In this edition, we’ll be discussing proper handling and packaging of firearms, how this type of evidence presents multiple activities that need to be trained thoroughly, and why evidence personnel should be the subject matter experts on the topic, and what additional devices and protocols are needed to store and manage firearms evidence exceptionally.
The biggest problem that firearms present when storing, is their general shape and size assigned to categories of firearms (handguns, rifles, shotguns, etc.) However, the biggest problem they present overall is misappropriation. While currency and narcotics have been tied to less than honest behavior, no one item stored in evidence has been handled improperly than firearms. And while the obvious of outright theft occur, it’s a range of misappropriation that occur. Everything from illegal resale, improper appropriation for agency purposes, gift giving, and improper destruction, firearms have given agencies fits for a long time historically. So much so that many agencies have developed one standalone process, that involves destroying firearms in their possession, making them unusable, which has now grown an entire industry based on that activity alone. In some cases, the practice has become State law. While we don’t advocate one way or the other, there is certainly a way to incorporate a multitude of outcomes that respect proper handling of firearms, without setting up your agency, or your personnel for failure.
As with the other evidence processes we described previously, firearms that are related to a crime need to be photographed in the same manner. We start from the perspective of where the firearm was first noticed, keeping in mind how this relates to the crime perpetrated. For example, if a criminal was pointing a firearm at a victim for example, we don’t need to simulate that activity for a photograph. However, if you’re processing a crime like Unlawful Transport of a Firearm (or your jurisdiction’s equivalent), it would make sense to take a picture of a gun that was lying in the front seat of a vehicle. As we continue, those photographs should end at the most logical point, that being up close, and personal. Some agencies use L-References, or tape measures to give close photographs perspective. Your last shot of any firearm should incorporate this tactic.
Next, as we have with all other evidence, we don gloves, and bag the firearm. This will most likely be a temporary staging of a firearm. Most agencies now have a clearing barrel somewhere around their building, and with agency liability at hand, the old technique of clearing firearms on scene is likely not ok anymore. So, while it’s important to have a safe firearm, it’s also important to render that firearm safe, safely. There very well could be circumstances where clearing the firearm on scene are necessary, so don’t write or allow policy to be so rigid that real life decisions cannot be made as they present themselves. And no policy should prevent officers from removing magazines from the firearms.
Once we’ve returned to the department, we can take the firearms out of the bags, and using a clearing barrel to finish rendering the firearm safe. Officers should then utilize an appropriate box to package the firearm. Several evidence-supply companies build these boxes that are flat, and pre-cut for folding, so that they can encapsulate that firearm in its entirety. These boxes need zip ties to secure the firearm within the pre-developed frame, while also keeping the action (chamber) of the firearm open, ensuring that no ammunition can be placed in the firearm. Once completed, it’s time to take the firearm, and put it in temporary storage. Ammunition, magazines, moon clips, and all related feed devices should be packaged separately from the firearm and can be placed within the box storing the firearm.
Intake & Storage
Policy should state clearly that firearms need to be removed daily from temporary storage. And if your officers on scene are not checking serial numbers, then this assignment fits comfortably with your evidence personnel. Aside from their job of inspecting whether firearms evidence has been packaged correctly or not, this also fits in when they double check the action of the firearm to ensure it’s not loaded, and that it’s been rendered safe. This is a good place to assign the task, because at this point we’re in a controlled environment, and we can focus on the task, rather than the push and pull of tasks that happen on any given scene. If the firearm does not have a serial number, a policy needs to be in place how to properly how to document such firearms, and potentially contacting an outside agency for assistance in comparing the firearm with any stolen guns. And this is also the time to verify the firearm’s description, model, and caliber all match on the paperwork to the firearm itself. Yet another option, that provides dual confirmation, is to have the officer placing the firearm in temporary storage to run the serial number, and attach a print record of the database check, whatever the result. Then, your evidence personnel would conduct that same check, and attach the result they get, if the result matches. If it is different, then a third party would be called in to verify the serial number, check the two results, and determine which one is correct.
Whether your evidence personnel are civilian or sworn, they will need additional safety training in handling firearms. They will be dealing with all types of firearms, and even sworn personnel are not always experts on every type of firearm, or are aware of all functions in every firearm out there. From black powder rifles, to striker fired pistols, each type of firearm and action has specific handling requirements, and your evidence personnel need as much training on this topic as your agency gunsmith has, possibly even more.
When it comes to long term storage, firearms should be maintained in a gun safe, secure locker, or other type of device at a minimum. Some agencies invest in a large walk-in vault to handle firearms, due to the volume of firearms handled. This is by far the best solution for any agency, but whatever your situation, having a storage mechanism that is locking, and separate from all other devices in the storage space covers what is necessity.
Transfers of Evidence
Crime Labs, Court, Transfer to Other Agency. These are typical transfers that your evidence personnel will be dealing with. And as described in narcotics and currency handling, dual confirmation of any transfer of a firearm needs to be standard. This involves the evidence personnel signing out the firearm, and the personnel receiving it signing for it. We won’t discuss this in too much depth, because we’ve covered this scenario and the variations on transferring evidence for all parties.
Disposition of Firearms
At the end of the firearm’s evidence life cycle, comes disposition. This is where firearms can be a little complicated. We mentioned earlier that some states have rules for firearms, even laws, that say the law enforcement agency must destroy the firearms in a way that renders them unusable. There are some states that have produced mandatory auction as a remedy concerning disposition of firearms held as evidence. In those cases, it is the job of the agency to record disposition of the case the firearm is related to, and to then find proper storage of the firearms until an auction can take place. This presents a problem, because even though the evidence has been declared to not be evidence anymore, the evidence room technically still has control of the firearm. However, if your agency can separate the responsibility, the concept of finalizing disposition of the firearm from the perspective of the firearm, and then turning over control to someone in charge of auctioning property would be a conceivable option. Keep in mind, that these firearms would still need to be placed within a secure room, and in a locker or vault of some type. But this would alleviate strain on your evidence room, and allow property acquired or disposed through auction to be handled separately. It is also important that your agency acquire written documentation from their city or county council, and prosecutor or State’s Attorney that shows they sign off on the activity of auctioning firearms, along with the specific laws cited that require it. In the unlikely event that an auctioned firearm is used in a crime after the fact, agencies are constantly made to bear the burden of explaining why this happens, when it’s not their position to do so. Certainly, any firearms that are constructed illegally, or present other legal issues (serial numbers altered come to mind) need to be destroyed, despite the judgment that may be in place, and that is a good example of a time when your administration needs to get clarification from the court as it relates to a specific firearm. Judges are not always aware of the condition of each and every firearm, and they must act quickly in developing their judgements, sometimes this causes a lapse in proper orders pertaining to evidence. It still requires your agency to clarify what is happening, and how to get corrections completed so firearms can be handled appropriately.
Release to Owner is also another disposition to consider. In this situation, having the investigating officer sign off on the release, along with their supervisor serves as an additional check prior to releasing the firearm to the owner. In releasing the firearm, decisions on releasing both ammunition and the firearm at the same time, or one at a time may be a consideration. How you decide to handle this is entirely up to you. But, having a specific conversation about this with all involved personnel to create a set policy is required. We mentioned one element of purging, as it relates to when firearms are going for auction. But in the case of a department receiving an order of destruction on a firearm that may be of use by the agency, there must be documentation, written by officer who believes the firearm would be of use, why they believe that, followed by inspection by your agency gunsmith. They will need to document the inspection, detailing any after-market parts found, any alterations, whether those discoveries mean the firearm is ineffective, or prone to malfunction. The gunsmith will also need to have test the firearm, and document those results. And in the case that any repair work is needed to make the firearm acceptable, that too will need to be documented. Finally, agency administration will need a standardized review process in place to look at the firearm, the accompanying documentation, and then decide, which is also documented. This sort of process shows the length an agency has gone to in documenting the validity of agency need, and that the firearm has been documented properly as to meeting standards set concerning agency procurement. It also presents an official record, that if ever called into question, becomes very difficult to argue against. This is also a time where your evidence management system comes into play. If your system doesn’t have the ability to create documents, especially these kinds of documents that are related to the evidence, but serve specific agency purposes, then your system needs changes.
While we don’t cover everything related to firearms here, we’re giving you a crash course of start to finish, how firearms should be handled, packaged, and managed, and how they should be dealt with after the conclusion of their life cycle. Firearms present unique challenges, and their storage is very different from many other forms of evidence. It doesn’t have to break your agency to manage firearms evidence, so long as you build a sound, clear plan to do so, and back it up with proper handling and storage procedures.
Be safe out there!