If you’ve come to the conclusion that it’s finally time to upgrade your evidence room with a modern evidence management system, the myriad of choices available to you can be both confusing and frustrating. While evidence systems may look somewhat the same on the surface, the deeper you dig the more differences you’ll find.
The first, and probably the most important question you should ask is “What do I want to accomplish?” If yours is like most evidence rooms, you’re expected to handle not only physical evidence, but numerous forms of digital evidence. Are you looking for a glorified spreadsheet on a shoestring budget? Do you need an evidence system that can handle anything you can throw at it, now and well into the future? Are you prepared to pay a significant amount of money up front? Will your budget allow for the inevitable contractual fees associated with support and upgrades?
We thought it might be beneficial to discuss some key features that you may, or may not have, already considered. There are obviously many, many things that will play into your decision, but let’s start with these 10.
In order to have this discussion though, let’s assume that you’re looking for a complete evidence management system and you have adequate funds to purchase it. Price is obviously important to all of us, but we aren’t terribly concerned with it at this point in our discussion.
- Your new evidence management system should be, first and foremost, user friendly. Most agencies are gravitating toward systems that allow for officers to input data directly into the system. If the officers find it difficult to use, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle from day one. Your new evidence management system must be intuitive and easy to use. You can expect some resistance (let’s face it, cops hate change), but the easier a system is to learn and remember, the fewer headaches you’ll have moving forward. Avoid, to the extent possible, redundancy. We ALL hate entering the same data twice or three times depending on which screen we’re on.
- On that subject, in order for your officers to understand and accept the new evidence management system, you’ll need the ability to customize the system to fit your agency needs. Frustration can be born from something as simple as calling a case number a “report number” or an “incident number”. If your officers have called it a “case number” for 25 years, spare yourself the headache and go with the flow. Your new evidence management system must be flexible enough to allow you to customize an evidence system that works for YOU. One size most definitely does not fit all.
- The most important function of any new evidence management system is the ability to safely, and securely, store your data. You’ve probably already had the “server vs cloud” debate. Is upper management comfortable with cloud storage? Are they comfortable with the fees associated with cloud storage? Ideally, your new evidence management system is flexible enough to allow you to make the right choice for your agency. Don’t forget, if you choose an internal server, you’ll also need a reliable back-up system.
- Are the evidence management systems you’re evaluating actually “modern” at all? Sometimes, software vendors get stuck in a rut with outdated technology because their existing customer base doesn’t want changes or upgrades forced on them. Look for things like responsive web design and the ability to use multiple browsers. Are there functional mobile applications for the evidence systems you’re considering? More and more we’re seeing agencies demand the ability to do as much work as possible in the field, on mobile devices and MDT’s. Don’t assume that any evidence management system using barcode technology is “modern”. Bar code technology has, after all, existed for decades.
- Are the evidence management systems you’re considering adequately securing your digital evidence and treating it with the same importance as physical evidence? Officers need to know that when they upload photos and videos, they’ll actually be there the next day. Nothing is more frustrating for an officer than to hear that his photos are “missing” because there was an issue during uploading. This goes back to ease of use. Your new evidence management system should literally walk an officer through the upload process, stop him if he’s doing something wrong, save his work if he’s called away in an emergency, provide help if needed, and let him know that he’s successfully completed the task at hand once he’s finished. Ideally, you and your officers will have the ability to restrict access to sensitive photos and videos to only those persons who actually need the access.
- Digital evidence comes in so many formats that it’s almost impossible to keep up. Can your new evidence management system handle any format that you might encounter? Will you be able to play most common video formats within the software? Or will you need to download and use an external player? If you don’t understand codec’s, you soon will!
- Storing the associated data of tens of thousands of pieces of evidence is great, assuming you can actually find what you’re looking for when you need it. A powerful, easy to use search engine is crucial.
- Perhaps one of the most important features to closely examine is the chain of custody. The chain should begin with initial data entry and reflect every single change ever made to the record. If the officer misspelled the suspect’s name and an evidence tech made a correction, the chain had better show it. When an item moves from a temporary locker to a storage bin, it had better be reflected correctly in the chain. Can anyone, and I mean ANYONE, alter the chain in any way? If so, keep looking. Defense attorneys will soon learn to appreciate a chain of evidence that cannot be faulted.
- Do the evidence management systems you’re evaluating allow you to authorize different user rights and levels of access for different officers or groups? Might you someday wish to grant your prosecutors limited access so they can review records and digital evidence on their own, without creating excess workload for your staff? How else might you eventually wish to share your digital evidence?
- Will your new evidence management system be “stand alone” or will it be interfaced with an existing RMS? How seamlessly, and accurately will the data transfer process be accomplished? Will it be a one-time date migration or an ongoing interface between complex software systems? If you haven’t consulted your IT professionals, you should probably do so before moving forward.
Good luck as you make this most critical decision for your officers and your agency. You will all be living with it for years to come. It deserves all of your attention and focus. While you might get a second chance, it will be expensive!