Evidence Management – DIY or DIE Guide to Inventories, Audits, and Inspections – Part 2

Posted on: Apr 20, 2022

Categories: Uncategorized

This month on The Evidence Show we will focus on some Home Away from Home Improvements that can make a huge difference in your evidence room. 

You don’t have to pay someone 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 more importantly, give you some things to think about when you need a little extra help. 

We will talk about knowing when DIY makes sense, and when DIE isn’t an option. 

“The Evidence Show” is hosted by the EMI’s Executive Director Shawn Henderson. Not to spoil the plot, but The Evidence Show is, well… a show about evidence. In each episode, we take a look at the unique issues that impact evidence managers and custodians and the law enforcement community in general. 

BTW, if you haven’t joined the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook, do yourself a favor and sign up today! The forum is FREE and gives you a place to ask questions and 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. It’s a great resource with nearly 800 members. So, check it out!

In Part 2 of this webinar, Shawn began by saying, “There are basically three accountability processes that we’re talking about: Inspections, Audits, and Inventories. They’re all really critical for your agency to engage in. And, they all work together. You can’t just do one or the other, or choose two out of three. Without all three of these processes working in conjunction, you’re going to have gaps in your accountability measures that could cause you issues.

I really believe that the reason we engage in accountability processes is to ensure the integrity of our evidence, and of our agency. Evidence operations are a great litmus test for an agency’s overall integrity and organizational health. You can really tell how an agency is doing if you see how they do the things that are in the background, or behind a closed door. 

Evidence is one of those things. It’s a low visibility area that not many people have access to. So, the condition of that particular workgroup really tells you a lot about how an agency is doing as a whole. 

Inspections

These are pretty simple processes. There’s no reason why every agency out there shouldn’t or couldn’t engage in routine inspection processes. Inspection is very simple. It’s just a documented review. If it’s not written down, it never happened. You want to make sure that you have documented these processes because that documentation is going to come in handy at some point in the future. You’re looking at facility safety, you’re looking at facility conditions, you’re looking at operational readiness, and the supply levels that you have.

If you look at the EMI Routine Inspection Template (you have to download it before you can open it), it will give you an idea of the types of things that you need to look at: The physical facility conditions, safety issues, general order and cleanliness, the condition of your equipment, supply levels, etc. That document will give you a whole lot of things that you should review.

It should also give you the opportunity to evaluate workload issues. If you are trying to accomplish specific objectives, and you’re trying to measure those objectively over time, that inspection is a great time to quantify workload challenges.

RELATED: USING YOUR EVIDENCE ROOM DATA AS AN ANALYTICAL TOOL

It’s kind of like taking your temperature. You stop for a minute, you get a quick snapshot of how you’re doing, and then you move on. We recommend these inspection processes at least once a month

Now, a couple of things about the inspection… When you look at that form, one of the things that you’ll see is a little note section where you can write down issues. When we find problems, during an inspection, we need to resolve those problems. 

I’ve heard of agencies where they do an audit process, or they even bring somebody in and do an outside audit, but the same problems exist year after year. If that is your agency, and you’ve got the same problems that you see over and over again, but don’t do anything about it… That’s the definition of insanity. 

We need to use these processes to learn from our mistakes and fix the problems that exist before they become bigger problems.

Audits 

This is probably the trickiest one to do on your own because it requires a level of objectivity in order to accomplish it. But, if we distill it down, an audit process is pretty simple. It’s just a review of compliance. Do you do what you say you do?

You’ve got a policy, you’ve got procedures, you’ve got a packaging manual. Do you do the things that you say you do in policy? Do you require officers to do things a certain way in a procedure, and… do they actually do it? An audit is specifically for reviewing compliance, measuring your workload, figuring out where problem areas exist, and then fixing those issues.

When you’re doing an audit, you want to look at everything as granularly as possible. Start with a review of your policies and procedures, because without knowing your policies and procedures, you’re not going to be able to perform an audit. If you don’t know what you have to comply with, then it’s very difficult to measure compliance. 

You want to inspect storage areas and storage capacity. The same things that you look at during the inspection process need to be covered during the audit process because this is the one time of the year when we’re looking at compliance and making sure that you do the things that you say you do.

RELATED: AUDITS – CRUCIAL FOR PRESERVING THE INTEGRITY OF EVIDENCE  

You also want to look at workload, an audit process should give you another snapshot as to how well you’re doing, or where you’re falling behind, in accomplishing the tasks that you’re supposed to accomplish. If you’ve got a preset group of key performance indicators, measuring your progress on those KPIs is a great thing to review during an audit process. 

Or, if you’ve got a disposition ratio target goal… let’s say you’re one of those rare agencies that disposes of one item for every item that they take in…are you on track? It’s a really great thing to do during the audit process: To measure those things out and report on them because it gives you an idea of whether you’re succeeding or whether you’re falling behind. An audit identifies where you need to invest more time and energy.

The audit should include a thorough and detailed evaluation of all your accountability measures, inventory status, current evidence stored outside the agency, how many items do you have checked out to officers at the moment, how many items do you have out to court, or how many items do you have out to the lab? You need to pay attention to that. A great time to call that into focus is during the audit process. 

As a sidebar, there’s very little reason for investigators to check out evidence. But it happens, and we want to make sure that we’re accountable for it. If we don’t draw a line in the sand and say, This is something we’re going to perform during the audit then two years down the road, that list of items that are out of our custody grows and grows; and it’s much harder to bring them back in. An audit process, especially an internal one, is great for that.

 

We suggest annual audits and we suggest a couple of different intervals. If there are significant issues that crop up, that would be a great time for an audit. Maybe even consider an outside auditor. Also, anytime executive-level leadership changes, it’s a great time to do an audit and an inventory. 

A good chief, or executive-level leader for a law enforcement agency, is going to want that because they understand the implications and obligations that they’ve assumed by taking over this agency. They’re in charge of all of it. They’re responsible for the evidence vault. They’re responsible for everything that happens. If they want an inventory and an audit process as soon as they take command, that speaks volumes to me. 

Compliance sources 

It’s not just local policy and procedures that you need to comply with, you also want to measure your compliance with other things like: Industry standards, the NIST standards for biological evidence, and forensic lab compliance standards and best practices. The audit process is the time to look at all compliance, not just policy and procedure, but statutory compliance, lab compliance, accreditation compliance, and industry standards. How are you doing against those metrics? That’s the time that we look at those things. 

Here is a sample form. It’s really rudimentary, but it gives you an idea of all the different things that I like to review during an audit process. You’ll see here, that we’re talking about facility safety and security – key controls, and checking the functionality of our alarms and our surveillance cameras. 

If we never perform these function checks, then we never know how we’re doing with things like:  Storage capacity estimates, workload processes, disposition activity, and inventory reporting. All that fun stuff is a part of the audit. We’re talking about item audits and shelf-to-file audits. Actually taking a look at a piece of evidence, pulling it off the shelf, and finding that record. Or going from your records and seeing if you can find those things on your shelf. 

It’s a great idea to mix these things up. Look at general evidence, look at currency evidence, look at biological, firearm, and drug evidence. Look at representative samples of everything you’ve got. 

My favorite page of this form is the last page… Action Items. These are the problems that we found. This is what we’re going to do about it. This is who we assign it to. This is the date that we expect it to be resolved. It’s that follow-up, in all of these processes, that’s absolutely critical for your success as an agency.

 

Inventories

Inventories are really simple, but they’re really hard to do sometimes. A lot of times it’s the technology that we have available to us that helps us actually accomplish an inventory. If you don’t have the technology – depending on the number of items that you have in storage – sometimes they’re just not possible. But, with the appropriate technology, and a database that is complete, you can do this. 

If you’ve got the right technology, the right personnel resources, and the right storage and organizational patterns. It is achievable. It’s really simple. And, it’s sustainable. It begins with a list of what you say you have.

RELATED: EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE VERSUS PEN AND PAPER

If your list is on paper, I feel bad for you. But, hey, that’s the list. You check that list against what you actually have. I’ve got items 1, 2, 3, and four, and I’ve got 25 items on this shelf. Then, you just reconcile the accounts. 

That might be oversimplifying it, but that’s really all an inventory is: I have a list of what I say I have. I’m going to check it with what I actually have. And then I’m going to reconcile those two lists. 

At the end of the day, at the end of your inventory, you’re going to basically have four lists. A list of what you say you have, a list of what you actually have, a list of things that you thought you had, but you don’t, and a list of things that you have, but never knew you had. So, it’s the reconciliation of those lists that’s incredibly important. 

A few recommendations for the inventory process – if you’ve got enough people. I recommend performing it with at least two people present. That’s not just for security and accountability, but having two sets of eyes on an inventory process catches a lot of mistakes, and it will save you a huge amount of time. If you go it alone, it’s very difficult to retrace your steps and find the source of that mistake. If you’ve got a second set of eyes on the problem, it is extremely helpful. 

Each item from the inventory list should be physically located or accounted for during the process. So, you want to make sure that you have actually put your hands on that package, that the package is physically in the building. Not just that you have a list of it, or you think it might be up there in the corner, you actually have to put your hands on it.

You’ve got three types of findings: You’ve got items located as listed – which is what you want – you’ve got items not located as they were listed (unable to locate), otherwise known as UTL – which is the bane of our existence – and then items located, but not in the correct location. When you reconcile this list, if they’re located incorrectly, fix it. Put it in the right place, make sure that action is documented, and make sure that you’ve resolved the problem. 

At the end of this process, you’re going to have a list of items that you’re not able to find. Then you’re going to go on an exhaustive search attempt and try to go back through all your records and reconcile. How did this happen? Why can we not find this and that process?

 

A couple of fun tips about inventories… Consider breaking your inventory up over time. Do drugs one month, do money the next, do firearms next. If you can’t bite off the whole elephant at once, at least try to do biological evidence, narcotics, currency, and firearms every year. 

Just to wrap this up, I would encourage you to take our eHealth check. The results are a great snapshot of how you’re doing as an agency; it’ll give you an idea of what you’re doing right and where you might need help. That’s something that you can bring to your command and say, Hey, look, this is an objective evaluation. Here’s the data that I put in. This is what they’re telling us. Let’s do something. 

We’re really just trying to help people fix problems out there. We’re happy to come out and do it for you, but, if you’re able to fix your own issues and resolve your own problems, we encourage that. There’s plenty of work out there for us. So, not worried about that. Have a great day!”

Tracker Products and The Evidence Management Institute want to give you something productive to think about during this time of uncertainty… a series of free evidence management training and panel discussions. Watch and comment on the webinars here. Or – to get in on the discussion, with nearly 800 evidence custodians – join the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook. 

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