Sometimes in law enforcement we’re voluntold for the latest detail from hell that was ever created. And sometimes we’re voluntold for even worse. Let’s discuss how to navigate what is likely the worst possible scenario for any law enforcement officer: Inheriting the ‘Blob.’
You’ve just been put in charge of your agency’s evidence room. The person before you left it shambles. The District Attorney’s Office is quietly (used loosely of course) writing plea deals to every case that’s coming out of your agency, and has been for the past six months. Your brass got interested in why that was happening, after a few higher profiles assaults and burglaries led to time served and probation……and then that DA let the hammer fall……the evidence room was reported to be a “mess” when a junior attorney came down to check on a cache of firearms recovered from a particularly violent warrant service. The officer in charge of the evidence room could find six of ten firearms. Six. The junior attorney noticed that the officer was going through upwards of fifty rubber tubs, in no particular order, around the room, digging up items, and throwing them haphazardly back into the tubs, continuing on, looking for the missing firearms. As the lunch hour approached, the attorney realized he needed to get back to court for a different trial, and said “Hey thanks, we’ll get it figured out,” and left. He promptly informed his boss of the problem, seeing it as a problem for not only the case at hand, but for all other cases. And thus the wheeling and dealing began.
By the time your agency caught wind of what was going on, the damage was done, and the evidence room was an utter mess. On audit, the administration found that the officer in charge had continually misplaced evidence from one storage tub on the wall, to another, and even inter-mixed items that should be in one of the safes, onto the floor, and vice versa. We all know this is a bad day Black Rock, but now the up and comer, you, has been singled out as the officer who can save this mess. Mission: Recover the Evidence Room is in full motion.
The Blob is a term used in some circles, to define a wreck in a given evidence room. If you’re not using the term yet, we invite you to. One day it will be fun to recount the blob, but right now it’s not funny, especially if it’s happening in your agency.
As we described earlier, the blob is an evidence room in shambles. We’re not talking about an evidence room where everything is well organized and someone misplaced three items. We’re talking about nothing is in any logical order. Items are reported in logs to be in one area, but are found in another. Numerous items are unaccounted for, going back months, and more likely years. Items that are in evidence are not logged. Sensitive items are not stored properly, in fact much of the evidence is not packaged correctly at all. The point is we’ve got a lot of things to fix, and if we want to save any agency reputation we have in the professional community we interact with, like the DA, we’re going to want to solve these issues as quickly as we possibly can.
Chain of Command & Instilling an Audit Process
First things first, we can’t tear into that mess as quickly as it’s begging. First we have to create a chain of command and an initial audit process. As we rebuild the evidence room, the audit process will change, but need something in place now, in order to move forward.
And in our made up scenario, we’re imagining the worst possible scenario to start from – non-existence of any command or audit process prior to our involvement. We hope this is not something you encounter, but starting from the worst place gives us a way to envision how to get from crawling to sprinting, and not missing any of the steps in between.
On a side note, we won’t be addressing property functions in this feature, only evidence. Property functions are sometimes controlled by the evidence section, but even in those scenarios, many times it is virtually an entirely different entity, and the only time the two worlds come together is when it comes time for dispositions. We may address property functions in a separate feature later, but for now let’s focus on evidence.
When it comes to chain of command, we need to put some safeguards in place. The reasons for this are for accountability, integrity, and reliability. We need to have accountability of all evidence. We also need to have accountability for bad actions, and the only way we can account for where bad actions start, is by having a chain of command in place, that additionally highlights responsibilities and functions. In our made-up scenario, it’s reasonable to conclude that the evidence room didn’t get the way it is because one lone officer botched the whole room. It likely started with a clear lack of accountability for poor packaging conducted by officers and detectives. It was probably exacerbated by an inability for the officer in charge of evidence to put standards in place, and then with all the surprise demands for items, it just became too much to manage properly for one person with no authority. It doesn’t excuse their lack of self-accountability, but we can see how there are outside factors to the problem we’re tackling.
Also, creating this chain of command creates sound integrity. When something goes missing, it’s clear when and where it went missing, and who to ask about the item. The chain of command makes it easy to know where items are, what their status is, and in turn ensures that everyone is acting appropriately within their scope of employment. When something is done improperly, this chain of command on its own will expose it. If we had nothing else but the mere fact that something was missing, chain of command gives us clear reference points to focus on, and a defined area to find deficiencies. And that doesn’t mean that a person has necessarily done something wrong. It may be that the chain of command system exposes a weakness to our handling and storage methods that wasn’t previously considered. Mistakes happen. Everyone who depends on our evidence room know this, no one is asking for perfection. But if we have a neat and orderly evidence room, with a solid chain of command in place, we can be responsive to those weaknesses in a way that doesn’t compromise evidence or cases in our charge.
This speaks to reliability. With such a system in place, that catches the weaknesses not originally planned for, and even those rare occasions we have personnel that make a poor decision, our system proves out that it’s reliable when it’s able to capture these errors quickly, which makes it clear that we have a properly function evidence room.
Our chain of command works as simply as three parties working multiple functions, with oversight provided as needed. First, our officers and detectives are collectors of evidence, be it physical evidence, digital evidence, or another kind, as well as evidence documentation. This is composed of our evidence item logs, evidence photo logs, associated photographs and camera footage. The collection process includes documenting, seizing, and gathering all evidence and related goods. But it also includes proper packaging. We won’t discuss packaging in this feature, because that’s a much longer conversation and focuses one aspect. We’re looking at a bigger picture in this feature.
Once our “collectors” have finished their reports and packaging, they’re going to place stuff into wall lockers, or quite possibly, into a basket or other like item, for our retrieval. At this point, as the Evidence Custodian, we are acting as storage and security of the items in our control. At this stage, organization is the key.
Any evidence room needs to be organized in some fashion whereby evidence can be found quickly. Some agencies categorize their evidence room by last name of the suspect/arrestee, an old method, but one that is still present. Some organize their rooms by case number, a more common approach to today, and we’ll discuss why later. And even still, some organize their items by date recovered/reported. We pass no judgment on how it is organized, but the first step to recovering an evidence room is getting organized again. For our writing purposes, we’ll move forward with an organization system that is two-tier in nature. The first tier is the court of responsibility. In this scenario, we’ll have evidence destined for municipal court in one section, evidence destined for district and superior court, in another, and cases referred for federal prosecution in another. From there each section will be sorting items by case number.
As we all know, evidence from one case may only be two or three items, and in another, we may have thousands. In that light, we want to try to minimize as much confusion as possible. Grouping items by case number is the most logical of all options. Also, most evidence management software tracks items by the case number entered by the personnel who are initially writing the case. Therefore, following an order that includes the use of case numbers is becoming standard. This set of circumstances causes us to re-think how to order items. If you are dealing with a very large case in terms of evidence, while respecting the order of case numbers it may be useful for the system in place, and in consideration of the limited space you may have, to place all items from the one case into as few boxes, tubs, portioned shelves (whatever your shelving system is) as possible and then label those items with the case number prominently. This allows you to maximize your space for all cases, while still maintaining as much integrity for the shelving system you are using.
Also, if you are using boxes, tubs, or other similar items, it’s important to label the exposed side with what case number(s) are present. With fully enclosed boxes and tubs, affixing a printed copy of evidence inventory sheets, showing what is in each box is absolutely important, and should be mandatory. This helps with maintaining integrity of the evidence, as well as assisting in auditing processes, and dispositions. Not to mention, this helps with finding items when it comes time for court.
The whole point of our organization system is to know where each and every item is. We don’t want to lose accountability over any item placed in our possession. Every agency has different considerations. And our two-tier organization system suggested here is basic. It’s effective, especially if we’re having to re-invent the wheel, but it may not be the best method for your agency.
If you’re considering a change to your organization system, reaching out to neighboring agencies is a good place to start asking questions.
Sensitive items are items that an agency deems too valuable to be held with general evidence. The liability of loss or damage is too great, or the likelihood of loss is too great. While this is a sad statement viewed by itself, it’s not necessarily a reflection on you or agency personnel. It’s an acknowledgement that no matter how well organized our processes are, we lose things. It’s the human error factor. In terms of liability, we want to reduce claims against our agency, and the evidence room can become a burden in tort claims.
Sensitive items are generally cash, jewelry, high-end electronics, and other items of significant value. Some agencies also include handguns in their definitions, and we agree with that view. The argument could be made that all firearms should be included in this category, but in the next paragraph we will describe why that might be difficult for agencies to accomplish.
With sensitive items, they have to be stored separately. The way we accomplish this is by a safe. These items are packaged according to our set standards, just like any other item, but once they come into our evidence room, they go into the safe. Even if that means they will be separated from the rest of the items involved in the particular case. If you have a small space, it may be difficult to fit a safe that holds long guns, while also being able to hold handguns, electronics, jewelry, and bulk cash. Chances are you will have far more jewelry, electronics, and cash that fit the definition that anything else. A long gun oriented safe prioritizes long guns, and has space for some other smaller items, but not much. If you can only handle one safe in your evidence room, one that serves multiple purposes is your best bet. But that does mean you won’t be able to store long guns in it.
Dispositions & Audit Preparations
Depending on your agency, you may have officers and detectives in charge of reviewing their cases to see what the final dispositions are. You may have some cases where the evidence you’re holding never gets called to court. Perhaps the criminal has struck a plea deal, or pled guilty in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence. Maybe they died. We’re not so worried about those details, as we are with what the disposition is. Some agencies leave that duty up to the officer in charge of evidence. This will add a lot of work on your end, so with any luck, your agency realizes this and assigns the responsibility to the arresting officers and detectives.
At any rate, you’ll eventually get presented with disposition for the case in question. It will say that judgment was entered on XX/XX/XXXX date, and should have language in it that states that evidence can be returned to the criminal, or the victim (owner), can be destroyed, or “shall be sent for auction,” by XX/XX/XXXX date. Because laws vary State to State, we can’t say what circumstance you will face, but most court orders indicate that after the 61st day from judgment, the item or items can be disposed of, in whatever manner the court indicates. Judges don’t spend time thinking of these things, however we need them to order it, and have it placed on paper in order for us to track the evidence into, and then out of our evidence room. This means that you need to have your supervision ask the DA to ask for an evidence disposition in each and every order of judgment they are involved in. Once you have that piece of paper, you file it with the evidence inventory, and this becomes part of the audit file. Your audit will include items that are no longer in your custody, so ensuring you have all of this paperwork in the evidence room is important.
As we’re logging those dispositions, we need to create a report that goes to our supervision that shows what items have a disposition. Items that are to be returned to the owner are subject to separate handling process.
These items must be removed from our case shelves, and separated from all other items. Agency letterhead addressed to the owner, informing them of the disposition, and that they have 61 days from the date of disposition to retrieve the item are created, and mailed out to the person. We should already have a recent address for the person on file, in the case report. It may also be included in your evidence forms filled out by officers and detectives. Once that communication has been sent, the clock starts ticking on the items in question. If the owner does not come forward in some meaningful way to claim it, it can be destroyed.
Most states require agencies to destroy guns in their possession, after a judgment is issued that does not entail returning it the owner. But recently some State Legislatures have written laws requiring law enforcement to auction firearms they have as evidence, when they have not been ordered returned to the owner. This presents another option, and in some opinions, another headache.
The reason for this headache starts with the basic premise of suggested system in this feature. We’ve been able to streamline the outcomes for items we have to a few options. Auctioning only adds another option. But the legwork involved in setting up an auction can be painstaking.
Depending on how the laws are setup in your jurisdiction, if auction is required for firearms, the law may not give your agency the option of hiring a private auctioneer service for the sales. Instead, you’ll have to dedicate agency personnel to this endeavor. This means selecting a date for an auction, issuing public notice ahead of time (typically 30 days), finding a location to host, and of course, testing each firearm being held for auction. Because an agency can’t auction broken firearms, as that would be an incredible liability. Now you need an Armorer on staff who can inspect firearms, ensuring that each one is safe for auction. Some may be inclined to deem all firearms unsafe, and remove auction by that method. Our solemn recommendation…..don’t be that guy. It’s one thing to remove legitimate harm from a situation, but conducting your police department in defiance to intent of law is exactly the kind of attention your evidence room does not need, especially if it’s in the condition our fictitious room is in.
And of course, if we’re auctioning one type of item, we may as well auction the rest of whatever items can be auctioned, right? Right….
Whatever the intended disposition, we have an evidence log noting what the item is related to (case number, other items, etc.), an item sheet at this point, which details the storage dates, chain of custody if necessary, and then date of disposition. Additionally we should have an Order of Judgment attached, and with that our agency’s final disposition sheet for the item, which connects all the documents together, and states what we intend to do with the item.
With all these items in place, we are ready for a disposition review. This review should be conducted by a supervisor who has knowledge of evidence procedures, but does not have access to the evidence room. The reason for this is two-fold. First, it gives us a check and balance approach to when we’re removing items from the evidence room. Second, it gives us a person who is not subject to an internal investigation if something goes awry. This person can form the first link of our internal audit process from this specific position. This person should also have supervisory control over items entering the evidence room. By that, we mean if the evidence personnel deems a particular item is not packaged properly, or incorrectly labeled, this person who conducts internal audits and verifies dispositions, should be the person holding line staff accountable for how they present evidence. If the person is handling the front end and the back end, but not the middle portion, it makes for a clean system, where consistent standards and enforcement of such are possible, and those involved are not burdened by repetitive directive. This also means that your internal audit should be even more capable of becoming error free.
Internal audits should be conducted every month. They don’t need to be 100 percent of all items, but they need to include random selections of active and closed reports, ensuring that evidence is handled in like manner, depending on the circumstances that are attached to each item. Internal audits should also review files on items logged out to court, logged out to crime labs, logged out to detectives, other agencies, owner letters, and unable to locate.
The “Unable to Locate” file is tricky in our scenario. More than likely, if you’re cleaning up the blob, you’re going to have missing items. From a liability perspective, preparing documentation that those items are missing is appropriate, but we suggest taking an extra precaution and having the previous personnel in charge sign acknowledgment of the missing items. This is not because you can be unfairly blamed for missing items you have no control over. It is simply to establish who is ultimately responsible for the loss. It is quite possible that in the scenario we suggest, the person who was in charge may no longer be employed with your agency. This is why agencies as a whole need to maintain substantial investigative period, even if it means paying a person who ruined everything out of malice. This person may already be facing criminal charges, but they need to be assigned all responsibility for every missing item. It’s not your burden to bare, and your agency should support you in this endeavor. That means giving you proper time to sort out what is missing and what is not, and then compiling documentation for all missing items, and finally holding that person accountable for what is no longer present.
Back to our audits, as we develop this new system for evidence, our audit component needs to have an internal, and external portion. Setting up internal audit system is critical. If we can’t get our evidence room in order after an internal audit, then we need learn from that experience, change what we need to change, and then continue to refine the process until we can pass an internal audit.
In the case of our fictitious blob, it may very well take two or three attempts at an internal audit until everything is back under control. And even then, we’ll likely have unanswered questions. But once we’ve reached 100 percent accountability of all items in our evidence room, it’s time to schedule an external audit.
Some agencies use their own City or County Auditor for this task. We don’t recommend that. It is an acceptable option, and there is nothing that prohibits utilizing your local auditor. However, we believe utilizing an entity truly outside your local government is the preferred method. Every State, and in some local jurisdictions, there is a standing organization of evidence technicians and staff, who create acceptable standards for evidence handling and storage, and all related processes. It is preferred that any agency seek this organization out in their area for external audits. For one, if there are errors, they will be able to advise quickly how to solve the issues. Second, they can provide the benefit of overview to your entire evidence room, not just the audit process. An auditor likely doesn’t have that expertise.
This is how we get ourselves started toward removing the blob. These four components form the backbone of where we start. From there we continue to fix, mend, and update, or more likely write, policy to make sure we never get into this mess again. A number of agencies have had to restart from square one. And you can start from an even worse position. Asking for outside should not be discouraged, nor as a sign of embarrassment. It is what it is, we can’t control everything. Fixing the blob is about maximizing your resources. Asking for help along the way should be natural, and it’s a way for you to build professional relationships that can benefit you later. And in this scenario, that might be the only pay off in store.
Be safe out there!