During the last several decades, the computer industry has grown rapidly and now comprises 10 percent of the GDP of the United States. During this short time span, information technology has become larger than the auto, steel, petrochemical, mining and natural gas industries combined. Some of these amazing technological developments have advanced the field of law enforcement, too. From the use of computers to conduct criminal investigations, crime analysis and dispatch; to the adoption of integrated computer systems; to the processing and use of DNA evidence; to the gathering and tracking of evidence, it is clear that technology has changed the way law enforcement agencies do business. Yet, for all the advances and advantages that information technology provides, some challenges remain unchanged.
Some of these persistent challenges can be clearly seen in the realm of evidence management. Most agencies today have some type of computerized evidence management system. Besides the fact that agencies grapple with unwieldy systems, which can be difficult to integrate with continually improving software and despite the battle to stay current while staying within budget, agencies still deal with the human element involved in selecting, gathering, storing and tracking evidence. Cutting edge evidence management software will not omit, nor will it correct human error or lack of judgment.
The same challenges persist. Errors are made while doing lab work. Evidentiary items are packaged incorrectly. Steps in the evidence gathering procedure are forgotten, such as simply writing one’s initials across the package seal. Items are incorrectly mixed within a package, or they’re not fully inventoried. Sometimes, items are submitted that are not relevant, while other germane items are never even collected. This is not a litany of the shortcomings of law enforcement personnel. Rather, it is a frank discussion of the frailty of human beings. We all make mistakes. And, most officers go from call to call to call while progressing through their workdays. They have no opportunities to process evidence during the course of their shifts. Processing evidence is what they do at the very end of their day, when they’re tired and they just want to go home. Naturally, at such a time, any one of us would be more likely to make errors or to forget important details.
There have been incredible advances in technology that support law enforcement personnel, especially in the realm of evidence management. Information technology can improve efficiency and productivity, enable agencies to store and condense large amounts of information, and to have greater access to information and increase information sharing abilities. The best evidence management software can simplify procedures and help to eliminate human error. However, we will always be dependent upon people to observe and to make judgments about what is or is not germane. We are dependent upon people to perform the physical tasks of collecting and packaging evidence. Moreover, we’re dependent upon people to design, oversee and operate the very technologies that can be so helpful. In the end, our technology is only as good as the people who do the work. We will always grapple with the human element.