We tackled the basics in reorganizing an evidence room and how to get protocols in place to secure an evidence room after disaster. Now we’re going to revisit some points to re-emphasize material, and expound on those topics. In this feature we’ll cover personnel selection for the evidence room, and establishing professional relationships with organizations within your State to assist in carrying out your revamped Evidence Room mission.
Evidence Room Personnel
We’ve started putting our Evidence Room together. The start of that was personnel replacement. But if we had problems with personnel before, what is different this time around?
It’s a valid question. And the short of it is, in our business we have to trust our personnel implicitly, and support them fully. We can’t spend time being paranoid about who we assign to various tasks in our agency. But there is some procedure to consider that can give everyone peace of mind in the process. And that is a backgrounding process.
We hear it all the time, “This officer already went through a background check to be hired. Why would we spend more money and time on backgrounding them again?”
You can consider it an option if you desire, but history tells us there are some serious considerations in the way of finances and associations that a person can have that can lead to negative performances in the care and custody of evidence. It’s always up to you and your agency how you want to proceed.
For a small agency, it is prudent to assign two members of your agency to the evidence room. Both would have general access to the evidence room, with only one maintaining access to the safe, where your sensitive items are placed. Since we are using the example of a smaller agency, if you belong to a bigger agency consider that fact, and multiple your personnel accordingly. However, it would be forward thinking to consider how many people you want to grant access to your safe. If you have one safe, no matter the size of your agency, it’s probably best to maintain only one person with access to it. If you had two safes, it would be best to assign one person to each safe, rather than one to both. If you maintain more than one safe, it is more likely you have full time evidence personnel, in which case this scenario does not apply.
Along with these two people there needs to be a supervisor included. We mentioned this supervisor role in the initial article as well. They serve as a supervisor to the evidence room, but in this small agency version, they serve in a capacity without direct access to the Evidence Room. The purpose behind this is to be able to cover two positions efficiently. One, any evidence room needs to have a supervision component to it. However, in a small agency we run up against the amount of personnel we have, and balancing how many roles can serve concurrently to our task at hand. By making this supervisor only capable of indirect contact, meaning they only have access to the room through the other two officers, it allows them to be easily eliminated as the subject of any internal investigation, and therefore a party who can participate in those processes.
In making their role indirect contact, it does lighten their role in terms of formulating procedure and policy. They should definitely be involved in the process, and be up to date on accepted techniques, but they would serve as an equal voice along with the two appointed officers in developing all elements of handling, accounting, and processing of evidence, more so than a totalitarian role over the discipline.
Evidence Room Background Process
Earlier we stated the need for a different backgrounding process for selecting evidence room personnel, and why that task is worth the effort. The facts of history spell out that officers who have financial issues, or questionable associations continue to become involved in misconduct or illegal acts stemming from the evidence room. And while there is an argument that can be made that leaving them out of the evidence room will not necessarily keep them out of trouble, by and large keeping them out of this assignment leads to a lot less issues in the future.
But while we mention the two key issues that plague personnel, what are we looking at specifically with them that we didn’t necessarily look at before? The answer may seem indirect, but it’s definitely not.
First, we have to recognize that continued backgrounding of personnel is burdensome process. Lots of things we’re not going to take the time to look at in regards to an officer, especially if the history on them, i.e. their initial hire background, doesn’t yield any information pertinent to our review. If an entry level officer didn’t have an history of gambling for example, if we looked into continuing the background of that officer five years later, we may be inclined to skip that coverage because there have been no signals suggesting that issue before or since their hire date. Why worry about it? And that is a totally acceptable response to the costs of managing an agency, if we’re talking about an officer on patrol who has no obvious signs of distress, and in the criminal and traffic checks nothing comes back. While we can look into some more general items, we may not want to expend money and effort to look into something specific if the general information comes back all clear.
But when it comes to the Evidence Room, it is wise to treat it as an agency within the agency. It used to be a place to send ROD’s (Retired On Duty), or officers that were a “special project” of the administration. But that’s not a recommended practice in the modern era. You really need to have your most trustworthy personnel handling your evidence detail day to day, especially if you want be able to have successful cases become successful prosecutions.
In a background process for this role, we would recommend obtaining a new set of fingerprints, and running those through any State or Federal databases you have access to. It most likely won’t net results. But it could also lead to a hit and you may find out your officer is involved in a series of bad decisions. That would definitely not be someone you want in your evidence room, and it’s not someone you’d like have employed for much longer either.
But even more specific than that, we recommend going over their financial information in even greater detail than before. We want to know any debts, their current payment status (delinquency), and if they are filing for bankruptcy. We want to know if a divorce has left them hurting, be it through child support payments, alimony, or some previously agreed upon separation fee to be paid to their former spouse. When evaluating credit card debt, don’t just look at if the account is paid on time. Look at how much money they are holding month to month on their cards. Is it well over 50 percent of the card limit? It may not be something that causes them to lose their job, but it’s definitely something that should give you pause in offering them access to the most sensitive area in the agency.
We used gambling in an example before. But this is also a serious matter for consideration. Does the officer gamble? Is it at a casino, or with friends? Is it 20 dollars, or 1,000 dollars a month? Is it a card game a local bar, or fantasy football with their college fraternity friends? We want to look into this as deeply as possible, and if we have stuff coming up that the officer isn’t admitting to, we not only have a weakness that should preclude them from working with evidence, but we have an integrity issue to boot. What you do with that information outside of the evidence room is your call. The point is, these are things that need to be looked through even more thoroughly they we did in their initial hire, and the decision to move forward or not needs to be even more black and white than we previously exercised.
Backgrounding may seem harsh, and some might even say we are setting up our personnel for a fall. The truth is, they owe it to themselves, more than us or our agency, to be forthcoming with who they are.
As an example of this, let’s say you have an officer who was interviewed for this evidence detail. They fully admit they have an old medical bill in collections, but they have records of the dispute they initiated, that should have stayed the collections process. Quite clearly, we have an officer who on paper, shouldn’t be accepted for the position. However, in their candid answering, and providing supporting documentation of the issue, we can see this officer is actually quite responsible, and is getting a raw deal for following a set of rules they were subject to. We can work with this kind of person, and if anything, this is the moment where backing your officer is crucial, to include moving forward with the process for the assignment at hand.
In another example, an officer doesn’t tell us about a car loan they are in collections for, and when we confront them with the information, they divulge they were a co-signer on their son’s car loan, and he defaulted, with the car being repossessed, but that they never were contacted by anyone concerning repayment. Again, this is plausible, and a situation where giving your officer the benefit of the doubt is warranted. Follow-up would suggest contact with the collections agency, and if they can’t verify if contact was made or not, it’s most likely another moment where backing our officer is the right move.
And while we’re talking about integrity, what about issues surrounding the truth? Has it come up that the officer has a checkered history in courtroom testimony? Are Sergeants and other supervisors having to question the details of their reports? Is there a significant pattern of complaints? What do we mean by significant? We mean four or more complaints that are all of the same nature, involving dishonesty. If we have these kinds of issues coming up, we should not be considering this officer for a role in our evidence room. It would be so easy for a defense attorney that is aware of the officer’s issues to exploit this weakness when they move to strict evidence. While it may take a while for a judge to listen, once an attorney casts that doubt over a person who handled evidence in a separate case, the damage is done. That case gets dismissed, and now your officer is directly hurting other officers, victims, and maybe even witnesses.
Our third area of concern is more gray than the other two. Family can be a very sensitive topic. For our purposes, we want to clue in on issues like divorce. Like, what caused the divorce, as we stated before we want to know about financial obligations post-divorce as well. Did the divorce open the officer up to blackmail or coercion? Remember, spouses have a lot of knowledge on their partner that no one else does. If you have personnel that is suspected of doing something wrong, a spouse or ex-spouse may have information that could lead to the evidence needed to stop them. And that doesn’t change when we deal with staff who work in the evidence room. In fact, you may recall some of the case examples we used in previous articles, the spouses were directly involved, and that lead to not only the officer’s arrest, but their spouse as well.
In the case of divorce being a non-factor, another consideration is the family history. Are there members who are abusers of drugs? Are they close family members? Do they have a history of theft? These may not factor into a hiring decision with very high considerations, but the peace of mind is worth it, and in cases where it reveals serious ethical concerns, you would have knowledge of an impending issue. At the very least you’d be in control of choosing how to move forward.
When it comes to associations, the professional relationships an agency establishes can never be as important as those involving evidence. Accreditation is great for obtaining grants and support on a number of other topics, but if your evidence room and practices are in shambles, you’ll never get accredited.
Being part of a task force is great. But losing it over mishandled evidence is a real problem, and to be able to gain it back takes even more time and effort than the first go around. Suffice to say, evidence handling and procedure predicts whether an agency sinks or swims.
When it comes to evidence, there are usually a few solid organizations you can partner with in your State that will help you advance your cause and your agency. In some States, it may be the Peace Officers Association that houses a statewide evidence board. Their goal is to bring people around the State together who are experts in the field of evidence, hold primary duties related to evidence, and those with policy making power directly related to evidence handling and security. By bringing these various voices together in one place, best practices can be outlined. And one tactic to accomplish that is to tour each member’s respective evidence room and experience how they handle materials on a day-to-day basis.
If you’re fixing an evidence room issue, this is a great resource to have. If your State’s POA is not the point of contact, reach out to your local academy and see if they have contact information for any similar organization.
Of course any agency would be smart to develop a relationship with their State’s Crime Lab. Most likely they are sending blood draws, narcotics, paraphernalia, and many other items for analysis. There’s no reason to not further that relationship if at all possible, through seeking guidance on evidence procedure and handling. Not all Labs have that function, and may even point you in another direction. But reaching out is half way the effort to get where you want to be. Developing a relationship beyond the usual business is almost never a bad thing anyway.
Last but not least, we should reach out to neighboring agencies. For one, they may have experienced the problems you are having now. Two, they may have developed some very knowledgeable staff that wouldn’t mind giving you some clear advice on how they fixed their issues, giving you a starting point for each topic within an evidence room that will need to be addressed.
We discussed last time how important an audit process is to ensuring the integrity and future success of the evidence room. And audit process allows your agency to maintain accountability, ensure policy is not only being adhered to, but is netting the desired outcome, and also exposes any weaknesses to the system in place.
Our audit process should have an internal process and an external process. An internal audit is one handled by our agency staff exclusively. An external audit is one where agency staff works with professionals outside our agency.
Our internal audit team should be made up of our two previously appointed officers, and the indirect supervisor. Audits should be conducted at a minimum every three months, up to every month. Time you can invest factors into that decision heavily, but a minimum of every three months should be the goal. Anything less leaves an open door for a defense attorney to suggest questionable practices. In addition to these three members, it is advisable to have at least one member of your agency not involved in the Evidence Room to be selected at random to assist the auditor with ensuring that the items selected are being recorded correctly. They serve as an independent witness to the audit, and in case your Chief or other administration has questions on how the internal audit was carried out, acts as an uninvolved member who can verify that procedure was adhered to. An even better system would include another supervisor being selected at random to double check all paperwork produced from the audit to ensure compliance. Again, this would give us another uninvolved party that can verify a crucial part of our process, documentation.
The internal audit does not have to a 100 percent accountability. In fact, most internal audits only account for up to 15 percent of total inventory at any one time. You could audit less if you choose to. As you build your internal audit process, you can write policy that outlines what amount of evidence will be audited by either a specific percentage, or a percentage range dependent upon criteria selected by the person acting as the auditor. It’s important that that selection of evidence be random, be it by case numbers, dates of entry, alphabetical (by suspect name), etc. This is a best practice that should be adopted by all agencies. We won’t dive into the specifics of an audit process beyond what’s been stated in this article. We will re-visit that in a future article.
The external audit team should be the same three members mentioned before, but in addition, a randomly selected member of the agency should be included, along with at least two members from an outside agency, such as an organization that regularly meets and discusses best practices in evidence (hint hint). With an external audit, since you would be receiving oversight from personnel that is deeply knowledgeable on evidence, it would not be necessary to have department members selected at random. However, if you can afford it, having a randomly selected supervisor verifying the paperwork from the audit is correct is a big plus.
The randomly selected member, along with the outside staff will supervise the audit, and in this case we should be conducting a 100 percent inventory of our evidence room. Be prepared to be there all day, and don’t forget to treat the outside staff to lunch, maybe even dinner. As they review your inventory lists, and verify each item’s status, the process should bring peace of mind to your process.
In rebuilding an evidence room, you should conduct several internal audits before an external. The point of the external is not to find errors. It’s to find weakness. All audits can reveal errors, including an external. But in this scenario, we should have been striving to get the entire evidence room back to 100 percent compliance prior to inviting guests. If we don’t reach that goal, it’s not a problem we can’t overcome. But the results of that audit are subject to public records request. If significant errors are found in your external audit, you may need to revisit policy to ensure your process is solid from evidence entry to disposition. The great thing about having outside professional staff in the external team, is that they very well could have the answers to fixing those errors that came up. In the best case scenario, they only would weaknesses however. Weaknesses are documented, but don’t suggest poor handling or accounting. They merely suggest a method that could lead to errors. If you address that weakness after it’s found, you would have the documentation to defend the issue, should it ever make it into a courtroom.
We’ve talked at length about our most sensitive topic on this issue. Conducting new backgrounds on people who are already our brothers and sisters. It’s a tough position, but our evidence deserves our strict efforts toward preservation of truth and reputation. Because law enforcement agencies are only as good as the arrests they make, and those arrests usually rely on the evidence. If your evidence is compromised, your agency as a whole is as well.
We’ve also talked in a little more detail concerning audit processes and how to set up teams for internal and external processes. If we can make our internal audits successful, we should be able to make externals a breeze. It starts with setting up proper teams.
We also talked about developing outside relationships that can benefit your agency, and that this is not something that should be feared. Remember, documentation of your evidence is subject to subpoena. The people involved in that paperwork are also subject to that. Having established people from outside the agency able to testify on behalf of your agency is a major reputation builder. And if you’re rebuilding from “The Blob”, you’re going to need all the reputation you can develop. Further, these relationships can help you develop policy and procedure quicker and more efficiently than going at this project alone. Rebuilding is not a phase you want your Evidence Room to be in for long. Addressing it swiftly and with results is the goal. Partnerships can help you get to that next stage.
Be safe out there!