*** Shawn Henderson *** James Nally
The Lather Rinse Repeat in 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 products. Many evidence management packaging failures begin at the point of purchase, long before an officer has the chance to mess it up in the field.
Before my assignment to the evidence management unit, I never once thought about packaging materials, 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 packaging materials with minimum specifications to prevent an endless cycle of rinse, lather, and repeat for 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, we take a look at the unique issues that impact evidence managers and custodians, and the law enforcement community in general. Let’s get started…
Shawn continued the webinar by saying, “I’ll talk for a minute about poly tubing and resealable plastic packaging. I didn’t put pictures of poly tubing or receivable plastic packaging on here because I think these come from the devil. Ha ha. I know that’s not precisely true. Poly tubing has its place. If you’re packaging narcotics or fentanyl, you absolutely want to put that stuff inside plastic packaging to protect you, protect your unit, protect the lab, and protect everyone from the hazardous potential of these types of substances.
But, I have seen poly tubing used so often, applied so broadly, and used in so many different ways, that it’s very difficult for me to be an advocate for it when it comes to size considerations.
I was recently working with an agency here, in the great state of Texas, and they had a 12 inch wide roll of poly tubing. It was only two mils thick. But, they had a heat sealer that was only eight inches wide. Well, you can’t seal a 12 inch roll of poly tubing with an eight inch wide heat sealer. So, whatever roll size of heat sealer, or whatever roll size of poly tubing you use, make sure that you’ve got a matching width heat sealer in order to get the job done.
When it comes to poly tubing, the other thing that is critically important – and I can’t underscore this enough – is if you’re going to use poly tubing to protect you from bad things, you need to use thick, 4 mil poly tubing at an absolute minimum. If you really want to use quality poly tubing, that’s going to protect you, I recommend 6 mil poly tubing.
4 mil and 6 mil doesn’t mean four millimeters or six millimeters. I learned that just a few weeks ago. It means four one thousandths of an inch and six one thousands of an inch.
I see so many evidence management agencies out there using two mil or even one mil, like little flimsy bags and the heat sealers just chop right through the labels. They can’t see them at all. They just destroy it. Six mil is really great material to use for that.
At the Evidence Management Institute we recommend that poly tubing and resealable plastic tubing be used as a secondary packaging method. We spell out in the guide reasons for that. For example, poly tubing is difficult to file in consecutive order. It has no structure. It’s like a person without a skeleton. They just kind of fold over. There’s no way to organize poly tubing in an easy manner. And, it’s very difficult for labels or sealing materials to adhere to the surface of poly tubing.
For that reason, we recommend that poly tubing and receivable plastic packaging be used to seal evidence items, but that those items be placed inside of a traditional package, like a bag, or an envelope, or a box. Then, that bag, envelope, or box is sealed and labeled as your evidence package.
The best application for poly tubing that I’ve found, is as a secondary packaging method for hazardous materials, not as a primary packaging method. If you package things in plastic, the seals are going to rub off. The labels are gonna slough off. Even if you use a high speed, low drag permanent adhesive and a polyester label, there is every likelihood that, due to the nature of the surface of that poly tube, it’s gonna slough off.
During the manufacturing process for poly tubing there are lubricants that are used to keep the package from sticking to things. They don’t remove that stuff during the manufacturing process. It’s used to keep the stuff slick and keep it rolling. That’s one of the reasons why your labels fall off. That’s one of the reasons why when you write your name with a Sharpie on it, and it brushes against your pants, it disappears. For that reason, we recommend using it as a secondary packaging option.
Sealing and Labeling
As far as sealing considerations and label considerations… If you are going to use poly tubing as a primary package method you need to make darn sure that you find a label that is constructed to stick to polypropylene plastic. That is not a commonly available item.
There are plastic on plastic adhesives out there, but chances are it’s probably a different configuration chemically than a label that would work easily on paper bags, cardboard boxes or other substrates.
For that reason, we recommend using poly tubing for hazardous evidence. There are some very specific prohibitions; some circumstances when you would never use poly tubing or resealable plastic. You don’t want to put biological evidence in poly tubing. You don’t want to put metallic evidence in poly tubing. You don’t want to put things that are sharp.
What else do we NOT want to put in poly tubing? Anything wet, including marajuana. Anything with any moisture whatsoever. And, anything that’s going to be subject to temperature changes. You don’t want those things going into poly tubing because poly tubing becomes a mold factory. It becomes a factory of decay. You don’t want to put firearms in plastic tubing or inside plastic. They will rust almost immediately upon submission.
When it comes to tape, this is one of my favorite things. I’m a huge fan of using quality tape, but it’s difficult to figure out what quality tape means.
Most of us never look into this. I’ve been looking into it for a number of years, and I still haven’t completely settled. There are two different types of tape adhesives out there. Let’s talk about minimum eidence management specs for packaging tape. There’s a difference between packaging tape and shipping tape.
Packaging tape is thicker. Packaging tape is more durable. Packaging tape usually comes in industrial and economy configurations. You want the industrial. Two inch width for packaging tape is usually sufficient. Three inch width becomes cumbersome and difficult to deal with.
We prefer clear polypropylene as a packaging tape, but here are important factors to consider…
When it comes to material thickness, we recommend 2.5 mils as a minimum thickness for packaging tape. 3.0 mil is great. You want tape that is thick because it’s got to support an adhesive that it’s going to be thick as well.
When it comes to adhesive, you have two basic choices and both of them come with trade-offs. There is no perfect tape. If you’re storing everything in temperature control conditions, chances are, either one would be fine. But, for long-term evidence management storage, if you store things in different temperature settings, it’s important to look at this little matrix (above image) and you’ll also find it in the minimum specs guide.
For a strong adhesion and initial tack, hot melt adhesives are great. Unfortunately, hot melt adhesives can yellow over time. They can break down under UV exposure. They’re not as great for long-term storage. They’re not great if you’re going to put them in extreme temperature settings. For example, if you’re putting something in frozen storage, hot melt adhesives don’t do nearly as well as an acrylic adhesive.
Another thing that’s nice about hot melt adhesives is that they come off the roll really nicely. I don’t know if you have ever experienced this… when you’re trying to peel a piece of tape off of a roll and it just comes off in little shreds. That’s maddening. That’s probably an acrylic combination tape that you’re dealing with. Hot melt adhesives actually have a releasing agent on them that makes them come off the roll easier.
I suggest you make your own decision based on that matrix above. Hot melt has got a lot of holding power. It’s a high shear tape. It’s not going to rip on you, but it’s also not going to last as long as acrylic adhesives. The quality of that acrylic seal actually gets better, the longer it sits on that package.
So, there are good points and bad points. The bottom line is… use the one that’s right for your agency and your evidence management storage environment. In temperature controlled settings, both of them will perform admirably for you… as long as you get a tape that’s thick enough to hold the package together.
When it comes to Tamper Tape, I’ve got three recommendations…
One, that it has a high adhesion factor. The fact that it sticks to your fingernails and comes off in little shreds… that’s actually a good thing. You want it to be a high adhesion tape that sticks to everything immediately. That’s what tamper tape is designed for. You want it to stick immediately and you want it to rip off in little shreds and ribbons, so you know immediately if someone’s tampered with that package. That’s the whole value of tamper tape.
But, as such, it’s very difficult to work with. It’s very frustrating. It’s never, ever intended to mechanically seal a bag because it doesn’t seal bags. It will just rip open probably 20 minutes after it sits in storage, just from the weight of the paper relaxing itself. It will tear the bag apart.
The Split Back Tape recommendation related to tamper tape is more of a preference than anything. If you have ever put a length of tamper tape on an item and had it curl up on you, or stick to itself, or made you say very bad words – which has happened to me a lot – I found that split back tapes lower my blood pressure.
They make me feel better, and they helped me get the job done with a much lower threshold of frustration. So, I would strongly recommend split back tapes. It’s just a better design all the way around now.
Tamper tape is a great secondary seal or an optional seal on standard evidence management packaging. It can also be a great primary seal on specialty packaging. There are certain types of packages out there that lend themselves well to using tamper tape as a seal. But not all. So, I would just look at that on a case by case basis and make your decisions from there.
Hazard and Warning Labels
When it comes to hazard or warning labels…
For packages that contain hazardous materials, or biological evidence, or anything that requires special handling, put a large label on it so people know what to do with it. They need to be big enough to see, and easy to understand for anybody.
The dumbest person in your agency needs to be able to go into your evidence management vault and know not to touch that big bag with the biohazard sticker on it; or at least not to stick their hand inside the package because there’s something bad there. The label should be large enough and conspicuous enough for everyone to see.
When it comes to hazard labels or package labels, we make the same evidence management recommendations… Use synthetic labels with permanent adhesive. I’ve seen tons and tons of biohazard labels just slough off of packages. And, if it sloughs off the package, then the warning is gone. So, put them in a conspicuous place.
I love multiple labels. I would rather you have five biohazard labels on a box or a bag. I would pay out of my pocket rather than reach into that bag at a later date – when disposing of the evidence – and find a dried up bloody shirt. So, the more the merrier. If you get in trouble for putting too many biohazard stickers on a package, you can have your evidence management supervisor email me directly, and I will beg for clemency on your behalf.
We recommend warning labels on: Biohazard evidence, biological evidence, fentanyl and hazardous narcotic evidence, chemical hazards, and fragile and heavy items. It’s nice to get a heads up, to know that something’s heavy before you pick it up and throw your back out.
I would even recommend lithium battery labels and unsafe firearm labels. Not every firearm that comes into our storage area is going to be safe, even though that’s a standard and a best practice.
I mean, if you’ve got a firearm that’s recovered from a lake by a dive team, they don’t unload the firearm before it’s examined. They put it in water in a paint can and they seal the paint can. And that’s what you get.
So, an unsafe firearm label might be something that your agency might invest in. It’s hopefully not something that you use all the time, but it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility. HazMat placard labels are fun to have around too.
Here’s the bad news when it comes to specialty packaging, we didn’t have time to make specific recommendations.
Generally, we love the idea of specialty evidence management packaging for handgun boxes and long gun boxes. Even knife boxes or sexual assault evidence kits. These are non-standard packages that we see commonly: SANE kits, paint cans, plastic jars that are used to collect liquid evidence, Faraday bags for mobile devices, and sharps containers.
A lot of these are nonstandard but we encourage the use and adoption of those types of things for those specific applications. We’ll continue to work on this evidence management document, improve it over time, and come up with better specifications and more information for you. But, we just wanted to include those in this particular release. We haven’t forgotten about it, we’re working on it. But that’s kind of the CliffNote version of that guide.
Q & A
Does anybody have any questions before we shut off?”
James said, “Yes. Bree Wagner was asking for your recommendation for packaging computers. I’m assuming desktops and so forth. At our agency, we really are just concerned about the information inside the computer. So, we would use a standard packaging tape and seal any panel or access door on the outside that would allow someone to get into that computer. What are your thoughts on that, Shawn?”
Shawn said, “It really kind of depends on why you’ve taken the computer in; what type of case it is. I wouldn’t encase a CPU or a laptop in plastic. Plastic is a bad environment for any electronic device, because it collects moisture. If you have to package it in something, I would package it in a Kraft bag or Kraft paper. If it’s got probative, biological evidence attached to it, or smeared on it somewhere, then absolutely wrap it in Kraft packaging.
It really depends on the type of evidence that’s inside it. If it’s strictly digital evidence and digital information that you’re after, then a seal on the back panel to ensure that no one’s accessed it is sufficient. If it’s biological evidence or other probative evidence, I would wrap it in Kraft packaging.”
James said, “Another question from Kim Matero… If we’re stuck using poly tubing, can we poke tiny holes in the bag to release the air that is taking up all of the room on the shelf?”
Shawn said, “That is a great question. And, it brings to mind the reason that I first fell in hate with poly tubing so many years ago. We had a person that I worked with that literally would roll out like 12 feet of poly tubing seal, take a little one hit or marijuana pipe, blow the bag up to its full capacity, and seal the other side. They were literally making 12 foot body pillows for one hitter, marijuana pipes. That’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much.
There are two questions to ask before I would make any blanket statement. And James, see if you agree with me… It depends on the type of evidence that you’re storing inside that poly tubing. Hopefully it’s not biological evidence to begin with because there’s no business-use case that would support that.
If you poke a hole in the poly tubing, it kind of negates the whole purpose of the poly tubing to begin with. But, if you’re storing things with no probative forensic value and you’re trying to remove the air from it what you might do is send it back to the officer, have them excise a hole in it and then reseal it and re push all the air out.
It would probably be best to write into your evidence management procedures and policies, a guideline or a requirement that they don’t package air. We’ve got plenty of that. That’s something that you would want to write into your procedures and then hold them accountable for in the future. But, just poking a hole on your own, I would be very reluctant to do that unless you’re covered and protected by a policy or procedure that governs that.”
James said, “Mark McMullan says, is asking… Is it a best practice to use tamper resistant tape or is packaging tape with the date and initials sufficient for what’s required?”
Shawn said, “I have no problem using packaging tape and sealing packaging tape with a permanent marker with date and initials. That is perfectly fine and perfectly acceptable.”
James added, “I think the key to that is teaching your evidence management men and women how to put the date, time and their initials in that correct section. We like to put that information half on and half off the tape. That actually creates a tamper-proof seal. Because, obviously, if at any time the tape were to be removed, you’d still be able to see half of the sealing area.
So, it’s just a matter of retraining some of your staff on the best practices of that process of putting the initials across the tape, so that it’s half on half off.”
Shawn said, “We’ve got two more questions here. They’re both relatively easy questions to answer. John up in Gainesville wants to know if crime labs will accept a package with packaging tape? Absolutely. Unequivocally yes. Especially if it’s sealed appropriately. I don’t know that DPS has ever had an issue with packaging tape sealed items.
The other question is, How do you seal evidence that’s found popped open in storage with no sign of tampering. That’s a great question. And, the answer is probably not what people want to hear.
James, we’ll see what you think, but I think that if you find a bag that’s popped open, and you’re a squared-away evidence operation, that’s on top of things, you want to find out why.
So, rather than just saying, I’ll just take it back and throw a piece of tape on it. Let’s find out why. Because a bag that’s open is an out of place thing. It’s an anomaly. It’s something that should catch our attention and make us go, Hmm. Why did this happen?
You would also want to cover yourself and cover your agency. It’s not whether we make mistakes, or when things break, or where the things go wrong. It’s how we handle ourselves and how transparently we handle our operations, when things do go wrong. And, an open unsealed package and your evidence room, especially one that’s been sealed is a thing that goes wrong.
You would want to have a policy or procedure that you would follow that would govern what you do there. I would recommend that a policy or procedure require you to remove the item from storage to figure out, as best you can, what happened. If you’ve got video, conduct some research on why that happened. See if it’s a failure of packaging. See why the failure occurred and then address the issue and reseal it.
It sounds like a pain for something so simple, but with that level of attention paid to that item, it really communicates to your agency that you are trying to do your level best to make sure the evidence is stored, and stays stored, appropriately for the duration of its custody. James, do you have any thoughts?”
James said, “Absolutely. It really depends on what the item is. There are multiple times where we’ve done a partial release on an item, and now we’re trying to reseal that bag. So, you walk past that thing every day, but this particular day you notice that it looks a little different. Maybe it was just opened in a separate area to accommodate the partial release, or maybe the package fell off of a shelf.
Let’s say, it’s leaning up against another item that’s at an angle. I mean, there’s a lot of different things that would happen, but I would definitely say don’t ignore it. Just take a deeper look at it and see if there is a reasonable explanation for it.”
Shawn said, “We’ve got one more question here. Why can’t you put metallic items into poly tubing? Because metallic items rust. I should say, ferrous items… items with iron content. You could probably put platinum in poly tubing. So, any metallic items that are subject to rust or oxidation, is probably a better thing to say. Maybe not all metallic items. I mean, you could probably put tinfoil inside of a poly tubing and it’s going to do just fine. You could probably put gold, which doesn’t oxidize the same way that that steel does. Really what we’re trying to avoid is any item that could possibly rust or corrode… Poly tubing is going to accelerate the rust growth and corrosion of that item because of the moisture content that’s trapped inside the bag. It’s just a rust factory.”
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