Often, when talking to department heads at small or mid-size law enforcement agencies about their evidence room and whether or not they might benefit from evidence management software, we hear “the old way still works”. But does it? Really? I can’t help but wonder if the department head really understands the day to day operations in the evidence room, or if he or she thinks that the “old way still works” simply because they aren’t hearing any complaints.
The “old way” of managing evidence is almost always paper based, and starts when an officer collects a piece of evidence at a crime scene. The officer either tags the evidence or places the evidence into an evidence bag and write some information about the evidence on the bag itself, perhaps the case number and the incident date and address. The piece of evidence is probably assigned an item number, and by the end of his / her shift the officer will have delivered the evidence to the evidence room or dropped it into a temporary storage locker to be retrieved later by evidence room personnel. A hand written evidence report will usually accompany the evidence, with a copy attached to the case report. There is almost always some duplication of effort, and there is ALWAYS the possibility of human error, poor handwriting, and general sloppiness.
When the evidence custodian receives the evidence, he or she must determine whether or not lab work is needed and whether any notifications need to be made, and then assign a permanent storage location and place the item on a shelf or in a box. Usually, items are logged into a master logbook. Many agencies also require the evidence custodian to enter any data pertaining to the evidence into a records management system.
Tracking the evidence throughout its life cycle can mean messy, handwritten notes on evidence reports, updates to the logbook, and additional data entry in the RMS any time the item status or evidence storage location changes. Maintaining a defensible chain of custody is a challenge, to say the least.
This labor intensive method is still being used in thousands of law enforcement agencies in the US and around the world. While it still works, we would like to point out a few of the things you might be missing if you’re still doing it the “old way”.
- Every extra minute an officer spends writing an evidence report is another minute he or she is not on the street. It’s a fact, paper based evidence management systems waste valuable time.
- Catching and correcting mistakes in a paper based system is difficult and time consuming. With most modern systems, there are systems in place to prevent and detect human errors.
- Are your evidence custodians doing regular and random audits? It’s almost impossible to run an accurate inventory every quarter or even every year. How can you possibly be sure of what’s in your evidence room?
- There is no sense of collaboration between evidence custodians, officers, investigators, and prosecutors in a paper based evidence.
- The very difficult task of attaining accreditation becomes practically impossible without a modern, capable evidence management system.
- Chain of custody in a paper based system can be easily altered and attacked by a defense attorney.
- Missing or misplaced items can be difficult or impossible to locate without the use of bar code scanners and modern technology.
- Paper based evidence management systems can be easily challenged in court.
- Some modern evidence management systems can also handle your digital evidence storage and security. There is no need to burn photos and videos to a disc or save them in a separate system.
- The best systems have the ability to easily share digital evidence through controlled access or e-mail.
- Finding items, case files, or information on the people involved in a case could be a challenge if something were to happen to your file system or logbooks. How do you backup a paper based system?
- Disposition of closed cases without a modern evidence management software system is difficult and time consuming, leading to piles of unneeded “stuff” in your evidence room. If your evidence custodians are allowing things to pile up, it’s because the disposition process is simply too challenging and it’s easier to ignore the problem!
While smaller police departments might have fewer pieces of evidence items collected every week, the potential liability involved with losing or mishandling a piece of evidence is the same as that faced by larger agencies. One small problem in the chain of custody could jeopardize your evidence and your case. The black eye an agency can get from sloppy evidence handling might take years to fade.
Most evidence software on the market today will solve at least some of the problems highlighted above, and some systems even have the ability to help your agency go 100% paperless.
If it’s your job to pick the best evidence management software available for your agency and your budget, stay tuned. In future blog posts, we will discuss what a good evidence management software system looks like and how to choose a system for your agency, based on your needs and your budget.
If you have a specific question you’d like to ask, or a unique problem, let us know! Our evidence experts are available to offer their opinions to get you back on track!