Training & Standards for Evidence Room Personnel
Training has a real love-hate relationship in public safety. There’s mandatory training that no one wants to go, non-mandatory training that everyone wants, some training that only a few may need, and still some that somebody is going to get “volun-told” for. No matter the scenario, someone’s going to love the training, and someone’s going to hate it, be it attendance, expense, lack of understanding, you name it, there’s likely someone representing a position on all of it. And we’re only talking patrol, investigative and use of force training. Forget evidence handling, and packaging, right? We admit, so far, we haven’t acknowledged that the debate concerning training is a bit more nuanced than we are giving it credit for, but these types of scenarios are all too familiar to those of us who love our work, and thus, it’s important to remind ourselves of the past.
In this article, we’re going to examine the types of training evidence personnel, sworn or otherwise, will need in order to run a sufficient evidence room. We’ll also talk about the type of training that your personnel will not only need to be proficient in, but also what training they need to oversee for the rest of your agency.
Functions & Activities
To start this conversation, we need discuss the major functions and activities of an evidence room and its operation, so that we have a clear view of what training is applicable, from necessary to exotic. By exotic, we don’t mean that it’s unnecessary, we mean that it may not apply to every evidence room out there. There are certain topics that every evidence room must abide by, and have training for. For example, not all evidence rooms maintain refrigerators, and thus, those personnel may not need a full knowledge base of handling and storing wet evidence sensitive to temperature.
First, the big four, firearms, narcotics, paraphernalia, and currency. It doesn’t matter how small or big your agency is, if you are responding to calls and writing cases, you are dealing with these four daily, either on the street, or in your evidence room. We split narcotics and paraphernalia in terms of topics, not because they aren’t demanding the same type of handling, but because the packaging becomes different, and that factors into our training protocol.
This brings us to the next handling and packaging issue, which is electronic and financial devices. Both will have similar handling procedures as the other items discussed, but the packaging is specialized in both circumstances, so that’s a worthwhile change to plan and train for. From there we have packaging and handling of biological evidence. Again, this is separate topic all its own, the storage and management of these items may not fall into your scope. If it does, that’s a separate topic. You’ll notice we’re segmenting packaging and handling thus far, and really not much else. The reason for this, is when it comes to evidence personnel, far too often the ideas of both packaging, handling, storage, and inventory management have been melded together in training. Perhaps it’s cost effective, but it’s not case effective. While evidence personnel are ultimately in charge of all these stages, directly or indirectly, we really need to respect the discipline, and recognize that the activities are where we need to separate training into blocks of focus, rather than combining the entire discipline into one standalone training course.
So far, we’ve established packaging and handling of evidence as one activity. And it’s safe to assume that our evidence personnel won’t be packaging a lot of evidence, however, they need to have thorough knowledge on how to package, because they will be accepting evidence into our evidence room for storage, and for that evidence to be stored, it has to be packaged properly. Our evidence personnel have to not only be able to package and handle evidence properly, they also need to be able to analyze whether an item has been packaged correctly. And that would also inform us that our evidence personnel will likely be the experts when it comes to this activity, and thus will need to have an acceptable level of training that permits them to also be instructors of this activity to the rest of our agency.
We’ve established packaging standards, we’ve mentioned handling. What does handling entail? Well, for one, it’s how you package that evidence, but it also covers things like chain of custody, transportation, and storage. Most agencies have a policy where the personnel who has collected a piece of evidence must hold onto it until they transfer it to a temporary holding location or locker, for examination by evidence personnel for intake and storage. It’s a mostly foolproof way of ensuring that no discrepancies in chain of custody and transportation occur. However, there are some agencies where that isn’t practical. Depending on circumstances, it may be that with multiple people collecting evidence, that ultimately one or two people will need to transport everything back to the evidence room, and that means filling out chain of custody for everything collected. This is another element in training that your evidence personnel should only be the experts on, but also the trainers. They’re going to be accepting this evidence, so you’re best to let them control the standards of how that evidence comes into the agency as well.
Our packaging and handling issues inform acceptance, which begins the lifecycle of evidence in the stage known as storage. But what should evidence personnel know about transportation? Well, we could say obvious things like, “Make sure you’re not leaving evidence on the hood of a vehicle.” But why go into that much detail? Rather than a big list of don’ts, let’s talk do’s. Evidence personnel, when discussing chain of custody should be instructing on the back half of such a training session on proper transport of items. Like, in a clean, sealable box, perhaps made of plastic, vulcanized rubber, or one of those expensive roto-molded cases that have become so popular. The box needs to be laid flat, and in an enclosed space where the weather isn’t going to impact the collected evidence directly or indirectly. The items need to be taken to the evidence room, by the most logical, direct route after collection, when reasonable to do so. Mostly your evidence personnel should address the packing of evidence for transport, the driving part is getting into the details a bit far, but we suppose there’s reason to make a statement about it, to make it clear what needs to happen after leaving the scene with evidence.
Packaging, Handling, Transport, and now Initial Storage. We qualify this next step as initial, because this should be a temporary storage location where evidence can be secured from access by others, and still be neat and orderly, and easy to proceed through Intake. Any personnel delivering evidence here should be instructed how to use the locking system, be it by door, lockers, or however the temporary storing area has been set up. They need to know how to stage the evidence for the Intake process, and where to place any corresponding paperwork (think chain of custody), be it directly with the evidence, or in a separate receptacle.
Everything after this stage is Intake, which means we’re now entering the major function of evidence management, and a litany of other activities. In management, we must look at a lot of other issues that are far different from the previous activities discussed.
First up is Item Marking. In the modernization of evidence rooms, many agencies have accepted unique identification numbers, usually barcodes, as the standard by which items should be marked, so that they can be individually tracked once stored. A common example of why this is necessary is the necessity of an item at trial. Let’s say an officer arrests a person known by officers to be a drug dealer, but has yet to be charged with distribution. The criminal has been smart to avoid detection, even though there’s been a lot of reasonable suspicion. Finally, on a foggy night, an officer randomly catches the criminal in a parked car at the back end of an apartment complex, with an amount of crack-cocaine that is individually packaged, but it’s just enough to be on the edge of user quantities, compared to distribution. The criminal is also smart enough to keep a glass pipe on themselves, to further the idea that they are user, not a dealer. But upon inspection of the pipe, it’s found to be brand new, never used. The criminal doesn’t have any signs of using, either long term, or immediate, and the officer also recovers a gun from within the vehicle after placing the criminal in handcuffs. The officer charges him with distribution. It goes to court, and while all items recovered are admissible in court, it may be that everything but the pipe gets called to court, because neither defense or the prosecutor is interested in its evidentiary value. Obviously, this hypothetical does not usually play out this way, but it can occasionally, and the main point to take away from this is that not all collected evidence will ever actually be called to court. But if you only mark evidence by case number, you risk big gaps in retention of items, not to mention setting yourself up for lost items, with no discernible way to track them. Thus, the idea of bar coding items came about. It still retains the case number assigned, but it has a unique number assigned to the item, and that creates an entry in your evidence management system, that makes each item trackable. There are less conventional ways of Item Marking, but we suggest barcodes, as that is where every agency should be doing, or have a plan to get there soon.
From here, we get into Storage. And that also opens a lot of other considerations. For evidence personnel, this is where the transition from teacher to student exists. True, they can become teachers of this part of evidence management as well, but they aren’t necessarily teaching this part to their agency. Most items being stored can be kept in your primary evidence room, on shelves, and in safes if appropriate (money, handguns, jewelry, high-dollar electronics). However, there are certain sensitive items that must be stored a certain way. We mentioned wet evidence before, things like sex assault kits, blood spatter, and other bodily fluids. They must be stored in refrigerated units. If your agency is too small to store these things, then you are likely using services through your State Crime Lab. In those situations, there is a certain way they must be transported. Your evidence personnel may not have to be the people to take these items to the lab, but they should know how to do it, how to pack the items for transport, and should definitely be able to instruct on the topic. But there’s other considerations to, like HAZMAT and Bio-Hazard material. It would not be smart to store these items in your evidence room. There are many considerations with this, but to minimize how much we discuss this topic for now, when it comes to HAZMAT, OSHA has great guidelines for handling and storage. And if you are storing a lot of this type of material, having a separate warehouse is in order. With Bio-Hazard, that same warehouse may be applicable, but it may also be that having another location for those items exclusively is required. Each situation is different, and we certainly can’t predict every situation that one may be faced with.
But after those storage considerations, we have another activity to think about, and get trained on concerning storage. That is Design. Yes, evidence personnel may be inheriting a well-established evidence room, but that doesn’t mean that as time goes on, the design of the room they are in needs to change to remain efficient. Even more, they may have to expand the operation. Understanding what is needed, and how to best use the space available is necessary, especially if it comes down to evaluating contractors for the work. Evidence personnel need training on design criteria, to include shelving and lockers, security features like locks, alarms, two stage verification access, and fire systems, and technology features like RFID shielding devices, static reducers, perhaps humidifiers even. Your personnel will also need to have training in how to use space. And we know that sounds a little silly, but any evidence room can become a “blob” (read some of our earlier articles for context) if space isn’t maximized.
We’ve covered a lot of ground thus far, and we’re just getting started. That’s how detailed the job of evidence management is. Our next activity is Documentation. From labels, to reports, to chain of custody, to disposition paperwork, there are tons of documents that dictate the life cycle, not to mention everyone who is involved with the evidence. We hope that your evidence management system makes these forms paperless. Obviously, the bar code labels are going to be printed and applied to the items. But your system should allow for an electronic log, electronic chain of custody (post-collection, at a minimum), along with the ability to sign out items for everything from lab analysis, to court, to destruction. Your evidence management system should also allow for the ability to print these documents, if necessary, but also the ability to share such documents electronically, and that should become the standard of your agency’s evidence management policy.
Paperwork also extends into our next activities, and that’s Audits and Inventories. These are the activities that tend to cause the biggest headaches in an evidence room. Of course, the theory goes that they shouldn’t cause a problem, and we would certainly hope that either simply verifies that everything is in order, and in its place. That’s not always the case. Alas, audits and inventories do require paperwork filled out, and hopefully it’s something that your evidence management system allows to be conducted electronically. If not, it may be time to revisit what your evidence management system is actually offering you. Evidence personnel need to know how to conduct these activities inside and out, and realize that when it comes to an audit, you may need to train other personnel, because audits will likely require that your evidence personnel not take part in that activity, as it is also a check and balance to the integrity of the work they do.
The next set of activities we must contend with involve end of the evidence lifecycle. Auctions, Diversion, Disposal, Destruction, Returns, and Purges are all terms that come up in this conversation of training. This is where evidence personnel are taking information from multiple sources, concerning the disposition of an item or items related to a case, and whether it can be removed from the evidence room or not. Once it’s confirmed it can be purged, then the next decision is how can be it purged. It may be that your agency auctions any evidence that doesn’t have a claim to it, and it is not an item that is inherently illegal to possess. It may be that your agency simply destroys everything, unless it is property that must be returned to a rightful owner. Maybe you donate any clothing that isn’t mutilated physically. Whatever the case, evidence personnel need to be trained on how to make those decisions soundly, and who to send reports to for review, and how those reports should be constructed. Again, your evidence management system should allow for electronic purge reports, with the various types of acceptable disposition for your agency. The official reviewing this report should then be able to sign off on the actions electronically, or highlight electronically what changes they believe need to be made. Don’t short change this part of your training plan. Your personnel will need to be well-versed on this part of the evidence lifecycle, and have full understanding of how to carry out each purging action.
The next set of activities are those things that may influence law, policy, and the ability to gain grants, or instill public trust. Evidence personnel need to be trained on, and then regularly updated on liability issues pertaining to evidence, case law related to evidence, and studies of evidence rooms. They also need to be aware of and have knowledge of how to obtain personal and agency certifications and accreditations. The reason being, they will likely be integral to obtain certifications and accreditations that apply to this division within your agency. Their knowledge base, level of expertise, and their ability to impart key knowledge to fellow agency staff will be a big part of attaining those things that inform your community, and the community at large that your agency’s evidence room sets the standard, and is a shining example among the rest. Some agencies may not consider this, and that’s ok.
At the end of it all, what matters is that your evidence room is run efficiently, and that your personnel’s training is taken serious, and not reduced to afterthoughts. Your entire agency’s reputation starts with the evidence room, and any failure within it, reflects on everyone else. Is it worth shortcuts?
Be safe out there!