The Evidence Management Packaging Spec-Tacular – Part 1

Posted on: May 04, 2022

Categories: Evidence Management, Evidence management training, Evidence Training


*** Shawn Henderson *** James Nally

When it comes to evidence management, if you’ve ever experienced an evidence bag ripping apart as you pull it from the shelf, or cursed a barcode label that faded to illegibility, then this is an episode you don’t want to miss. 

Packaging failures usually occur for one of three reasons: poor procedures, poor accountability, or poor packaging supplies. Many evidence packaging failures begin at the point of purchase, long before an officer has the chance to mess it up in the field.

Shawn said, “Before my assignment to the evidence unit, I never once thought about packaging materials or paper bags, packing tape, or evidence labels. A bag was just a bag, tape was just tape. 

I was wrong. Now, I think about them all the time. And, after years of seeing the same problems at agency after agency, I think it’s time to do something different. 

In this episode of The Evidence Show, we’re taking an in-depth look at these issues, and we’ll be sharing a new set of guidelines for evidence mamnagement packaging materials with minimum specifications to prevent an endless cycle of rinse, lather, and repeat of bad practices that fail to preserve and protect your evidence during storage. 

Deciding which tape you’ll buy, or which Kraft paper basis weight to select for bags, might seem like the least fun thing to talk about since instant coffee, but I promise you that it’s worth thinking about before you make your next purchase.”

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, Shawn takes a look at the unique issues that impact evidence managers and custodians, and the law enforcement community in general. Let’s get rolling… 

Shawn began the webinar by saying, “The main thing that we’re going to be talking about today is a set of material specifications. Don’t run away yet. I know that doesn’t sound extremely exciting, but let me plead my case.

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Our little tagline here is, Say Hello to Minimum Specifications… Say Goodbye to Ripped Bags, Disintegrating Tape, and Unreadable Labels. Those three things come from the devil and we hate him. So, we’re trying to do away with those things. We’re trying to make sure that ripped bags, disintegrating tape, and unreadable labels are a thing of the past in your evidence management process because they fail to preserve evidence. They fail to keep evidence appropriately stored for the duration of its custody.

What are we talking about in this webinar? We’ll do some quick updates… We’ve got some fun news coming up that we want to share with you. We’ll talk a little bit about: Escaping from insanity, Why evidence packaging fails, and Minimum specifications for packaging. 

So, a few quick updates… We think this is fun stuff. Last month, we had an episode about reaching police executives to change the culture of evidence management. The purpose of that was to crowdsource ideas that you think we need to communicate to police chiefs. The first little foray into that is a CALEA virtual conference. 

We love talking to evidence management custodians. That’s what we’re really passionate about. We love teaching. We love consulting. But if we really want to change the culture, we’ve got to start reaching out to police executives and agents of change. So, we’re going to start tailoring some classes and some specific strategies to reach police executives. A lot of the input that you gave to us, we’ll be using in the class. 

The next thing is that live, in-person training is officially alive again, not unironically. So, if you’re interested in having us come to your area, we would love to visit with you about that. We’ve still got probably 10 spots up in the air and wherever we fill them, that’s where we’re going to go. 

So… on with the rest of the show! Let’s talk a little bit about Escaping from Insanity. When you see the same problems over and over again, and you respond the same way to them over and over and over again, clinically that’s the definition of insanity. As I visit with more evidence management custodians, during consulting work and teaching classes in this field, I see the same things over and over and over again.

Bags that rip, tape that yellows and cracks, evidence labels that fall onto the floor because they’ve detached from packages, location labels that peel and wither away, guns that poke through bags, evidence labels that completely fade into nothingness; where they’re absolutely illegible or unreadable. And, when you see the same thing over and over again, at some point it’s important to ask why, so you can actually do something better. 

Now, we want to talk a little bit about the only ‘chain’ in the evidence management world that actually needs to break. I mean, we don’t want our chain of custody to break. We don’t want breaks in our evidence management security protocols. We want to break up the supply chain because we’ve got to do something. I’m convinced that what we’re talking about today is going to go a long way toward a foundation that we can build on, for better evidence management practices across the board.

So why does evidence packaging fail? There are probably three primary reasons why evidence packaging fails: Poor policy and procedures, poor accountability, and poor packaging products. Those three reasons account for probably 90% of packaging failures. Today, we’re picking one of those three sources, Poor Packaging Products, and we’re going to take a look at it to see what can be done to make some positive changes there.

James mentioned money. Budgets are usually a huge source of the problems. But, I think we can make a business case for minimum specs that will fit within the context of a budget discussion. And, I’ll try to explain that next. 


Most evidence management packaging fails at the point of purchase, before an officer has a chance to screw something up in the field. In the past, none of the literature and or any of the training classes that I’ve been a part of, have included universal guidance or quality recommendations for packaging materials that work. 

If you’re an evidence management custodian, and you want to order a thousand bags, they’re probably going to give you a thousand bags. That also probably means, if you just ask for a thousand bags, they’re going to give you the cheapest thousand bags that they can possibly provide. They’re going to look for the thousand bags that will meet the minimum expressed needs that you’ve made and move on to the next thing.

I’m convinced that just asking for a thousand bags is not the right request. A lot of times we don’t know what the right question is to ask, because we’ve never thought about bags. And, it’s okay that you’ve never thought about bags. It’s a weird thing to think about. 

But, it’s something that I do in my office. I sit and think about bags. I think about tape. I think about barcode labels… somebody’s got to do it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be you, but the important thing is that you ask for the right bag that meets your needs based on industry standards. And if you do that, you just might get a bag that’s not going to rip when you pick it up off the shelf. You’re asking for a bag that meets certain criteria, a bag that is going to be designed and intended to last for the full duration of custody, whatever item is inside of it.

We’re talking about a granular look at evidence management labels and seals, craft bags, craft paper, cardboard boxes, paper envelopes, poly tubing, resealable plastic bags, packaging, tape, warning labels, and hazard labels. We’ll also take a look at specialty packing. 

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The reason that we’re doing that is because those eight categories comprise probably 99% of all evidence packaging in our industry. The goal here is to give you specific guidance and to give you specific information on the types of evidence management labels and seals that you need to be using and the type of craft bags and craft paper that are appropriate for packaging evidence.

We’re not going to go over this document exhaustively today. One of the first things we talk about is our evidence labels and evidence seals. We give you specific advice without recommending specific products. You can also get markers from anywhere, but it’s important that whatever markers you buy have certain characteristics. For evidence seals, we prefer markers with permanent ink that have a fine point on them. 

You don’t want to use the same markers that cheerleaders use to make banners, you want to use markers with fine points, so that the words that you inscribe on that label are actually legible; and don’t look like they’re written by a kindergartner. You want to use permanent ink because that record, that seal, is part of the chain of custody of that item. And we’ll follow it from submission through disposition.

Many people have not thought too much about evidence management label printers, like barcode label printers, in their lives. And, that’s okay too. But, we recommend thermal transfer label printers for a very specific purpose. I’ve talked to printer manufacturers that claim that direct thermal printers will do the same thing. I just haven’t seen it. 

RELATED: Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer – Which Print Technology Works Best? 

There are two things that are important about a barcode label printer. One, is that it’s a thermal transfer printer, which means it has a little ribbon in it. And that it’s got sufficient resolution to print a barcode label that is legible. At least 300 DPI is a good resolution for a barcode label printer; higher is better. More resolution is always good. 

These are the kind of granular things that we’re digging into, in this minimum specs guide. So that when you go to your purchasing agent and ask for a label printer, they don’t just get you the cheapest label printer that money can buy; something that they would print receipts on at a grocery store, which is designed to fade instantly upon printing. You need to be able to communicate to them what type of label printer you need; and the specifications of that label printer, so that you get the actual product that works for you and your agency.

When it comes to evidence management labels and seals, we recommend specific materials for evidence labels. If you’re using paper for evidence labels, they will fail you. At some point in the future, they will absolutely fail. We recommend synthetic surfaces like a good polypropylene label. And we recommend a permanent adhesive.

RELATED:  Polyester Labels – When Protection and Durability Matter

You wouldn’t think that you would have to ask for these two things, but labels have all kinds of different properties. If you just look at Zebra’s website, you can find hundreds and hundreds of different labels. I’m sure every label manufacturer has hundreds of other labels that you can choose from. 

So, the two things that you have to look for is a synthetic surface like polyester and a permanent adhesive. Something that’s designed to adhere that label to whatever it’s stuck to forever; or for at least as long as it’s in your custody. Polyester labels and permanent adhesives are used to label oil field pipelines here in Texas. 

They are designed to stick and stay there for the duration of the time, even though they are out in the field; exposed to all kinds of weather conditions. That’s the type of durability that we’re looking for. That’s what you need in your evidencemanagement room because if you’re storing something in offsite storage, that’s outside or exposed to the elements, and not in a temperature-controlled setting, you want labels that are going to be durable under those storage conditions.

If you’re putting something in a refrigerator or freezer, you need a label that’s going to stand up to the storage conditions inside them. For that reason, we recommend synthetic labels with permanent adhesives.

RELATED:  Understanding The Difference Between Permanent Labels And Weatherproof Labels

The other little fun thing is the ribbon. I’ve got props here, but they’re not very exciting. So, I was reluctant to show them to you because this just looks like a tiny roll of empty toilet paper and a tiny roll of black toilet paper, but it’s not. It’s actually barcode ribbon stuff. 

This is a wax ribbon from a manufacturer here locally. Wax resin or full resin, the ribbons are the materials that you need to print the labels that you need for maximum legibility and durability. Ain’t this exciting? Isn’t this how you wanted to spend your Thursday? I am captivated.

RELATED: How To Choose The Right Thermal Printer Ribbon

So, let’s move on to the next thing. Kraft bags and Kraft paper. 

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A bag is not just a bag. Bags are very different. There could be very wide differences between bags. We recommend three different sizes of bags. They don’t have to be this specific size. In fact, it’s very unlikely that they will be precisely a number eight lunch bag. The idea is to get you to think about three different sizes of bags that work for your agency, something small, something medium, and something large.

Lunch-sized bags are commonly available. But, if you just buy a lunch bag, it’s probably made with a really light paperweight, because a lunch sack is designed for a kid to take to school and throw away within a couple of hours. That’s not how evidence management packages are intended or designed. So, we need something stronger and more durable. 

To give you an idea of the size that we’re talking about… a medium-sized bag, a 1/6 barrel bag, is about the size of a grocery sack. And I recommend a large-sized bag. Most of us use 30 gallon lawn bags, but James, tell them what y’all used in Orange County for large bags a few years ago.” 

James said, “Actually, it’s been… man… 20 years. We’d come across a product that we use, which is a double-lined, heavy-duty Kraft paper bag. I don’t have any endorsements except to say that it’s the best bag that’s ever been made in the history of mankind. The company is called Portco and I believe they’re out of Washington. It’s marketed as a refuge bag for things like leaves and dirt. That’s why they call it the earthbag. 

But, we commonly refer to it as a Narc Bag, because large quantities of narcotics, like bales of marijuana, kilos of… whatever fit perfectly inside. And, it gives the ability to hold a shape and roll the bag down. Over the years we’ve had very few that have torn on us or gotten dilapidated. They hold their shape really well. It’s a little bigger than the lawn bags that you find at Home Depot or Lowes.” 

Shawn said, “We’re not saying that you’ve got to get a 30 gallon lawn bag. What we’re endorsing is that you have a large-sized bag. Whether it’s a bag like James is talking about, or a 30-gallon lawn bag, they’re just common sizes to put large things in. 

With all of your packaging selections, the two important things that we want to talk about is that: One, they are tailored to match your evidence management storage shelving. And two, they meet and match the most common types of evidence that you receive as an agency. There are agencies out there of all different types, not all of them receive the same types of evidence.

So, you might have no need for a lawn bag. If you don’t, don’t buy a bunch of lawn bags. The goal here is to get people to consider their storage needs and their storage equipment when they make these packaging decisions, because they all work together. 

When it comes to minimum specs for a Kraft bag, we recommend an absolute minimum of a 50-pound basis weight for your Kraft bags. A little, flimsy lunch sack is probably 35 pounds, and it will rip as soon as you put something heavy in it. I actually prefer 60 pounds or heavier when it comes to basis weight for bags. Basically, that’s just the weight of the paper. 

I use 75-pound basis weight bags for medium-sized bags. They are going to hold a lot of stuff, and be extremely durable. It’s not going to rip through the bottom because it’s made of heavyweight paper. If you buy a cheap bag, that’s like 20-pound paper or 35-pound paper, you can bet that that’s going to rip through immediately. 

When it comes to sealing and label considerations, we recommend that you seal bags with packaging tape. Please do not seal bags with tamper evidence tape. Tamper evidence tape, unless it’s specially designed for package sealing, was never intended to seal a package. To mechanically close a package, we recommend using packaging tape.

RELATED: Different Types of Evidence Packaging Tape 

We would also encourage you to be consistent in the way that you place labels on your bags.

We recommend that you have a label that faces the access side of your storage area so that people can see what’s in it without moving stuff around. 

We’ll move on to Kraft paper. Kraft paper comes in rolls. Typically it doesn’t really matter how wide a role is. Kraft paper is used for wrapping biological evidence or large format evidence that needs to be protected from cross-contamination. This needs to be a really thick paper. 

RELATED: What is Kraft Paper and What Makes it So Popular?

Typically, if you’re going to protect things from cross-contamination or damage, we recommend a minimum of 60-pound basis weight Kraft paper, or, better yet, a 75-pound weight basis. It’s thicker. It’s better for that purpose. It’s still foldable and can still conform to different nonstandard shapes, but it’s going to be strong enough and thick enough to protect the item that’s wrapped inside it. 

When it comes to cardboard boxes, material specifications are pretty simple. 

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We recommend three sizes of cardboard boxes based on your evidence management needs and the shelving that you have at your agency. But, there’s really only one thing to keep in mind when it comes to purchasing cardboard boxes. We recommend single wall construction. That’s rated at 200 PSI burst strength. Basically, a box like that is going to be strong enough to put anything in it that you would typically want to put in a box. 

RELATED: Burst Strength vs. Edge Crush Testing

If you have a need for heavier items or are higher-rated boxes, they exist but they’re more expensive. Typically a 200 PSI burst-rated box is going to hold almost everything that you possibly need. We’re not going to make specific size recommendations. But, I would say the small boxes, medium-sized boxes, and large boxes should be indexed to your shelving needs.

When it comes to paper envelopes, I hate small envelopes. They just get lost.

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So for me, it’s just medium and large. Small envelopes have a way of falling into black holes; places where matter just disappears and is never seen again. I recommend 6 x 9 model envelopes and either 9 x 12 or 10 x 13, depending on the way that your agency organizes your shelves. Almost everything that needs to go in an envelope can go in one of those two envelope sizes.

When it comes to minimum specs, these paper envelopes are Kraft paper envelopes, very similar in material to bags and Kraft paper. There’s really only two things to think about when it comes to purchasing paper envelopes. And, these are minor recommendations. 

One is to look at the closures on the bag and look at the seams on the bag, the closures that come on paper envelopes, there are usually four or five different types. There’s the little clasp and hole style, that’s reinforced with two metal brads to stick through the hole… and cut your fingers. The other is the hook and loop, that’s got a little piece of string dangling down from it. And then you’ve got gummed envelopes and self-adhesive envelopes. I recommend either the self-adhesive or gummed envelopes.

Another thing to think about is the quality of the seams used to construct that envelope. If you buy a low quality envelope or the seams are falling apart during the manufacturing process, then you’re going to have to seal every single seam in order to keep your evidence preserved and intact. 

RELATED: Different Types of Manilla Envelopes 

(***Be sure to see weight, sealing, and seam options. We are not recommending this manufacturer, this is just informative.)  

James was talking about something that Orange County is doing. They’re working with a company to try to figure out… tell us about that.”

James said, “When you put the envelopes together – we use the 6 x 9 Manilla envelopes – with the tag facing forward, you’re always left with the seal flap on the bottom. And it seems like every time you go to pull one envelope out, it catches on that flap on the item in front of it or behind it. Over time, it can tear that flap apart and create a breach in a separate piece of evidence or even the evidence that you were trying to pull out of the box. 

We thought it would be novel to try and create an envelope that has a fold at the bottom, so there’s no flap or anything for the next piece of property you get stuck on. That’s in the works. Maybe once it becomes a reality, I’ll be able to take some pictures of it and put it on the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook. And, if people are interested in it, then they’ll have access to it.”

Shawn added, “I even recommend sealing paper envelopes with packaging tape. In my youth, when I was assigned to the evidence unit, the absolute pinnacle of cool was the tamper tape because it looks so official.

I felt better than other people because I had access to this tape. I soon learned to hate it with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. When I tried to peel a piece of it off I couldn’t get off my fingers, and then I couldn’t get off my uniform, then I couldn’t get off my pants. So I hate tamper tape. But, packaging tape is a great seal for our envelopes, bags, and boxes.” 

Tracker Products and The Evidence Management Institute want to contribute to your ongoing education through… a series of FREE online evidence management training classes. Watch and comment on the Tracker Products webinars here. Check out The Evidence Show! And to get in on the discussion, with nearly 800 evidence custodians – join the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook. 

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