunities through a friendly online data analysis process.

Information is only valuable when it is directly actionable. Based on this principle, it’s critical that the end-user can employ the information served up by a dashboard to enhance their personal goals, roles, and activities within the business.

Evidence Management

For example, during an interview about Tracker’s dashboard, David Bragg  – the evidence administrator for the Bowling Green Police Department in Kentucky (BGPD) – said, “I started doing these (intake to disposition rate) charts in 2012, so I knew from year to year what we were looking at. And, in using the data from Tracker Products’ SAFE software, I forecasted, probably two years ago (2018) – in the year-end analysis – that by the end of 2019, we were going to have reached capacity. And that came true.

What is surprising is being able to use that data to get to a particular goal.

We were reaching capacity in the storage. Our command officers took this data, presented it to our city manager, and then presented it to our 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 our headquarters site.”

One of the most important things, in a quality evidence management system, is your ability to get statistics and data. If we were to walk into your evidence room tomorrow and ask you 100 questions about your evidence… for example, How much evidence have you brought in in the last year? How much of it has been disposed of? How much of it have you returned to owners? Can you give me the value of all your currency, all your drugs, and everything else? 

If you cannot answer those questions within a reasonable amount of time, odds are you don’t know what’s on your shelves. If you don’t know what you’ve got and you cannot get statistics like that, how are you going to be effective at disposition? The most critical component of disposition is knowing what you’ve got, when can it be disposed of, and what is the process with which you’re going to go through disposition? If you can’t get that answer within minutes, you’re going to be really behind the eight ball when it comes to actually disposing of evidence.

Searching/Data Extraction

One of the most important questions you can ask the vendor, when you’re looking at their evidence management application, is… How much can I do with the information myself versus how much external support do I need? Do I have to go to the vendor to get the data I need, or can I navigate the software, and understand the data myself? 

The more people you have to get involved in the process of figuring out what your data is, the slower – and more costly – it will be. These answers have got to come very quickly. The data that you need is always the most relevant at the exact moment you need it.

Police and law enforcement agencies collect, access, track, and assess evidence every day. Evidence and property personnel are tasked with the unsung duties of working as the liaison between detectives and attorneys to ensure all evidence for criminal discovery is properly stored, documented, analyzed, presented in court, and eventually disposed of in accordance with all legal and ethical guidelines. 

In order to do that, it’s imperative to use state-of-the-art, evidence tracking software. But… not all of them are equal. Recently, we spoke with James Gummert – the Detective Sergeant for the Apple Valley Police Department in Minnesota – about his department’s decision to go with Tracker Products’ SAFE software. 

He said, “Before we had SAFE, our evidence management system was archaic; it was like Atari versus Xbox. We needed to upgrade for the future… which is now. Tracker Products’ SAFE software fits our needs in 2020. Now we can easily enter the property and evidence, track it, and run more in-depth reports. For example, we now have the ability to narrow our research for sex assault kits, robbery cases, drug or murder cases, etc. With an effective system, we can get a better picture of what we have on a daily basis.

Basically, our decision to go with Tracker Products was two-fold. One, we really felt that SAFE could give us the accountability we needed… when we needed it. And they had a solid customer base within our state, who seemed to be very pleased with the product. Those for me were more than enough to switch. Oh… and the customer service is second to none.”

Digital Evidence Management

Your worlds are no longer just physical evidence. Now you have to manage all of these digital components of evidence. So, some of the questions you may want to ask are… Does your application allow physical and digital evidence to be managed within the same software product? Does the software handle chain of custody? Do you offer a digital chain of custody? Does your software automatically update every time the evidence is handled?

Evidence Management

When an officer goes in and reviews a case, they’re not only looking at a list of all their physical evidence and saying, Yeah, keep this, get rid of that. They’re also looking at the digital evidence and saying, I don’t need that stuff anymore. If digital evidence piles up on your hard drive, you’ll have the same problem as with your evidence facility… you’ll eventually run out of room. 

Increased technological use, in nearly everyone’s business and personal lives, has resulted in an explosion of digital crimes. For law enforcement, in particular, it’s not uncommon for squad car video, body cam recordings, crime scene photos, audio files, or mobile phone data to be collected during almost every criminal case. Digital footprints, of any kind, inevitably leave a trail that can be traced back to perpetrators… if the evidence is properly preserved, handled, stored, and tracked.

To ensure that digital evidence is collected, managed, examined, or presented in a manner that safeguards the integrity of the evidence – in order for it to be admissible in court –  law enforcement must have an advanced tracking system in place that will simplify and streamline the evidence management process, and secure digital evidence throughout its entire lifecycle.

Sustainable evidence practices must accommodate the changing needs of digital evidence management. All law-enforcement evidence-operations would benefit from leveraging available technologies to increase operational efficiency and effectiveness. Implementation of tracking software and the adoption of digital evidence standards isn’t an option for the distant future; it’s a requirement right now.

Access to digital evidence assets or items is often critical to effective investigation practices. When it comes to digital evidence, it’s important that your system provides easy access to those who need it – from anywhere in the world – while denying access to those who don’t.

Tracker products software, called SAFE, provides real-time, secure authorized access to investigators without compromising the integrity of the evidence or creating a chain of custody authenticity issue.

Transfers and Disposition

Any and all movement of evidence needs to have an unalterable chain of custody. In criminal or legal proceedings, the chain of custody is the entire history of a piece of evidence. It is the detailed, chronological record of how it was retrieved, taken into custody, filed, transferred, assessed, and disposed of. 

The parties bringing forth the evidence must be able to demonstrate its chain of custody in order to verify its validity. Basically, this procedure helps to ensure the evidence has not been distorted, planted, or misrepresented.

Evidence Management

 

Our SAFE (Shared Archive For Evidence) software can track both physical and digital evidence, creating an explicit, authenticated chain of custody for each piece of evidence involved. Once it has been tagged and archived with a barcode or otherwise entered into the system, only personnel with appropriate logins can access it. Since it can instantly store evidence and implement appropriate safeguards to protect it from inappropriate personnel, the integrity of the evidence will be protected for its entire lifecycle. 

Our friends in law enforcement know that from the time an item is collected in the field, the evidence life cycle clock starts ticking. Some items will stay for weeks, others years, some forever. But each item stored in your property room has the same essential life cycle. Our Evidence Management System equips you to manage every step in the cycle, from collection through disposition.

  1. COLLECTION AND SUBMISSION

Your officer lifts a fingerprint at the scene. With Tracker Products, evidence logging can begin from the field or in the evidence submission area. We know packaging is critical – and that’s why our system prints a clear label with all necessary information – no scribbled writing, no extra paperwork.

  1. INTAKE AND STORAGE

With Tracker Products, the intake process can be as simple 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. Need to find that item in an instant? Yes, our system makes that simple, as well!

  1. TRANSFER

Evidence needs to go to the lab for analysis or to court for trial. You can transfer items digitally and capture signatures or add attachments in the system. If you’re working with outside agencies or entities, you still have the flexibility to print, release, or transfer documentation from the system.

  1. DISPOSAL

Tracker’s SAFE software becomes a single source for tracking evidence from collection through auto-disposition. The system will send 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.

Documentation must be entered into Tracker’s SAFE system to support either response. If the officer says it should be kept, they must indicate the reasons why. Disposed of? Officers then need to provide documentation that supports this directive. This ensures that evidence is not disposed of prematurely, or held beyond its disposition eligibility date.

When you use the auto-dispo feature and add a review date to an item – based on the offense type – that will create and build a notification into the system, that will prompt officers to review items in a timely manner. So, rather than having evidence custodians aimlessly walking through their evidence storage facilities, officers are able to tell them what is eligible for disposition.

Some Extras to Consider

Customization

What can be customized? Who can do the customizing? Will future customization have any ill effect on my existing data? These are very important questions for your evidence management system. First, in today’s changing world, you can not be sure the existing data collection fields are all you will ever need. Evidence tracking solutions should be end-user customizable, and user role-based access controllable, with an internal process dictating how and when changes or new data field additions are implemented. 

Tracker Products developed the first, and still the only, product that features unlimited, end-user data field creation and modification – customization-on-the-fly. Secondly, ask your software vendor whether fields that have become irrelevant or users who have left can be deleted. If they say yes, you need to find another vendor. System stability and integrity can easily be compromised if captured data is ever deleted! SAFE will allow deactivation of fields/users but never deletion.

SAFE Mobile App

We are especially proud of our SAFE App, which puts the full power of evidence management into the hands of your agency users. We are the only vendor that has a physical and digital evidence ‘loader’ for your iPhone or Android device. Which means, your officers can add real-time crime scene documentation and do remote evidence entry from the field. 

Evidence Management

Not only can officers in the field enter evidence from their phones or tablets, custodians can perform audits, inventories, and inspections using the app. And, all assigned chain-of-custody users are updated in real-time no matter where they are. So, if your Chief needs information about a certain case, he or she can simply double-tap the SAFE app, and any information they need is just a couple of clicks away. Do the other vendors offer an app? 

Training and Continued Education

Buying a software product and then just throwing it in place is not going to fix your problems. Software is one component of a larger process. Training and continued education matter. Ask the other vendors that you’re considering… How are you guys going to help me advance in what I’m doing? And if they don’t have a good answer to that, that should be a red flag to you.

Once an agency has chosen a new system, it’s important to have a support and implementation team provide expert training and support. This ensures that everyone within the organization is up to speed on how to use the evidence management system and can take full advantage of its capabilities.

But, these evidence consulting services should not be a once-and-done solution. As the software continues to evolve, and your evidence management practices progress, so too will your need for additional support. As long as you are a Tracker client, our Software Integration and Support Team is here for you every step of the way. Free of charge, of course. 

 As one client wrote, “My department has been using Tracker since 2009. There is nothing that compares to the program’s ease of operation. The support your agency will receive from them is unmatchable. They are like an extended family that you can count on.” – Tom Icenogle

A 360º Total Evidence Management Solution

While Tracker Products provides software and support and implementation solutions for the evidence management community, the Evidence Management Institute offers a comprehensive set of services to help agencies achieve sustainable, efficient, and effective evidence management operations. 

“AS A PARTNERSHIP WITH A SHARED VISION, TRACKER AND EMI HAVE WORKED TOGETHER TO CREATE A PARADIGM SHIFT IN EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT. THEIR 360º TOTAL EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT SOLUTION CAN HELP YOUR AGENCY WITH EVERY ASPECT OF YOUR OPERATIONS.”

When Tracker Products and the Evidence Management Institute (EMI) teamed up, our shared vision was fairly simple, Provide World-Class Evidence Management Software and Service Solutions that Elevate the Evidence Management Community.

But, when we launched the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook – at the beginning of the pandemic – the evidence management community came together and became a dynamic force for connection and open communication. Never in a million years did we think this forum would balloon to a group of nearly 800 members in less than 24 months. But balloon it did.

What we realized over time was that the seasoned evidence management community was incredibly responsive and encouraging. While we appreciated the fact that the forum was, and continues to be, a great platform for the community, it is, for the most part, Q & A. 

For new and untrained evidence custodians, we realized there was a serious lack of proactive resources. By resources, we certainly mean information and education, but they also lacked the financial resources to get what they needed in order to do their jobs. 

That was a lightbulb moment for us. While our Paid Services are top-in-class, we knew needed to do more. And, we needed to provide additional solutions for free.

We invite you to check out the following FREE sources…

***Be sure to consistently check back on these resources as they are constantly evolving. 

Tracker Products and The Evidence Management Institute want to contribute to your ongoing education through… a series of FREE online evidence management training classes. Watch and comment on the Tracker Products webinars here. Check out The Evidence Show! And to get in on the discussion, with nearly 800 evidence custodians – join the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook. 

***NEW – FREE! In-Person, Two-Day Evidence Management Certification Training Classes