“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. This episode originally aired on June 11, 2020.
Shawn began this webinar by saying, “The goal today is to talk about safely reopening at what we hope is the end of a pandemic. These will be some guidelines and some things to think about. But, more than anything, I’d like you to think about how we can approach different problems, using common solutions.
Beginning in 2020 COVID-19 was something new. It was novel. It was literally something we haven’t had to deal with before. And, it created problems in the evidence room. We deal with new issues all the time, so more than just talking about how to respond to COVID specifically, I’d like for us to start thinking and talking about how we respond to new issues, new threats, new problems, as a whole. What resources are available to help us deal with new things that pop up that are outside of the normal scope of our operations?
Novel things, like the Coronavirus, will ultimately help us become more sustainable, more effective, and more efficient at dealing with other issues when they come up. So, what are we talking about today?
We’re going to talk about developing some of those ill-structured problem solving skills. We’re going to talk about applying standards and best practices to new problems, and to our problem solving model. We’ll discuss a couple of the relevant issues that are facing evidence managers today, with respect to COVID-19. And then we’re going to try to start wrapping our brains around some issues that are ill-structured.
How do we fill the void of the unknown? When the new question comes up… What do I do about this? What are some things that we can do as evidence custodians to create quality responses based on solid information and solid practices and principles to answer those questions?
I’ve got a perspective on that, that I hope will make some sense. I also would like to spend some time at the end talking about true personal protective gear. We’ll talk about establishing a model protocol for responding to any kind of viral or contagion issue that might come up in the future. At the end, we will take your questions. And if we have answers, we’ll provide them. If not, I’ll find them and I will share them with you directly.
So let’s talk about ill-structured problems…
The COVID-19 virus has been an ill-structured problem. An ill-structured problem, as it would be defined in a problem-solving theory, is any problem where the starting position, the allowable operations, or the goal state can’t be clearly specified. Meaning, we just don’t know what the solution is. The COVID virus was the perfect example of an ill-structured problem.
We didn’t know much about it. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know about transmission. And, we still don’t know about the lifespan.
I can’t imagine what it’s been like for CDC and for medical professionals to deal with this virus, knowing so little. Law enforcement was kind of the same way. We’re on the back end of the curve. But, people in law enforcement are in the business of providing solutions and we have to generate solutions that make sense, that are safe, that are effective, and that work for everyone.
So, that’s why we study ill-structured problems. We’ve all got to be able to navigate through these kinds of problems because we’re going to encounter them over and over again.
The fun thing about ill-structured problems is trying to solve them. I believe that we can solve most of these ill-structured problems by applying knowledge and principles that we’ve already got, to address the problem using creative, out of the box thinking. We can then break problems down into manageable pieces so that we can create solutions.
I think that there are a few things that we can do to set ourselves up for success when we’re faced with an ill-structured problem. One of the best things to do is to go to a resource that gives you information that is applicable to the problem. I’m going to point out two different standards and best practice resources to you.
And, I’m going to make the case that if you study standards and best practices related to evidence management, you will find solutions to most of the problems that arise, like the COVID issue.
If you follow best practices and standards of evidence management, I think you will find a solution for a lot of those issues. The guidelines that are already established are robust and contain enough information to be helpful. They’re going to address critical issues. The standards that we’ve written for the Evidence Management Institute don’t talk about COVID-19 specifically, but they are directly applicable and can be applied to COVID-19 because they protect against all sorts of threats.
They provide a reference point. They provide an anchor in the sand; someplace that you can go to find answers to your questions. They might not be the direct answer to your question, but you can apply these solutions to problems in a way that makes sense. They are adaptable.
These things have to be fluid enough to cover a wide variety of baseline issues and desired outcomes. If you’re reading through the standards and best practices that we’ve published at the Evidence Management Institute, I think you will find that they’re a comprehensive body of work.
They’re always being tweaked. They’re always being added to. It is a body of work that continues to evolve. We will never be finished with them because we’re going to keep addressing new issues as a means to solve them. If you read the standards and best practices from the Evidence Management Institute and apply that to the COVID problem, I believe that you will find them useful.
My second favorite body of standards and best practices is from NIST. You’ll find that if you read that guide – The Biological Evidence Preservation Handbook – it is the definitive resource for guidance on biological evidence management. After all, COVID is a biological agent. If you apply the knowledge that you can find in that body of work to the problem, in addition to other standards and best practices, it’s going to give you answers to your questions.
Now, we’ve got three different issues facing evidence custodians, with respect to the COVID virus, and things that we’re dealing with today. You’ve got a virus that is highly contagious. We know that it can be spread through the air. And, we know that when two humanoids are in close proximity to one another, and they’re talking or coughing, that the virus is expelled from one caught by the other.
[At the time this webinar was recorded] My sister had just gotten out of the hospital in South Bend Indiana. She went to the hospital for something else and found out that she had COVID-19. She was fairly asymptomatic, but she had so many other issues. So it exists. It’s real. And it is something that we have to deal with. To protect ourselves, to protect our citizens, to protect our loved ones, it’s something we have to take seriously.
For a while, many government facilities just closed up shop. But, we found that as governments reopened, and its facilities reopened, that we had to navigate a new response. Now, we’re all coming back to 100% in an evidence room, evidence vault, police department, or if you work in e-discovery. But, how do we do that safely? How do we do that without either contracting a virus or passing a virus? Those are two important questions.
There are a lot of fears and concerns over exposure. I’ve gotten countless emails from people that have either taken our class or have listened to other webinars, asking questions specifically about preventing COVID exposure or potential exposure to a virus or another type of contagion. That’s why I really thought this might be a good way to kick things off because it’s a timely issue. It’s one that we should discuss, among other issues that affect evidence managers.
It’s important that we respond to these issues, rather than react to these issues. Everything reacts: plants, protozoan, single-celled animals. All organisms react, and those reactions come in many different forms. Three common ones are fight, flight, or freeze.
None of those are particularly helpful in dealing with a new virus or contagion. So, we’ve got to slow it down a little bit. Reactions are usually devoid of thought. They’re devoid of logic. And they’re devoid of order. Reactions are typically chaotic, ill-structured, and don’t lead to good solutions. So, it’s important, as we face these issues as evidence custodians, that we respond to these issues rather than react to them.
We need to take intentional action based on conscious thought. It’s a reasoned and measured approach. That’s the type of approach that I would like to see agencies take with respect to this virus or any other problem that pops up down the road. And there will be many.
I had a great question from a person that participated in our Basic Elements class. And I’d like to use this question to help us draw some distinctions and show how we can apply the standards and best practices that already exist to the COVID issue.
Her email said, My soap box at the moment is found/safekeeping property. How do we receive it without the worry of being contaminated by the virus? Our solution at the moment is that they’re just being submitted in trash bags instead of an unpackaged purse or a backpack. Any thoughts?
I think this is a great question. And, I think that there are several elements in this question that we can highlight as a response to the virus. But, can also be broadly applicable to us as evidence managers.
My main advice was, Let’s break this down. We’ve got found property and safekeeping property. From the question, my inference was that officers at that agency were just submitting purses and backpacks, unpackaged. My first thought was, What do we know, what have we learned, and what can we use from our standards and best practices that are directly applicable to this procedure? And then what do we know about this virus that we can apply to this question as well?
Their solution was to pack everything in trash bags, instead of just submitting the purse or the backpack unsealed. And, I think that to package them a great response. But, when we think about COVID, we don’t know how long the virus lives on a particular surface. There aren’t any studies or any literature that let us know how long the virus was going to live on any particular substrate.
There were some studies about it living longer on metal, but there was no conclusive data. One thing we do know about evidence in general, and biological evidence in particular, that we can apply from the information that’s already out there, is that when we package things in plastic, that creates an environment that things grow in.
So, if we’re putting our backpacks and our purses inside of a plastic bag or a trash bag and wrapping it up, we’ve created an environment that traps all that moisture inside the bag. And it actually gives that virus conditions where it might actually grow more rapidly than it would if it were unpackaged. We don’t necessarily know that’s the case, but I certainly know that’s a possibility. That’s why we don’t package things in plastic.
If we’re dealing with biological evidence or contagions, I do think that there is value in taking the principles we teach in our training class… Found property and safekeeping properties should be handled and packaged similarly to the way all evidence is packaged. So, my first recommendation to her was … We package things to prevent cross-contamination. We package things to protect us from the item itself.
This would be one of those cases. So, the recommendation was… Require them to package the items inside of a craft bag that they seal up. I mean, I don’t think it’s a good idea to submit purses and backpacks without packaging, because of that cross-contamination issue. Not just for you as the evidence custodian, but for every other thing on that shelf that is adjacent to those backpacks. That’s just a good, basic principle of evidence management that makes sense to follow.
We want to respond to these unknowns with the reason and knowledge that we’ve used before. I like to see us break down problems into root issues. We know that there are certain root issues that we’re dealing with when we’re dealing with COVID in particular. It is a biological contagion.
So, we can look to biological evidence standards, guidelines, best practices to help give us guidance about what to do with potential exposure to COVID through those. We’ve got established evidence, procedures, or evidence handling procedures that are already established that can also be broadly applied and applicable to COVID. Same with packaging.
They protect you from a broad spectrum of issues, COVID would be one. But, if there is exposure potential to any pathogen, where are the three most likely sources that we’re going to be exposed?
One of them is at intake; when we’re pulling stuff out of the lockers. Another is when we’re returning evidence or property back to an owner. And the third source is when we’re transferring evidence to another location. The most common one is at evidence intake.
So, when we’re moving evidence, or returning evidence or property back to an unknown owner, if we base our response on established practices that already exist, they will most likely apply to other things like COVID-19. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to have a good wheel to start with.
If you do nothing else today I would take a deep dive and read that NIST biological evidence preservation handbook. It is a great document. But also spend some time looking at The Evidence Management Institute’s standards and best practices guide that is also available. There are 10 different chapters that cover 10 different areas of evidence management, and what you will find in those pages are principles and practices that you can apply to all types of evidence that will also be broadly applicable and protect you from things like COVID-19.”