Evidence Management: The Submit it and Forget it Attitude – Part 1

Posted on: Jun 15, 2022

Categories: Evidence Management, Evidence management training, Evidence Training

In this webinar, we looked at ten steps you can take toward creating a positive evidence management culture change at your agency.  

Shawn began 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. Over 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 we’re gonna talk about changing the culture of evidence. We’re gonna talk a little bit about the epicenter of change. Where does change begin? And then we’ll talk about 10 forward steps that you can do at your agency right now; today, with no approval necessary.

There are a few common negative attitudes in the culture of evidence management in law enforcement. One of my least favorites is the” submit it and forget it” culture at an agency; where an officer submits their evidence and then they just forget about it.

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They don’t respond to requests. They don’t respond to disposition information. They consider it gone as soon as they submit it. As soon as they put it in the temporary locker, they consider it no longer their issue. And that is obviously one of the more toxic elements in our culture that we’re trying to get rid of. 

Another non-favorite… We work behind locked doors, so no one sees us. As a consequence, the culture in our industry can be that we are not necessarily heard. Then you have the guns versus Kraft bags debate. 

Typically in law enforcement they love to spend money on things that go boom, things that have MOLLE attachments, things that are black or Velcro. Or, even better… matte black with MOLLE and Velcro and a gun. We love to spend money there, but we don’t necessarily invest money on the things that we can’t see. And that’s not uncommon. That happens at a lot of agencies, that’s part of the culture. 

So, these are just some of the things that are common and pervasive throughout our culture that we’re working on trying to find solutions for. 

The guns versus Kraft bags debate… I don’t know what we could do to move the needle there because all of the law enforcement needs must be appropriately funded. We just need to make sure that those resources get to evidence custodians and evidence managers as well.

And then you have, in many agencies, the concept of the evidence vault being like the penalty box. Agencies use the evidence unit as a punishment. Honestly, I came from an agency like that. I was put there for that very reason. But, I decided… I’m gonna make it my passion. I’m gonna make it my life’s work. There are ways to reverse that effect, but it has very harmful effects on our industry, especially when it’s done improperly. 

Another one of my all-time least favorite attitudes is the phrase… That’s the way we’ve always done it. And, when that is used as an excuse for doing things that don’t make any sense and are excessively time-consuming that kind of culture at an agency is toxic and it almost guarantees continued failure.

The last thing I want to talk about is the negative culture. That’s what kind of got to me; it’s where I got stuck. Personally, I viewed the evidence vault kind of like the myth of Sisyphus. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Greek mythology, but basically, Sisyphus was condemned to pushing a huge stone up a hill every day. At the end of every day for eternity, that stone would roll back down to the ground. And, he spent every day pushing that stone up the hill. It was just a cycle of purposeless labor.

We can fall into that trap where our jobs feel like this purposeless pushing of a rock uphill every day, and then it just falls right back down. There are reasons for that, evidence is always gonna come in. Evidence is always gonna go out. A lot of the things that we do every day we’re gonna do again tomorrow. 

But, when you start looking at it as this hopeless, endless cycle – an eternal cycle that you can’t escape from – it starts to weigh on you a little bit. We don’t want to spend a lot of time on that because there’s not a lot of value in talking about it.

Those are some elements of the culture that exist, so that’s why we’re talking about changing them.

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You might work in an agency that is defined by one or more of those things (in the image above), so how do we change that? How do we move the needle on any of those things? 

I’ve spent the last 10 years, professionally, trying to answer that question and trying to help resolve that question through training, consulting, working in an evidence room, and participating with evidence organizations. That’s what I spend my time trying to crack the code, trying to figure this out. 

That’s what James does on a daily basis. He does it with me at the Evidence Management Institute and he does it with boots on the ground at the Orange County Police Department. So this is what we’re about… trying to figure out how to change those things. It’s an ongoing discussion because there is no pat answer. There is no solution that’s in a little can we could open for you and say, Hey, do this. It works perfectly every time. Because that doesn’t exist. 

But, I do think it’s important to look at the change process a little bit, especially for evidence custodians, and figure out where can we begin to move the needle. So, let’s look real quick at what I consider the epicenter of change. Like, where does change originate? 

When I was running an evidence room for the Carrollton Police Department. I always wanted something like Deus ex machina. I’m a recovering English teacher; that means God intervenes. 

I wanted someone to come down from on high to fix everything for me. I wanted that to happen magically. I wanted it to happen immediately. And I wanted it to happen permanently. But, that never happened. Change doesn’t just magically appear. 

So where does it start? How does it start? How can we get it to start? And then, how can we get it to sustain? Those are really important questions that we’re still trying to figure out, but I have figured out a few things that I think might be helpful to share today. 

Change rarely originates from complaining. I loved to complain. As a police officer at our department, I felt like it was a sport. And I felt like I was probably at the top of my game. I could complain about anything. It’s very easy to complain. But, there was almost zero measurable change that resulted from my complaining. 

A complaint is static. It has no resolution in and of itself. It’s almost a thing that we do to pass the time. Complaining is just being able to observe something wrong. It’s knowing that a problem exists, but change doesn’t happen there until you start looking at the other side of the complaint. Underneath every complaint can be a very legitimate issue that needs to be addressed. 

I’m not saying that complaints are unfounded, but if we change our focus from complaints to solutions, that’s when change starts to happen.

Also, change rarely grows from the outside in, especially for evidence custodians. There’s no one outside of your unit that sees inside your unit on a regular basis. With that being said, change usually doesn’t come from the outside in. It can if you have a very proactive chief or a very proactive chain of command. 

You can have a magical evidence fairy show up and try to solve things for you in your dreams. But, that’s not usually where it happens. Our chiefs usually don’t spend much, if any, time in the vault and that’s okay. And evidence fairies don’t exist. Our chain of command typically has to be educated on issues. So, major changes rarely happen from the outside in.

It’s inside the epicenter where change actually occurs. Culture change rarely occurs without personal change. Cultures don’t change unless people change. For evidence custodians, you’re the epicenter of change. You have to be. There is no other source. There is no other origin for change other than you.

By accepting that and thinking about that, the next logical question is, All right, if I’m the epicenter of change, if I am the change agent at my organization, then I’ve got two paths: I can do nothing, or I can do something. 

What we are here to talk about today are the 10 ‘somethings’ that you can do to make a positive impact and begin that culture change process for you, your agency, and this industry.

I understand that we don’t have a lot of control. A lot of us at the line-level don’t have a lot of control over budgets. We don’t have a lot of control over staffing. We don’t have a lot of control over facilities. 

But, the good news is that nobody is truly in control. It’s an illusion. It doesn’t exist. If we don’t have the authority, then we’ve got to start developing our influence. Influence is possible, but it has to originate somewhere. 

RELATED: LEADERSHIP WITHOUT AUTHORITY

So let’s talk about 10 things you can do right now today to implement or begin that change process.

Number one, if you can’t change your name, change your perspective.

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I wish that evidence custodians would call themselves evidence curators and that we wouldn’t refer to ‘the vault.’ I mean, ‘the vault’s’ not a bad name. It denotes security. ‘The warehouse,’ not my favorite. ‘Hell,’ that’s probably my least favorite. Or ‘dungeon or basement.’ Any of those are unacceptable. We’re not warehouse clerks. We’re curators of the museum of everything bad that has ever happened in your jurisdiction. So, we’ve got to start thinking of ourselves like that. 

Even if you don’t change what you call yourself, changing your perspective from ‘this is a warehouse of stuff’ to ‘this is a museum of things that need to be preserved and protected for as long as I have to retain them,’ that perspective change is an important step that you can take today. 

I’m not gonna look at this stuff as junk. I’m not gonna look at this stuff as a problem. I’m gonna look at this stuff as having the potential, to exonerate, convict, or reunite someone with something that they’ve lost. This is somebody’s property. 

There are constitutional rights and implications associated with this stuff. Justice hinges on the stuff that we preserve in our museum. And, maybe by changing that perspective, it might help us reframe some of the discussions; that self-talk we have about our jobs, especially when we start feeling like nobody cares. 

Number two, don’t believe the hype. 

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Read carefully and think for yourself. I’ve got two stories. One from this week about Dallas PDs evidence, and James had a very similar circumstance at Orange County. You see a headline Orange County evidence booking scandal. 

You read those two headlines. And the first thing that you assume is that that evidence unit did something bad. And honestly, headlines are not good resources for guiding our thoughts and beliefs about evidence management. I know that a lot of people love to read headlines and love to post stories about evidence. 

I don’t find any value in that at all, except for their utility and value to teach us things. But, both Orange County and the city of Dallas had massive headlines in the last few months about their evidence practices. But, if you actually read the story, it’s not an evidence custodian issue. It’s not an evidence management issue. It’s getting the evidence to the unit or digital evidence that is beyond the purview, beyond the control, of the evidence custodians.

What the headlines suggest is not the problem. There are other problems that need to be addressed. But, I think we get caught up in that. And I think it’s really important to control the narrative or at least read carefully before we fall into a pattern of just looking at a headline and thinking, Oh crap, another problem. 

When I teach, I don’t use headlines. I don’t use news stories unless there’s a teachable issue here. Like, there are things that we could learn from Orange County. There are things that James has told me that he’s learned, but it’s not about evidence custodians doing their job. It’s what can we do to make sure that we safeguard the process. 

There are things that Dallas PD is going to learn about preserving digital evidence, but it has nothing to do with the way they store and house physical evidence at their department. So, be careful when you read the headlines. Be careful of using that information to shape your worldview about the industry that you work in. Anything James?

James said, “If you are caught up in some type of scandal, or your agency is under a negative light, nine times outta 10, it’s the evidence unit that finds those issues and steps forward – as we should with our integrity – to make sure they get resolved. But, when you do that, don’t expect a pat on the back. Don’t expect anyone to come out and say, Hey, good job burning these people. So, just do your job as professionally as you probably do already.”

The Evidence Management Institute and Tracker Products are thrilled to offer you some FREE Total Evidence Management Solutions (TEMS) … 

We suggest that you cycle through these resources in the order in which they’re listed – especially if you’re new to the evidence management world. 

    • The Evidence Management Community Forum – A FB page with over 800 evidence management members who discuss everything in the realm of evidence management. Topics include, but are not limited to, standards and best practices, the benefits of technology for evidence management, and evidence management challenges, solutions, and success stories. 
    • The E-Health Check – a FREE assessment designed to provide clients with a snapshot of their operations compared to key performance indicators for sustainable evidence operations. 
    • FREE Evidence Management Training Videos – This online training includes 8 hours of evidence management training, an online exam, and a completion certificate.
    • The Evidence Show– In each episode, EMI discusses the unique issues that impact evidence managers, custodians, and the law enforcement community in general. Most episodes include special guests who are experts on a variety of topics. 
    • A Series of Tracker and EMI Webinars – Live or recorded, they are loaded with: Virtual Evidence Unit Tours, Evidence Management Best Practices,  Tips for Getting the Tools You Need to Improve Operations, and much more! 
    • EMI’s Resources Standards and Best Practices, Evidence Related Links, and Blogs that are LOADED with information.
    • Tracker’s Resources Blogs, Portfolio, Wiki Page, Evidence Management Software Comparison Tools, and SO much more.
    • The Evidence Management Comparison Worksheet – This free downloadable spreadsheet is pre-populated with 49 factors to consider.  You have the ability to rank the importance of each factor and add additional fields for consideration
    • FREE TEMS Audit – Every new Tracker Products client, who purchases two or more Concurrent Access Licenses (CALs) will receive a free audit. The audit begins with the online E-Health Check. Based on the results of the EHealth Check, audits may include: A policy and procedure review, facility inspection, and an organization, packaging, and storage review.  
    • Daily Social Media Posts – Both Tracker and EMI post information-rich content to several SM platforms every single day. There, you will find recorded webinars, infographics, original articles, training videos, standards and best practices, testimonials, and much more.   

***Be sure to consistently check back on these resources as they are constantly evolving.