Evidence Management – DIY or DIE Guide to Inventories, Audits, and Inspections – Part 1

Posted on: Apr 13, 2022

Categories: Uncategorized

This month on The Evidence Show we focused on some Home Away from Home Improvements that can make a huge difference in your evidence management unit. 

You don’t have to pay a professional to come in and do an audit. In many cases, hiring an outside auditor isn’t even the best first step on the road to recovery.

Regardless of how it’s accomplished, documented accountability processes like inventories, audits, and inspections should be a part of your agency routine. We’ll show you how to get things started and give you some things to think about when you need a little extra help in your evidence management unit. 

We will talk about knowing when DIY makes sense, and when DIY isn’t an option. We’re really overusing some acronyms for this episode. But hey, most of us come from law enforcement, where the ridiculous overuse of acronyms is just part of our DNA (there’s another one).

“The Evidence Show” is hosted by EMI Executive Director Shawn Henderson. Not to spoil the plot, but The Evidence Show is, well… a show about evidence management. 

In each episode, we take a look at the unique issues that impact evidence managers and custodians and the law enforcement community in general.

Shawn began the webinar by saying, “Thank you for being here. We’ll direct your attention to a couple of things we do at the beginning of each show. First, is the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook. Nearly 800 evidence custodians have joined and are using it to great effect. 

The forum gives you a place to ask questions and to look for solutions that you might not be able to find on your own. We created it to have a place for people to talk. We started back at the beginning of the pandemic and continue to see people using that as a powerful resource. It’s a great place to connect with like-minded evidence custodians and managers.

I’d also like to direct your attention to Tracker Products. This webinar was made possible because of our partnership with them. They’re an evidence management software solution, and I highly recommend that you check them out. They keep the lights on here, and we are very appreciative of that. 

Today, this is episode number 14. This is kind of the Do It Yourself guide to inventories inspections and audits. We want to talk about inspections, audits, and inventories – doing things on your own and being successful at that – but also, knowing when to call the plumber. Most agencies out there, and many of the folks that I’ve met over the years, are fully capable of performing these processes on their own. We just want to give you some additional resources to encourage you to step out on your own to accomplish them.

So, what are we talking about today? We’ll talk about the Do It Yourself process for inspections, audits, and inventory. Then we’ll spend some time on the back end, doing a review of inspections, audits, and inventories. If you haven’t gone over any of our online information regarding the EMI Standards and Best Practices or been to one of our FREE training classes, we’ll give you a review of the information to make sure that you’re hitting all the high points.

RELATED: THE IMPORTANCE OF EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT TRAINING 

So, let’s talk about when the Do It Yourself process makes sense. I think every agency should be engaged in three accountability processes: One would be routine documented, regular inspections. The second would be, annual audits of your agency operations. And, the third would be annual inventories of evidence storage.

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That’s really tough to pull off for some of us, but it’s so important that we engage with these on a regular basis, because it really helps us build sustainable operations that are effective. They’re efficient. We can count on them. We catch mistakes before they become disasters. 

Because I believe that every agency should engage in these processes – and I personally can’t be everywhere, and there aren’t enough consultants out there who will just show up for free and perform these things on your behalf – it’s really important to equip people, to be able to do these things on their own.

So, we’re gonna talk about when it makes sense to Do It Yourself, and when it makes sense to call the plumber. One of the reasons why it makes sense to Do It Yourself is because under most circumstances, performing your own audits, inventories and inspections is really the best place to start. You, more than anybody else, are going to understand your own environment better than any outside consultant walking into your shop. 

You’ve got that institutional knowledge that can’t be replaced. So, it’s best to start there. And most of the time when we get calls, it’s not even from the people that are internal in the evidence management unit asking for these services, it’s people that are ‘coming down from on high’ wanting these things. That’s great too.

We’ll come out, don’t get me wrong. But, typically what I find is that the first people I need to talk to are the ones that are on the ground, in the office, in the vault doing the work; because they already know most of the problems. There is a lot of wisdom in the stakeholders that are inside your evidence management unit. That just can’t be replaced. 

Another reason why it’s great to start at the Do It Yourself level is because you really can’t communicate the issues that you have if you’ve never undertaken a process of figuring things out on your own. You don’t want someone coming from the outside if you don’t understand what’s going on. 

Chances are, if they give you a beautiful roadmap and a beautiful plan, you’re not gonna be able to execute it because you haven’t taken the time to develop your own understanding of your operations.

Another reason why Doing It Yourself makes sense is because it’s making the right investment. I’ve talked to several people over the last few weeks about making the appropriate investment in your agency. I will absolutely come out. You can pay me to come out, I will show up, and I will do some auditing, inventorying, and some inspecting… more than happy to do that. But, a lot of times that’s not the best investment of your budget. 

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Sometimes it’s better to make a different investment. Sometimes the best investment is for internal personnel to accomplish these things. You can achieve a lot more efficiency. You can achieve a lot more effectiveness. Sometimes, it’s best if you just pay your own people to do the job that they normally don’t have time to do. 

I had a conversation today, where I said new technology would be a better investment than investing in a consultant to come from the outside. If you don’t have the type of evidence management technology that’s gonna help you perform an inventory, then you’re not gonna be able to pay someone enough to come in there and do it manually. It’s just not gonna happen. Or if it does, it’s gonna be prohibitively expensive.

Another investment – that it’s usually smarter to make before you start bringing somebody else in – is storage equipment. The type of shelving that you have. Now, I can make recommendations based on an evaluation of an agency – and that’s part of what we do – but making those investments ahead of time often is a really, really smart play; rather than bringing someone in and paying them, only to have them tell you to go buy the same things. 

So, there are a lot of times when it makes sense to Do It Yourself. And, there are a lot of ways to accomplish things doing it yourself that you might not have thought about. 

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I know that some agencies have professional standards units, or internal affairs units, or some type of evaluative unit within the agency, that is responsible for making sure that they’re following policy and procedure. They’ll come in and do inspections and audits and properly train and properly equip the evidence management unit. That’s an excellent resource that you might be able to avail yourself to. 

Sometimes it’s good to find some other agencies around you to partner with and inspect each other’s operations. There are a lot of different ways to accomplish things. You can have outside auditors come in that aren’t necessarily paid to do that, just some kind of cooperative agreement between agencies to audit each other. It’s really helpful. 

It’s critical to have an extra set of eyes on a problem. And, sometimes those extra sets of eyes can come from agencies around you. That’s one of the reasons why I really advocate for state associations and involving yourself with state associations, like TAPEIT in Texas, CAPE in California, or PEAF in Florida.

Sometimes you can even get a highly trained volunteer. Now… I put an asterisk by that one (in the image above) because you don’t want anyone coming into your vault and digging around unless they have been appropriately trained, appropriately equipped, and you vetted them. That process should be very tightly controlled by your unit. I know lots of agencies have leveraged volunteer assistance with great success, but you have to tightly control the way that you do that. 

Same thing with officers. I know that it’s a pretty common practice to use pre-service police officers – like before they go to the police academy – to come in and help do odd jobs around the department. While that’s great, that’s probably one of my least favorite things to see in an evidence room… a bunch of rookies who don’t know anything about anything, digging through things that they’re very curious about, and yet know very little about. 

So, you can have volunteers or outside resources. It’s just really critical that they’re trained and that there is a specific procedure and specific security protocols that you go through in order to use those resources. 

One thing I’d like to direct your attention to, are two resources that we have put out for this broadcast today. There are two handouts. If you look at the handout section, there’s an annual audit template and a routine inspection template. We’ll go over those throughout the rest of the broadcast and talk about them. I’d also like to direct your attention to something we have on our website that we call the eHealth check.

RELATED: AUDITS – CRUCIAL FOR PRESERVING THE INTEGRITY OF EVIDENCE

The eHealth check is kind of a mini audit, a mini self-assessment of your operations. That can give you a great idea of where you’re at, and how your agency is functioning compared to other agencies throughout the country. It’s a pretty weighty assessment. You can’t just do it in five or 10 minutes. There is some information that you would need to gather before you take it, that will make the process a lot smoother. 

So, doing it yourself… While I’m a huge advocate of that, it’s really important to know when to call the plumber. One of the more important lessons of my life has been knowing my limitations, or I guess, coming to grips with my limitations. I like to do things myself. If there is something that needs to be built, I like to build it. If I have to work on my motorcycle, I like to do it myself. 

But, you can reach a point on every project when you have to have somebody come in to help. I really can’t tell you what that point is for you or your agency. But, I do know it’s somewhere between this point on your screen (below) when your feet are just barely wet. 

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Somewhere between that point and this point… 

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…is when you need to call for help.

Now, at this point, when you’re fully under the water, it’s probably a little late to call for help because your head is underwater. But, somewhere in between… that’s usually when it’s a good idea to call for some professional help; someone that can see the problem and help facilitate that problem on your behalf. 

Just to give you a few things to think about, when outside assistance may be a better idea than trying to do it yourself… 

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There are four primary areas when it makes a whole lot of sense to call a plumber: If something has happened at your agency where your integrity has been called into question, or your/their reputation has been damaged by an event. That’s a good time to seek outside assistance, someone that is purely objective and has no stake in your operations. Sometimes that’s what you need in order to restore integrity, or restore your reputation, or restore order back to your operations. 

Another time when it might be a great idea to bring somebody from the outside in, is when you’re requesting major technology shifts or something huge in your budget. In fact, this is how we engaged in consulting services when I was at an agency… We asked for a bunch of money. And, when we asked for a bunch of money to fix a lot of different things – we asked for technology, we asked for personnel, we asked for equipment – they paid for a consultant to come in in order to make sure that those requests were the best investment of the city’s resources at the time. 

And that’s a very helpful process. Sometimes when your agency is looking to make shifts in technology, or add equipment, facility space, or personnel, sometimes that objective voice is the only one that they’ll listen to.

RELATED:  HOW TO EVALUATE EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS- PART 1

Another circumstance where it makes great sense to call for outside assistance is when all of your institutional knowledge has been depleted. If you’re in an agency where your most experienced evidence custodians – the people that know where all the things are hidden – have just vanished. Either through retirement or reassignment, or they won the lottery, and they just pop smoke, wave goodbye, and say, I’m gone. It’s very difficult to know where to begin if you’ve got no institutional knowledge on board with your operation.

So, if that is the circumstance for your agency, when there just isn’t institutional knowledge on board, then it makes sense to call someone that has a little bit of industry knowledge to help replace, and reinstill institutional knowledge so that you can complete these processes. 

My last little category is… When your internal problem-solving efforts have failed. If you’ve tried to resolve these things on your own and your efforts just aren’t getting anywhere. When you know what the problem is, but you’re not able to generate a solution. Sometimes it makes sense to have outside assistance and call those people in. 

The things to ask, whenever you’re calling for someone from the outside to look in on your operations… 

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Don’t just ask about the price. Ask what they’re gonna do. Ask about the scope of their evaluation. Ask about their experience level. Ask about their references. Who have they worked for in the past? Do they have experience with small agencies, if you’re a small agency? Do they have experience with extremely large agencies, if you’re an extremely large agency? 

Those are important questions to ask because the needs of different-sized organizations vary. It’s very different to work with a small agency than it is with a large agency. You wanna work with people that understand the needs of both and can make a plan that’s gonna fit the resources that are available for that particular group.

RELATED: USING YOUR EVIDENCE ROOM DATA AS AN ANALYTICAL TOOL

So, what are they actually gonna be accomplishing? Are they gonna be doing a full inspection process, looking at your storage space, and calculating available space? Are they gonna be looking at the security and safety of your facility? I know when, when we go out, I usually bring environmental testing kits, stuff that we can send to a lab for mold testing, lead testing, asbestos testing, and air quality testing. 

Why? because there are a lot of environmental hazards that are inherent within some older evidence storage facilities. And, it’s a great idea, not to just say, Ooh, that looks gross, but to tell them exactly what ‘that’ is and why that’s a hazard for employees in that area. 

Are they gonna be doing item audits? And if they are, how many? Are they gonna review your policies and procedures? Are they gonna take the time to understand you as a client and what you’re facing as an operation?

It’s really easy to just give some generic prescription to somebody. Like when I go to the doctor… I don’t think they’ve listened to me at all. They just write a script and say, Hey, go get this filled. You wanna work with people that are willing to understand you, understand what you’re about, and what you’re trying to accomplish. 

Another good thing to ask them is how are they gonna collect the data? Are they gonna be writing all of this stuff out long longhand and then faxing it to them? Or dictating it over a telephone? You don’t want that. You wanna make sure that the data collection process is smooth, easy, and efficient. 

Another great question is, how much time are they gonna spend on-site? How long is it gonna take actually on site to complete this project? A couple of other fun things to ask – and these are just thrown out there so we can get to the main part of our conversation –  what kind of relationship are you expecting to build with them? As soon as they’re done with this project are they gonna stop answering the phone? How are they gonna give you that final piece of information? What can they expect as the work product of that particular process? 

I think it’s important when you pay somebody to do these things, the final result is a roadmap that you can follow in order to become sustainable, effective, and efficient. And if that’s not what you’re getting, then you need to ask for it. You need to make sure that goes in the scope.

So, that’s a little bit about Doing It Yourself and when not to do it yourself. In Part 2 of this episode, we’ll  talk a little bit more about accountability processes.”

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