Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. That’s the problem with government service. You can’t get away from paperwork, especially in record-intensive fields. In the field of evidence management, all we’ve ever known is paperwork. But it’s 2017, and we need to get away from that where possible. We also need to incorporate our “paper-less” approach to the idea of removing those records we no longer need, and keeping the minimum of what we do need. Because our evidence room can’t become a document warehouse, we’re not a magazine wholesaler, we’re a public safety agency storing and transferring evidence.
Where to Start?
It makes the most amount of sense to start by combing through our oldest records. For one, they’re likely all done in paper, in triplicate (for our carbon-copy veterans out there!), and likely outside of statutes, and outside of the destruction orders. Now, the actual disposition paperwork is necessary to hold onto, as proof that the items were destroyed, auctioned, what have you. What most agencies find themselves doing is maintaining a file cabinet with one copy of the final disposition recorded, with all applicable witness signatures, and that solves the issue. If there’s additional paperwork along with that, it’s evaluated on a case by case basis concerning the necessity of its presence. The more you can remove out of the evidence room, and ultimately shred, the better. For those items that you cannot, it would be a great idea to consider scanning those final dispositions into your original case, if that capability exists. We presume that if you’re going through and slashing your evidence records, you’ve likely signed onto an evidence management software that allows you to add components to a case at will. And this would be no different. By adding this entry electronically on the backend of the case, you save yourself a few future headaches. For one, let’s say that filing cabinet perishes in a fire, a flood, maybe even a person eviscerates it somehow, if those old paper records are gone, where’s the proof of the evidence being destroyed? See where this is going?
By maintaining an electronic copy, along with your paper copy, you’ve created a situation where you technically have multiple copies of the final disposition, which means you’re exceeding the standard, without really trying. And further, you can recover those documents at will. One can hope that as we drive into the future, the necessity of maintaining paper copies may disappear, but that is unlikely. Be sure to consult with your assigned prosecutor to make sure you’re maintaining the paperwork they may need if something long after a case is done comes up. You can’t maintain all of it, but there may be special circumstances that our normal procedure doesn’t pick up on, and it’s only a good thing to have your prosecutor feel included in the decision process.
Records Retention Calendar
Our next step to consult (really part of the first step however), is setting up a retention calendar. This calendar works off set dates that explain when items can be reviewed, destroyed, transferred, and so forth. If our evidence software is worth its price, it has a function where we can assign these dates to respective cases, and in turn the evidence software will send us notifications that a case can be reviewed. And if we’ve added a checklist of what items in that case would need to be reviewed with each calendar notification, that evidence software could also produce a list from us to work from, so we’re addressing only those things affected by the date in question. In the case of records, it should be able to tell us when additional documents can be removed from the record, and commensurate with item destruction, when we can update the final disposition, and consider the matter complete. Retention calendars are always a little spatial. While easy enough to set up, be prepared to crunch out some mental math for time frames and how they should line up.
The next thing to consider is our destruction dates. True, you may have ten cases on Monday that come up for destruction, and three on Tuesday, zero on Wednesday, and 14 on Thursday. But you’re not destroying evidence each day. More than likely, your destructions are quarterly. Many agencies subscribe to that method, and nothing bad has happened in terms of using that system. However, if we’ve automated our systems, and we’ve made efficient our paperwork system, then it’s fair to say a quarterly schedule may just create more headaches, and here’s why. If your software is giving you notifications down to the minute that items can be removed from storage, then it’s fair to say your destruction schedule may need to be changed a bit. Our educated guess tells us that your destruction schedule, if it’s not monthly, will become just that shortly. If you waited quarterly, you’d have an abundance of items overdue for destruction, and while it’s safe in your evidence room, it’s not very practical to have items stored, awaiting destruction for so long. Plus, if you reach the quarter date, you may end up needing the assistance of more staff than you’d anticipated. That’s not so bad either, except if you are then pulling from your regular shift staffing to do it. Now you’re impacting the street, and we need to avoid doing that.
Getting back to our goal, of deciding what records to destroy, and what to maintain. You’ll note that our evidence records are far and away from what is maintained in the case itself. There are receipts, logs, inventories, chain of custody, control lists, and then there is addendums to those documents, not to mention additional documents that may be attached to these records. The point is, as you’re looking over all the documents, you must make decisions of what can be destroyed along with the evidence items, and what needs to be retained. And with rare exception, our original idea should be the standard. Having a record of disposition of the item, that records all stages of its life cycle within our system, to destruction is necessary. Virtually everything else should go. Will there be exceptions? Certainly, but you’ll be dealing with a lot less of those, and as your evidence management software becomes strongly incorporated into the process, those types of exceptions can be written into your evidence software, or at least the software should have that capacity, at which point, the software can give you a better answer than waiting on the phone for someone at prosecutor’s office may be able to provide. Once we have automated some of these functions, you’ll find that the records management portion of the process will swiftly fall into line with the new standard set, and will become more breeze than burden.
In outlining how to maintain evidence records, we should consider a system that incorporates statute of limitations, destruction orders, and retention calendars. Further, any evidence software we purchase should be able to add these items in a way that incorporates them into how we maintain records, and then provide us notification of when we’ve reached those time limits. Then that evidence software should give us the control to decide if we can truly destroy or remove those items, and records. Or, if we need to extend their storage, give us that control as well. Ultimately, as we move into a more complex view in evidence handling and management, we need our tools to create easy workflows for us, and that’s how we become better prepared to handle removal and destruction or items and records.
Be safe out there!