Evidence Management Accreditation – Does it Matter?

Posted on: Aug 19, 2023

Categories: Uncategorized

Two Rants for the Price of One 

 A meditation on accreditation and the unsticky topic of evidence labels

 

Shawn Hendersen began this webinar by saying, “One of the reasons that we started these webinars – back during the dark ages of the pandemic – was to connect with people and provide evidence custodians and evidence technicians with a way to learn a few things while isolating. 

That’s why we also created the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook. That’s a great resource. At the time of this post, we’ve got 1,200 evidence custodians and evidence technicians across the country that are registered and participate to some degree. It’s a great place to get questions answered. We do pay attention and vet people that ask to join the group, so please take advantage of that. 

The second thing I try to do every show is give a shout-out to Tracker Products. They are an evidence management software provider, and they keep my lights on here at EMI, so I appreciate that. We’ve got a partnership. We work together in several different ways, but if you want to learn more about Tracker Products – what they do and how they might be able to impact your agency with technology – visit their website today. They would be happy to talk to you about evidence management systems and all the things that they can do to improve your operations.

Okay, we’re going to do two mini-shows today… two rants. We’re going to have a little meditation on our accreditation. I’ve been to a couple of agencies here recently, and their accreditation processes, either national accreditation like CALEA or a state accreditation, and there’s a theme that I’ve experienced that’s a potential hazard for us as evidence custodians.

We’re also going to talk about labels… unsticky labels. That’s one of the things that just keeps bothering me. 

Accreditation

 

Evidence Management

 

Unfortunately, one thing that I’ve found is… It is entirely possible for that to be the case. To have a national accreditation or a state accreditation and be an absolute catastrophe.

Now, how is that possible? Because accreditation is supposed to fix all that, right? 

Let’s take a look at what accreditation is and does and how it can benefit us or hurt us as evidence custodians. When we talk about agency accreditation, we’re really talking about two different types. There’s a national accreditation – I have nothing against any of these entities or organizations at all – like CALEA. Our agency was accredited by them for a while before I retired. But actually, we stopped doing CALEA, and we moved to a state model of accreditation.

The Texas Police Chiefs have an accrediting process for law enforcement agencies here in Texas. And I know in Colorado, there is a state accreditation process as well. So those are basically the types. It can be a national thing or a state thing.

RELATED: EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT – EVIDENCE HEALTH CHECK – PART 1

And there are a lot of positive aspects of accreditation. I mean, accreditation has done a lot for law enforcement. So please don’t hear me say accreditation is bad. Accreditation is not bad. But accreditation is good at what it does. It is not good at what it doesn’t do. And that’s what we want to talk about and address today.

 

Evidence Management

 

They have multiple positive impacts. One of them is they increase the level of professionalism within the industry. I truly believe that the accreditation processes are in part, responsible for raising the level of professionalism within law enforcement. And the reason for that is pretty simple.

There is zero standardization in law enforcement in this country. None. Zero. The way things are done in lower “CALEAsville” is going to be different than the way things are done at the county. I mean, you’re going to have two agencies side by side within a county, and the way that they conduct their business is completely different. Not just from an agency on the other side of the country. I’m talking about your next-door neighbor agency. 

There’s zero standardization within the industry. And I’ll tell you a secret, everyone loves firefighters, and I love them too because they’re always there to help you. But you know, something about fire service, a firefighter from town A can help town B fight a fire because they all pretty much do the same thing the same way. And there is standardization. 

They can work together, and they can cooperate. They’re better at working together and cooperating than we are. And part of that is because they have standards and protocols that they all follow.

 

Evidence Management

 

We’ve got to look at accreditation for what it is. It is a broad spectrum review, a full scope review. And most of it is helpful, but when you’ve got a broad spectrum accreditation process – when you’re looking at the big picture, the 30,000-foot view – you’re not going to have much granular insight into specific areas within each agency. 

And what most accreditation processes review are written directives. Do you have a written directive that says this? Well, yeah, okay, we do. But the problem with that way of measuring success is when what we do doesn’t match what we say we do. In the trade, we call that a lie. When our practices fail to meet our procedures and our policies, failure is the net result.

RELATED: EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT – EVIDENCE HEALTH CHECK – PART 2

Most accreditation processes look at pieces of the puzzle, but it never looks at how those pieces work together. And they don’t look deeply at any of those particular pieces. So again, I’m not complaining, but accreditation is basically examining and reviewing the building plans and the building materials. But there is a difference between building materials and an actual building.

And unfortunately, we place a lot of significance on the accreditation process because people believe it is significant and it is important. But there’s a very big difference between building materials – the pieces of the puzzle that accreditation looks at – and the actual house. You’ve got to live in that house. You can’t live in building materials. They have to be put together in a certain way, and they have to flow and function and work together in a way that is very different than just the characteristics of the materials themselves.

 

Evidence Management

 

So let’s look at where accreditations can fail. Really, you start with the quality of the inspector, the inspection, and the assessment tool. 

There are various accreditation tools in CALEA’s chapter 84. And I actually like chapter 84. I’ve got no issues with the bulk of chapter 84 in CALEA’s accrediting standards and best practices. I haven’t read it in a while, but it’s not a bad document. It’s just not a complete document. And that’s okay because CALEA is looking at a huge swath and spectrum of law enforcement practices and pieces. So they’re not going to hit everything. It’s just not going to happen. 

But when you look at other accreditations, like state associations, their practices can be good or bad. There are a couple of state associations whose practices and standards are flawed. There’s a whole lot of talk about… A directive needs to say this, but there’s not a lot more than that written into it.

RELATED: THE STATE OF EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT ASSOCIATIONS

And some of them actually contain language that’s kind of flawed. The directives don’t promote the absolute best practices and standards within evidence management. Specifically, those sections that are talking about property and evidence. So there’s the quality of the assessment tool that can be an issue. Some are better than others. 

There’s also the quality of the assessor who’s coming through. You know, if this is just a rubber stamp process, then this is not very helpful at all. But one of the things where accreditations can fail – and when I say fail, I’m talking about fail us as evidence custodians – is generally the assessors and the assessment tool – lacks a deep understanding of what we do as evidence folks. 

So because there’s a lack of experience in both the assessor and the assessment. sometimes that doesn’t yield the best reflection of an agency’s evidence management practices.

But for me, the fatal flaw of an accreditation process is the false confidence in that stamp of approval. The thinking is… Well, that couldn’t be true because we’re an accredited agency. If that phrase is ever used, that should be a red flag. Couldn’t happen because we’re an accredited agency, or no, we’re an accredited agency. We, we wouldn’t do that. 

Well, that’s not true. Accreditation processes can breed a false sense of confidence in law enforcement executives. And I get why that happens because if I were a police chief, I would be nervous all the time. Especially now that I’ve worked in evidence and done evidence consulting and training for a number of years. I would be nervous about running a dope unit, use of force issues…

I’d be nervous about how my evidence is stored, managed, and handled because I am responsible for that. So I want to feel good about myself. I want to go to bed at night and sleep without worrying. So one of the things that you can do is place your confidence in the wrong thing. Just having that seal of approval doesn’t mean that everything is okay. It’s incumbent on us in law enforcement not to allow that to happen. 

Labels

 

So that is a rant on accreditation. And I promised you two rants. So now, let’s talk about labels. Labels continue to drive me nuts because everywhere I go, I usually see two or three things specifically related to labels that are vexing.

 

Evidence Management

 

Labels fail us in four different places generally. By the end of this, I’m going to give you fixes for all of these things. 

But basically, the four failure points are 1)  Materials, the label material that you use. 2) The adhesive that is applied to the back of the label. 3) The type of label printer and ribbon system that you use to print on your labels. And 4) the “Labelers.” 

We can pretty easily control the material, the adhesive, and the printer on our side of the equation. We can choose and advocate for appropriate label materials, but the labelers are another issue. The people that place the labels on the bags… that is another area where labels tend to fail. So let me try to illustrate this a little bit better.

 

Evidence Management

 

This is a motorcycle stored outside in the elements. They did their level best to protect this label by placing it inside a bag. But the crazy thing about the sun is it is incredibly powerful, and it basically obliterates printed materials using the wrong materials really quickly. 

In the second picture, there is a label that just fell on the floor. This was a label that was attached to an item that just fell off. That’s, that’s another example of a label failure. 

I’ve experienced number three here, where labels just slough off. Either they fall off of the location, or they fall off of the actual package itself. That’s another type of just material failure. 

And the last is kind of similar to the first. It’s a label that’s just faded over time and is no longer legible because it was exposed to the sun. There are fixes, really easy fixes, for all of those issues. And if you want to dive into it deeper, check out the evidence packaging guidelines that we did last year. Basically, these are minimum material specifications. 

We’re not going to tell you what size or what kind of printer to buy, but we’re going to tell you what type of materials you need to be using to prevent issues like this. I have seen this for years and years, over and over, in auditing and consulting projects.

 

Evidence management

 

There are labeler failures… where you’ll have a detective go seize a computer and then fill out a paper label by hand, and then instead of putting the case number on it they put the serial number or the CPU on there. Now that’s, that’s just a failure on the labeler to put any meaningful information there.

RELATED: THE EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT PACKAGING SPECTACULAR – PART 1

Another labeling failure to me is just… where you place the labels. For example, this was a bag (2nd image above) with a lot of issues. They just placed labels everywhere all over the package, and that’s a problem, especially when it comes to trying to inventory a package or trying to examine a package. You don’t know which of those labels are correct, what they mean, or what is current and pertinent.

My other pet peeve is people that love to close craft bags by crinkling them (3rd image above). Those labels are label failures because it’s going to be really difficult, if not impossible, to use a barcode reader to scan those packages. Labels don’t read well unless they are flat. 

You might be able to get a scan, but this is the same thing as going to a grocery store, and you’re trying to get a UPC barcode reader to read a package that’s just all flipped over. They’ve put the UPC barcode label in a weird place. It’s just not going to work. 

So how do we overcome this? This is actually pretty simple. 

 

Evidence management

 

Use the right materials. Use the right adhesive, use the right type of printer, with the right type of ribbon that will resolve all labeling failure issues. Except for number five, if you use paper for your labels, they will fail. Now you might be able to keep them for a limited time in a storage environment if you got perfect conditions. 

Paper is not a great material to use for label construction. Paper rips. Paper is made of wood. It soaks up moisture. It doesn’t hold print very well –  even though I get it, you know, books and stuff. But that’s a totally different thing. Paper is not a great surface for printing labels on.  Polypropylene or synthetic labels are the materials that they use to label oil field pipes, which are really rough conditions. So that gives you an idea of just how durable that material is as a surface for labels.

RELATED: THE EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT PACKAGING SPECTACULAR – PART 2

Are they more expensive? Yes. But when it comes to labeling property and labeling evidence, it is far worse to have a label just utterly fail, evaporate, and disappear overnight than it is to spend a cent or two more on better material… that’s permanent. 

One of the principles of labeling evidence is that the label should be there for the duration of the custody of that item, regardless of how it’s stored. Now we know that some evidence is going to go into cold storage. Some of it is going to be stored in a protected temperature-controlled environment. But regardless of where it may be stored, that label has to work for all those conditions. Synthetic polypropylene labels are definitely the answer. 

As a side note, if you’re warning labels don’t follow the same standards as your evidence labels, then they’re going to fail too. 

The second thing is adhesive. The back of labels need to have permanent adhesive. Now, adhesives are really advanced, really incredible products. They can make adhesives that will hold a label on a container that you can remove with no residue left behind. 

That’s beautiful. But that’s not the stuff that we need. We need stuff that’s never going to let go of that package, regardless of the packaging type. It needs to stick to craft paper, to envelopes, to cardboard boxes, to plastic heat seal tubing. It’s got to stick to everything. So for that, we need a permanent adhesive. 

The last couple of pieces of the puzzle is the type of printer that you use. Direct thermal printers are not appropriate for evidence labels. You need to use a thermal transfer printer. Thermal transfer printers with wax or wax resin ribbons… that is the equation for permanent labels. That will not fail you. If you do not use these four materials in your labels, your labels are probably going to fail you.”

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