While not considered to be an exciting part of any law enforcement career, case management can be one of the most crucial. Proper case management practices can ensure a law enforcement officer’s investigation will run smoothly from inception to closing. Improper case management practices can be devastating to a case, and worst case scenario may result in a criminal getting away with their crimes or disciplinary action being levied against the investigating officer. Case management systems vary from agency to agency, but no matter where or who for a law enforcement officer works, mastering the appropriate case management systems is paramount.
Here we will examine a few best practices both for supervisory law enforcement personnel when assigning and reviewing cases and for front line investigators who will utilize their department or agency’s case management system.
Before the Case is Assigned: Supervisory Duties
Supervising law enforcement officers is no easy task. Law enforcement officers can be naturally headstrong and assertive, and seasoned law enforcement officers may not appreciate other officers judging or critiquing their work. Supervising law enforcement officers in an investigative setting is no different. A good supervisor of investigators will have to navigate dealing with the different personalities, working styles, and competencies of his or her subordinates. Before assigning a case, a supervisory investigator must take into consideration the current caseload of his or her people. Are there investigators who are overworked and/or overtasked? Are there investigators who may be having personal problems that have not been addressed? Are all of the subordinate investigators fully trained and proficient with evidence management to include best practices when dealing with electronic evidence?
These are questions that must be answered before cases are assigned. By evenly distributing case work, a supervisor can increase the odds of leading a productive team. And knowing which investigator’s strengths address a case before assignment makes for the best outcome overall.
Methods of case management have changed over the years. Investigators used to rely solely on paper case files that contained all of the documents, pictures, and other miscellaneous items associated with an investigation. Today, almost all investigators will use a case management system that is a hybrid combination of the old paper case file and a newer computerized system. In addition to the advantages of being able to save all documents to a computer hard drive or server in case a backup of a document is needed, this new hybrid system has enormous benefits when dealing with evidence. Having a digital evidence management system means that chain of custody documents can be re-created if necessary. It also means that the physical location of any seized evidence can be easily found using the evidence management software contained within the case management system.
Investigators must be proficient with their department or agency’s chosen case management system to the point where they would feel comfortable describing the ins and outs of it in a court of law. A good investigator must be prepared to testify about how their case management and evidence management systems if called upon to do so.
When Problems Arise
What happens when the unthinkable actually happens? Every investigator thinks that it can’t happen to them but even good investigators make mistakes. Case files and individual pieces of evidence may get lost from time to time. Reports and other documents may need to be corrected or otherwise re-written. As long as the law enforcement officer can explain the mistake and the mistake was not made in malice, there should be nothing to worry about. Almost all case management systems today give their users the opportunity to load documents, pictures, and video or audio files to the system’s offsite digital storage infrastructure. It is highly recommended that an investigator take a day or two and upload ALL of their case files to their case management system so that they may be retrieved and replicated in digital format if necessary. This gives the investigator the option of “re-building” a paper case file if the need should arise.
If physical or digital evidence is lost, either during the lifecycle of the case, or after the case has been concluded, there are steps that can be taken to minimize damage. First and foremost, the law enforcement officer should notify his or her supervisor of the issue. Secondly, the investigating officer should take inventory and assess what possible damage their mistake might have on their case. If the officer believes no issues will arise for the case, the matter can be handled internally in accordance with department or agency policy. If there is likely to be damage to the case, it is recommended that the investigating officer contact his or her prosecuting attorney immediately and inform them of the issue. There are very few issues that cannot be overcome when proper case management practices and policies are followed.
Case management in law enforcement may not be the most exhilarating topic to cover when discussing law enforcement issues, but it is essential nonetheless. All law enforcement officers, but especially law enforcement officers operating in an investigative capacity must be trained and proficient in their department or agency’s case management system and evidence management system in order to do their jobs effectively. Law enforcement officers who supervise investigators must find a way to effectively manage employees while taking into consideration their duties as law enforcement officers, and also the need for work-life balance.
Most case management systems will allow an investigator to backup most if not all of the investigator’s case file. It cannot be stressed enough that all investigators should take the opportunity to do so. Finally, if issues do arise, it is imperative that the law enforcement officer notify his or her supervisor and possibly prosecuting attorney, and write a detailed report about what the problem is. If an investigator takes the time to learn about and follow proper procedures with regard to their department or agency’s case management system, there are very few problems that cannot be overcome in the end.