In this webinar, Shawn Henderson, Executive Director of the Evidence Management Institute, discussed: the characteristics of the culture of evidence management, a forward view of evidence management, four things you can do to effect change, and two fun by-products of COVID-19 in regards to culture change.
Shawn said, “The primary cultural artifact related to police officers – and I was a police officer for a number of years before I was an evidence custodian – is the… submit it and forget it mentality. I think that is probably one of the most pervasive pieces of law enforcement culture, as it intersects with evidence management, is that sense that evidence belongs to us – [the custodians]. Once they put it in the locker, they’re done with it. That’s a really negative aspect of the culture and something that we really need to change – and change the dialogue about – as we move forward.
I think evidence culture is also very past-focused. We look at everything that we’ve never been able to do. I think that most agencies are run entirely based on the mantra of… Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it. And I think that seeps into our culture.
We’re also very problem-focused. I think that most of the training that is available out there – and, quite honestly, the reason that I wanted to do something different at the Evidence Management Institute – is very focused on problems; people going to jail, people stealing things. That’s just the very lowest common denominator of humanity, as it relates to evidence management.
I’m not going to ignore the fact that problems exist; that we compete for resources, that we have trouble staffing, and we have trouble getting the equipment that we need. Those are real. But, that can’t be the focus. That can’t be the entirety of the conversation. The attitude can’t be… we’ve had all these problems and no one will help us solve them. If that’s the narrative, then we might as well quit… and we can’t do that. So, we might as well move forward.
I think one of the downsides of our culture currently, is that a lot of us exist in a sworn civilian environment; but, there are a lot of civilians in this line of [custodial] work. And when civilians have conflicts with sworn officers, they always seem to lose. We don’t have the authority to make purchasing decisions; we can’t make people do what we want. We’re very focused on our lack of power. And I think that those are some things that we would really benefit from changing. I’d like to see that change in the very near term. And I think that’s possible. We shouldn’t be here if we don’t think that change is possible.
As an evidence custodian, I’m going to bet you think that there is value in what you do. You think that there is a reason for what we do. You think that it’s important. I look at the current culture – that is really focused on officers not doing the right thing – and unfortunately, if you view evidence management through that lens, we lose.
So, I would like to take a more forward look at evidence management; look at what it can be or what it ought to be. We exist in a changing world. If someone told you, six months ago, that there’s a disease out there, and we’re going to have to stay in our houses for two months, no one would have believed you.
Our identity as evidence managers needs to change. Law Enforcement has lost a lot of the public trust that they once had. I mean, there was a time when police departments could do pretty much whatever they wanted or needed to do, and no one would ever scrutinize them or look twice at their actions.
We don’t live in an environment like that anymore, and that’s actually a good thing. As a result, we’ve had to become more transparent. Our ability to communicate has changed dramatically. I mean, we’re talking to people right now, across the country, on this webinar. I think we can build community by leveraging the technology that’s available now.
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I would encourage you to think about a few things, with respect to our identity. I think it’s really easy to get in this [custodial] position and be defeated; to feel like nobody supports you, that you’re doing this on your own. It’s really easy to feel that way because you’re stuck in a room that no one else can get into.
So, physical isolation can lead to a sense of… I’m doing this by myself. There’s no one out there to help me or advocate for me. And that’s simply not true. I think it’s always great to take a look and make sure that our identity is correct; that we’ve taken a look at what we do, and why we do it. That helps propel us forward.
What you do, as an evidence manager, it matters to justice. If you don’t do what you do, then justice suffers. That is a very simple and stark truth. If there is no one there to preserve and protect the evidence, then bad things happen. And you are on the front line of that. There’s a tendency for us to think of ourselves as warehouse clerks or people that just store junk. That’s not what we do.
I encourage evidence custodians to think of themselves as curators of a museum. It might be a museum of every horrible thing that’s ever happened in your municipality, but it’s a museum. The work that you do is important. The stuff that you keep is important. The evidence that we keep, it’s got the power to exonerate the innocent or to convict the guilty. It’s got the power to tell stories for people that can’t tell them anymore.
For example, we worked a homicide involving a victim that was a child, and the evidence that we were collecting and preserving, was the only thing that was ever going to tell that story. There is something really powerful and really important about that.
I think we need to shift our focus away from what officers will do or won’t do, or what command will let us do or what they’ll write in a policy. Let’s not focus on that because we can’t control that. Most of us don’t have the authority to control those things. But the one thing that we can do is be advocates for what is best for the evidence.
I would love to be able to tell you that we have some kind of program where we compel police chiefs to recognize evidence custodians at their agencies. That’s not going to happen. But you do exist in a bigger community. Other evidence custodians working around you. We just have to begin to build those communities and be part of those communities.
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I would love for us, as a culture, to move forward and be more focused on how we can influence rather than the authority that we may or may not have. You can’t always have authority, but you can always have influence. The way we conduct ourselves, as evidence managers, makes a huge difference in our ability to influence others. And I think it’s important for us to start focusing on the influence that we can have, incrementally, not just within the four walls of our police department, but within the greater evidence management community.
I think it’s also important to start focusing on all the stakeholders in the process. Traditionally evidence management has been really focused on making sure that the police officers turn their stuff in; making sure we get this stuff to the courts.
It’s important for us if we want to be successful, to think about all of the stakeholders in the process. I’m talking about labs, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, and defendants. Everyone has a stake in the evidence that you are storing. Those are people that we need to consider when we make decisions and move forward. Each of those can be advocates for us when we need to make change.”
The Evidence Management Institute and Tracker Products want to give you something productive to think about during this time of uncertainty. This is the seventh webinar in a series of free evidence management training and panel discussions. Watch and comment on the recordings here, or – to get in on the discussion – join the Evidence Management Community Forum.
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