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What Is Auto-Dispo and How Can it Improve Evidence Management?

December 3, 2023

In the world of law enforcement, evidence management is not merely a collection of physical items; it is the backbone of justice, holding the potential to both incriminate and exonerate. Each piece of evidence, from a simple item of property to complex forensic samples, carries a story waiting to be unraveled. However, like all stories, these narratives have a natural endpoint. Every item of evidence submitted by an officer will, at some point, reach its eligibility date for disposition.

This critical aspect of evidence management is governed by two fundamental processes: limitation statutes and adjudication status. Limitation statutes, the ticking clocks of the legal system, define how long a person can be prosecuted for a particular offense. When these statutes expire, evidence tied to the case becomes, in legal terms, worthless—no matter its intrinsic value.

Adjudication, on the other hand, marks a pivotal moment in the life of evidence. When a crime is committed, and a person is either convicted or acquitted, the evidence takes on tertiary importance. Yet, here lies a challenge: determining when exactly evidence becomes eligible for disposal. 

It’s a labyrinthine process, often requiring evidence custodians to manually sift through countless items, hoping to identify those that can be removed from storage. This method is not only labor-intensive but also prone to inefficiency and inconsistency.

This brings us to a critical issue plaguing many law enforcement agencies—the “fatal funnel.” The disposition process begins with eligibility, but the bottleneck occurs during research. It’s a time-consuming endeavor, with the average research time for a single case hovering around 30 minutes. When multiple officers are constantly submitting evidence, and only one evidence clerk is available to manage it, the funnel narrows further, impeding the efficient disposition of evidence.

RELATED: THE POWER OF AUTOMATING EVIDENCE DISPOSITION

To address this challenge, law enforcement agencies are turning to an innovative solution—Auto-Disposition, powered by digital tracking software. Tracker’s SAFE software, for example, offers a single-source platform for tracking evidence, from collection to auto-disposition. 

The system streamlines the process by sending retention review requests to submitting officers, allowing them to approve disposal or request a specific retention period. Detailed documentation supports their decisions, ensuring that evidence is neither disposed of prematurely nor held beyond its disposition eligibility date.

The advantages of auto-disposition are multilayered. It saves time and money, as evidenced by the experiences of agencies like the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, which halted plans for a new storage facility because they eliminated so many items that qualified for disposition after implementing Tracker. 

“By implementing Tracker, we have been able to get rid of so much evidence that we stopped plans for a new storage facility for the property and evidence department.”

— Dave Simpson, Director of Technology, Frederick County Sheriff’s Office

Furthermore, it helps agencies maintain the coveted one-to-one disposition ratio, a key performance indicator for evidence units. This ratio ensures that for every item received, one item is disposed of, thereby optimizing storage capacity over time.

However, even the one-to-one ratio can be disrupted by unforeseen events, such as mass-casualty incidents or significant criminal cases. Tracker’s SAFE software addresses this challenge by automating the identification of evidence eligible for disposition. It builds notifications into the system, prompting officers to review items in a timely manner, thus empowering them to take an active role in the evidence management process.

In summary, the power of automating evidence disposition cannot be understated. It offers a way out of the laborious manual processes, enabling law enforcement agencies to efficiently manage their evidence and optimize their resources. With Auto-Disposition and digital tracking software, agencies can widen the evidence management funnel, ensuring that justice is served while saving valuable time, money, and storage space.

Embracing the Future of Evidence Management: Auto-Disposition Mindset

Evidence Management

The way evidence is disposed of is paramount to upholding the integrity of the entire evidence custody chain. However, the rules governing the proper timing for the destruction or return of evidence can vary based on location and local laws. 

Some law enforcement agencies advocate for evidence maintenance until the sentencing of the offender(s) in a case, while others insist on preserving evidence for several years, allowing all possible appeals to be exhausted. Regardless of the policy in place, what remains constant is the need for thorough documentation of disposition within an evidence tracking system, such as Tracker Products SAFE software, and the retention of all chain of custody history.

Navigating this process can feel like scaling a mountain of cases, each at different stages of the legal process. The traditional approach of manual evidence management and disposal not only proves ineffective but also results in overstuffed facilities demanding additional and costly storage solutions. For most Evidence Managers, the task becomes increasingly overwhelming and unmanageable over time.

Enter Auto-Disposition, a digital solution poised to transform the landscape. This innovative approach aids organizations by automatically assigning a follow-up date to each case, with parameters determined during setup. On the designated review date (when the Review Date equals today), the system generates a Task for the Case Officer. This Task becomes the platform for communication and information sharing regarding the case.

RELATED: ADOPTING THE EVIDENCE AUTO-DISPOSITION MINDSET

Through this automated process, significantly more evidence can be efficiently disposed of compared to the cumbersome manual paper-driven or RMS alternatives. Within the Task, the Case Officer has two pivotal options:

Push the Case Forward: If the User responds to the Task and indicates that there’s no immediate action required, the Case Review date is updated to a future date. On that specified date, another Task will be generated, seeking an update. This cycle continues until the case is finally closed.

Approval of Disposal: If the User deems it appropriate to dispose of Item(s) within a case, a tagging mechanism is employed. Individual Items or a group of Items can be edited, and a Tag is applied. The Tag’s text can be customized, serving as a reference for future searches.

However, with introducing Auto-Disposition into your agency you may encounter resistance and complaints, particularly if transitioning from a system where individuals were not typically held accountable for the evidence they submitted. It’s essential to secure backing from command and ensure that Users cannot simply ignore requests for case updates. The success of the entire process hinges on the commitment to accountability.

Change takes time, and it’s vital to remain steadfast in the face of initial challenges. Building a new habit typically requires around 90 days, so don’t be discouraged by complaints during the initial weeks. Persistence is key, as Auto-Disposition gradually becomes an ingrained part of the process, naturally embraced by your users. Remember, when transforming the way business is conducted, patience is a virtue, and the rewards of enhanced evidence management and disposition efficiency are well worth the effort.

Addressing Disposition Challenges and a Case Study

Evidence Management

If you were to survey 100 Evidence Technicians, asking them about the most significant challenge they encounter in their evidence management realm, their responses might sound like a chorus of frustration: “We can’t dispose of enough evidence.” “More items are pouring in than going out.” “We’re running out of space as the evidence keeps piling up.”

At its core, the predicament faced by these police departments can be boiled down to one key issue—they lack an efficient system that enables them to dispose of evidence effectively. While evidence flows into their possession with relative ease, the process of getting rid of it often proves to be a considerable hurdle.

For most Evidence Managers, the reality is that they are not disposing of evidence at the rates they desire. They may be achieving disposal rates of 10%, 15%, or 20% if they’re fortunate. In a scenario where the inflow surpasses the outflow, agencies find themselves grappling with a mounting accumulation of evidence. 

It eventually reaches a critical juncture where they face a pivotal decision—expand their storage capacity or confront the root issue head-on, striving to proactively transform the dynamics of their evidence management and disposition system.

Auto-disposition is a major shift in how the disposition process operates. The fundamental goal is to harness software to automate what has traditionally been a manual, paper-intensive aspect of evidence disposition.

To illustrate the transformative potential of Auto-Disposition, consider the metrics of a current Tracker Products’ client. Since adopting the Auto-Disposition feature within our SAFE Software, they have logged nearly 85,000 individual pieces of evidence and disposed of a remarkable 53,000 items. This staggering achievement stands in stark contrast to the usual disposition rate, which often languishes below 20%.

RELATED: TACKLING EVIDENCE ACCUMULATION CHALLENGES WITH AUTO DISPOSITION

A critical point to emphasize here is that it’s not the Evidence Technician who conducts the review. This is a hurdle that many police departments must overcome. Imagine an organization with 300 items arriving every month and a lone individual toiling away in the evidence room. It becomes evident that a single person cannot efficiently review such a volume.

The core principle of Auto-Disposition dictates that the Case Officer takes on this role. Getting rid of evidence hinges on identifying the individual most knowledgeable about it, and that person is typically the Case Officer, not the Evidence Technician.

Implementing this system is not without its challenges, and resistance is likely. Hence, a well-defined policy must be in place, mandating the gradual release of cases for review and compelling responses from involved parties. Ultimately, this is the path to effective evidence disposal.

Consider the real-world example of the Des Moines Police Department, which handles approximately 1,500 pieces of evidence monthly. Remarkably, by employing our SAFE Auto-Disposition software, they are successfully disposing of nearly 80% of all incoming evidence. This achievement is exceptional, with only a few police departments across the United States able to make such a claim. What’s even more astonishing is that they accomplish this with just three individuals working in the evidence room.

This exemplifies a flawless implementation and utilization of Tracker’s SAFE Software Auto-Disposition Program. In fact, achieving an 80% disposition level, as demonstrated here, would be nearly impossible without such a system in place. In simple terms, Auto-Disposition is not merely an option—it is a necessity. Without it, agencies may find themselves stuck at 10%, 20%, or 30% disposition levels. 

The understanding, adoption, and active use of Tracker’s SAFE Auto-Disposition Software has the potential to significantly enhance the world of evidence management within your agency.

In short, Auto-disposition is a transformative force in the world of evidence management. It addresses the critical challenges of efficiently disposing of evidence by streamlining processes and automating workflows. Evidence, the cornerstone of justice, has natural endpoints defined by limitation statutes and adjudication status. Auto-disposition ensures that these endpoints are met effectively, saving both time and resources.

The benefits of this innovative approach are substantial, as evidenced by agencies like the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, which avoided constructing a new storage facility after implementing Tracker. Maintaining the one-to-one disposition ratio, optimizing storage capacity, and empowering officers to actively participate in the evidence management process are additional advantages.

While resistance and initial challenges may be encountered during implementation, the commitment to accountability and persistence are key to success. Real-world examples, such as the Des Moines, Iowa Police Department’s remarkable 80% disposition rate, demonstrate that Auto-Disposition is not a luxury but a necessity for modern evidence management. It offers a path to significantly enhance evidence management within any agency, ultimately serving justice efficiently and effectively.

Tracker Products and The Evidence Management Institute want to contribute to your ongoing education through a series of FREE online evidence management training classes. You can also watch the Tracker Products webinars and check out The Evidence Show! (recorded webinars).

To get in on the discussion with nearly 1,300 evidence custodians – join the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook.