Evidence Management Tour – Live(ish) from Huntington Beach – Part 2

Posted on: Apr 05, 2022

Categories: Uncategorized

In the second half of this episode on The Evidence Show, we take a tour of HBPD evidence operations, meet some great people, and take a look at how evidence management works on the west coast. 

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

Shawn began the episode by saying, “Our primary goal is to get evidence custodians and evidence managers around the country connected, to build a sense of community and have a place where you can get questions answered.

It helps to see how things are done in different regions around the country. One of the best ways to connect with over 750 people in the evidence management community is to go onto Facebook and join the Evidence Management Community Forum. It’s a great place to get questions answered, post, and talk about things. You’ll discover some unique solutions to evidence management challenges.

The team at HBPD wasted no time jumping into a tour of their property and evidence room. 

Dawn started the tour by saying, “Welcome to Huntington Beach Property Room. This is our office area. 

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As Melissa said earlier, we have three full-time property officers and one part-time. Our part-time property officer deals with bikes. She does all the investigation on our lost/found/stolen/recovered bikes. We’re a tourist city, so we get a lot of bikes. 

This window here [on the left of the screen] is where we assist our officers. That is also the evidence prep room. One of our unique things here is… we have a Faraday box for iOS items. So, there is an iPhone that they want to get information off of [later], and they have a Faraday locker that they can use to plug it in and keep it charged. 

Come on, I’ll show you the rest…. 

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This is where the three full-time property officers work (above). We each have our own work area. Obviously, we’re in close quarters, but we work together quite a bit and we help each other. We bounce ideas off each other all day long. 

This is our main evidence storage area… 

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We have our lockers. We have a small section for ‘corrections;’ things we’re talking to officers about. We store evidence in boxes. We keep our DR numbers on the outside to make it quick and easy for us to find them on these main shelves out here. 

Our first row here is our gun storage area…

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We’re particularly pleased with it. We’ve got all of our handguns in PACE order. All of our long guns are also in PACE order. This allows us to quickly hone in on those items that need to be looked at for destruction. For all of our found, safekeeping, and destruction boxes, we put little tags on those so we can follow up with them a little bit further down the road. 

Here, we have our media storage…. 

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We don’t store a whole lot of media. Most of that is uploaded in our media storage lab, but some things just need to have a CD kept in evidence. So, we keep all of the CDs together. They don’t get broken because they’re all in the same size package and packaged the same way. It’s nice and neat. 

Same kind of thing with our knives storage…

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For our knives storage, we keep them all PACE order. It helps us with purging. We know what the oldest stuff is. 

We have two different types of storage areas. We have bigger evidence, which is in boxes like you see on the shelves in the main storage area. Then we also have small items in some of our rows…

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With our small items, we put everything in a 9 x 12 envelope just to keep everything nice, neat, and together. It helps us when we go to find stuff. Everything is right there. 

We separate our evidence by drug evidence and then general evidence; which is just everything else.”

James Nally from EMI and Melissa Hartley (the property evidence supervisor at HBPD)  rejoined the conversation… 

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James said, “So I’m taking a look at this unit now, and I’m seeing an amazing difference from the last time I was here. In 2014, the last time we came as part of a CAPE  tour, I remember that your unit was a little bit in disarray. I remember that you had a lot of different storage compartments, all over the department. And, a big Connex warehouse in the outside area for dry storage. I think this is amazing. What you guys have accomplished is incredible. Do you want to talk a little bit about the process, Melissa?”

Melissa said, “Sure. In 2014, we began a major purge…

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***2014, before the clean-up efforts.

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***2014, before the clean-up efforts.

Part of the reason was that we only had two property officers here. We were understaffed at the time and we needed detectives to make decisions on cases. So, our administration – the property officers and the investigation division – we all work together. In a five-year period, we cleared out over 100,000 items.”

Dawn continued the tour of the facilities and said, “Okay, here’s our new homicide freezer…

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Obviously, it’s still under construction, but we hope to have it done in two, maybe three weeks. Then we can start moving our homicide evidence to it. It’s going to be fully lit and we’re going to have shelves on either side and some in the back. Everything will be labeled by case number and can sit in there until it’s ready for appeal, an Innocence Project, or until we’re ready to destroy it.”

Melissa continued the tour and said, “Another item that is very unique for the Huntington Beach Police Department Property Unit… We have our own disposal room. This is our disposal room here…

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Anytime narcotics, firearms, and auctionable items are going to be prepared for disposal, we come in here. We have different cages for each type of evidence and we separate them out based on final disposition.”

That concluded the Huntington Beach Evidence Unit Tour, and James rejoined Shawn Henderson for their live webinar. Shawn said, “I always see new things that I like to add to my toolbox when I visit new property rooms. My favorite thing at Huntington Beach was that disposal room. An entire room… secure, locked up. That’s a thing of beauty. It makes me want to cry. 

James, I see a question in the question window. I’ll let you take it from here…”

James said, “Melissa, if you’re still there, there’s a question from Kara Bishop asking if you freeze all your homicide evidence. If you can maybe speak to that?”

Melissa said, “We do not freeze all of our homicide evidence. We freeze anything that we think may have workable DNA on it. We have cases that we’re presently storing evidence for that go back as far as 1969. 

So, as these cases are looked at, at various times throughout their lifespan with us, sometimes we’ll go ahead and we’ll move those items into the freezer. We want to quit it from degrading any further than it may already be.”

James took another question from Kara Bishop, asking about Faraday lockers. James said, “I can step into this for a minute. We have a new product in our unit, called BlockLockers. That seems to be working really well for us. It’s basically a locker that’s got electrical attachments inside of each locker so that you can put a phone in a Faraday bag and then plug the bag into a power. So, it saves power on it at all times. But as far as your unit, Melissa, what type of devices do you have for Faraday?”

Melissa said, “That’s exactly what we have too. We have the lockers for all of our electronic iOS type of equipment. Our officers book it directly into those lockers. They’re not going into property lockers that have the opening in the back, where we can remove evidence. 

We leave it in there, we never remove it. But, we do get the evidence card out of there. We make sure that’s entered into our tracking system. And then, we notify our forensics labs. They come down and retrieve the item, and they hook it up and start doing their analysis.”

James said, “I think that’s a new trend in evidence. Some of the unlocking software for iPhones requires the phone to stay powered on from the time of collection, which would create somewhat of an issue with the chain of custody. 

So, what we’re doing is just cutting a little hole at the bottom of the envelope to allow the power cord to attach to the bottom of the phone. And then, gently set that inside the Faraday bag, and close and lock the locker. 

Specifically for these new cases in California, when we are going after the drug dealers, it’s a big, important thing. Hopefully, we can get through this and create some new procedures for the handling of digital media. Shawn, do you have anything to add to that?”

Shawn said, “Preserving digital evidence is something that changes weekly with new technology. In our two-day classes, we talk about digital evidence practices, preservation, and Faraday bags. But, one little warning… There are a couple of different types of Faraday bags – which I learned the hard way… as I’ve learned almost all of my lessons.

A Faraday bag can be designed as an anti-static bag, or it can be a bag that prevents radio frequencies from penetrating the package. I know that there is a lot of dialogue about this topic. Some people wrap their phones in tinfoil four or five times to prevent signals. 

While that might anecdotally be okay – and I know that there are some entities out there that teach that – I’m reluctant to teach anything, unless I know that it’s been verified by a lab, or by some source that’s more knowledgeable than me on the topic.

That’s certainly something that we’re going to cover in a future show… digital evidence. It’s a huge topic and there are so many different forms of digital evidence. It changes daily. But, there are some practices and principles that generally apply.

Shawn filtered through the questions, and said… “Proposition 69 Could y’all explain that… Melissa or James?

James said, “Melissa, do you want to address that since you’re an administrator for your Prop 69?”

Melissa said, “Prop 69 is funding that’s made available through California and it allows agencies to request money based on their specific wishes. DNA processing is such a big thing now. Whereas, 15 years ago it wasn’t. There are a lot more needs associated with it. We need ways to store it. Sometimes, we need additional people to help handle it. 

So, you go before a board, you request funding for your unit – which you have to justify – they review it and they let you know what they’re willing to grant you. So far, we’ve had two opportunities, and both times we’ve been granted a significant amount of money.”

James added, “In my unit, we’ve been able to secure funding for everything from modular shelving, to additional, brand new boxes, to anything that has to do with the storage or maintenance of DNA evidence. 

Typically, the board is made up of people at your forensic lab. So, if you have folks at your lab, you may want to ask them  – in California at least – where the money goes for Prop 69.”

Shawn said, “I don’t know how many states have programs like that. It’s great that California does. Across the nation, everyone deals with biological evidence and the need to preserve biological evidence for extended periods of time. So, it’s great that y’all have something.

In Texas, we have something called… a ‘big bag of nothing.’ We have absolutely no support.  If you’re a tiny agency in a rural county, then our DPS lab will store that evidence for you. I have worked with a few agencies that have had success with that program. 

So, really look into the available programs in your state. They might not be able to send you a bunch of money or fund something for you, but there might be provisions; especially if you’re a smaller agency or an agency that can demonstrate need in a particular area. There are ways to accomplish these things. 

That’s one thing that we like to teach in our training classes… How do we solve these problems? I mean, funding things is not difficult. If you get creative and look for alternate sources, a lot of times you can find solutions to those problems. 

Melissa, there is a question here about funding the new evidence room itself. How did y’all get the money for that?”

Melissa said, “We didn’t search for funding. I’ll be really honest. We knew it was a mess in there. It was very disorganized. If you recall looking back at the old photos, there was one with the gorilla racks and they had paper bags shoved on top of one another. When we needed to find a certain item, we were pulling out a hundred bags to be able to find one item. It was ridiculous. 

Over time, we decided we need an outsider to come in and look at everything. So, we had the California POST come in here. A few years later, LD Consulting came in. They gave us their different evaluations. Each time we would start to improve upon their suggestions. 

But, we got to a certain point where our property unit needed more help. So, we followed our chain of command and we had those difficult, open conversations… This is how our property room looks right now. We’re drowning in here. 

He looked over everything. We talked about… What can we do? How can we do it? He took that to our senior staff. He spoke with them in detail and they agreed… Your property and evidence unit will bring down your department. 

So, our command staff stepped in and they were willing to, ‘Do whatever it takes. Get however many people you need to help you. Let’s do this.’ It was just an open conversation with them. We had to be honest and open. It wasn’t that we couldn’t do our jobs, but we needed help.”

Shawn added, “I think that’s key. It’s demonstrating the need. You’ve got to let people know that you have problems so that they can help you solve them. Was that disposition room part of that?”

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Melissa said, “That actually came quite a bit later. We started off our giant purging process in 2014. Most of the major purging occurred all the way through mid-2017. It was a huge undertaking. 

When we got our first Prop 69 grant funding, we were able to do that. The area that we had been using in the past, we needed to utilize for DNA storage. We actually took that room from SWAT, which was wonderful. We were able to get that room and design it the way that we wanted… how we thought it would work best. 

If you see everything, it’s completely camera monitored, and it has electronic card access. We just wanted to progress. We wanted to improve what our structure had been. But, there again, it was the grant funding that allowed us to do that. 

You know, you also have the other areas where you can be looking for any type of funding, not just your storage. You might be able to get grants for those out in the field for the people that are collecting the evidence. How about your lab? We just needed to have a very global view.”

James said, “One thing I wanted to mention… Melissa’s being very humble on our webinar today, but I think with a lot of agencies, there’s a disconnect between the property unit, your command staff, and the upper echelon of your command staff. Working diligently and respectfully to get your point across, without appearing to be overbearing, it’s really tough. 

I think part of Melissa’s charm is that she was able to have those conversations and do things in a way that presented her case. So, my hat’s off to her and her agency as well.”

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Shawn added, “You have to choose the way that you handle these things, and you have to choose the high road. I mean, transparency, openness, and admitting that you have problems. In my history, the way that I was able to be successful in making huge changes at our agency is… I had to change everything about me. 

I was a scorched earth kind of guy. As a street supervisor, I was the worst among offenders when it came to evidence management. I had to realize that it’s more important for me to be effective than it is for me to do things the way I’m naturally wired. So, I had to learn a little dose of humility in order to get people to collaborate with me.

James and I are both in agreement. We love stories like this. We love seeing things work out well. That’s one of the things that characterizes what we do and how we train. We’re looking to help people find solutions. You’ll find that throughout our training – and hopefully the stuff you see on the webinars – is that there are a lot of good things going on. There are a lot of ways to solve these problems. 

We don’t need to come on here and tell you that things can get worse, that things are serious, or that there are ramifications from doing evidence management poorly. You already know that, or you wouldn’t be tuning in. We want to use these evidence room tours as an opportunity to tell those stories.

James, do you have any final thoughts?”

James said, “No, no. Until next time. I just want to say thank you to all the folks that came to give us a shot today. And, hopefully, we’ll see you in a class soon.”

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 over 750 evidence custodians – join the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook.