Dear Chief…The Things I Wish My Chief Understood About Evidence Management – Part 2

Posted on: Jan 28, 2022

Categories: Uncategorized

“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.

In Part 2 of this webinar, Shawn addresses why executive-level support for evidence operations is critical to the success of any evidence management operation. In this article, he will be discussing proactive solutions and strategies to change the culture in your agency, this time from the top down.

Shawn said, “When it comes to right now, the Five Things Every Chief Should Know (and this is going to change with your input)… 

I think one of the most important things for a police executive to understand is what they’re asking of the people that they have placed in their evidence operations. I don’t have to tell you that evidence units have traditionally been used as penalty boxes or dumping grounds. It’s whatever happened in the past. That’s obviously not something we’re going to support. 

So, whatever it was in the past, it doesn’t matter. If you want a good unit, if you want to do the right thing with evidence, the people that you place over that unit have to have a very specific and very diverse set of skills in order to be successful. 

The person that you place over that unit has got to have an understanding of the judicial process. They’ve got to have an understanding of the law. They have to have a technical understanding of how to preserve, package, and store evidence appropriately. They have to have this specific technical knowledge, detailed legal knowledge, cultural and organizational knowledge of what goes where, and more technical knowledge with respect to how we store evidence. How do we find it? How do we document it? 

There’s so much that you’re asking of evidence custodians. It’s important that they understand the type of person that they want to put in those operations and to value and esteem those people for the specific skill sets that they have. But, if a police chief doesn’t understand what’s important or what an evidence custodian does, then they’re never going to understand the type of people that they need to be looking for to put them over an evidence unit. 

I have a friend that just took over an evidence unit in a rural community in east Texas. I haven’t asked permission, and I don’t think she logs in here, but the Sheriff couldn’t have made a better decision than to put this specific person in charge of evidence at this Sheriff’s agency. 

She called me when she was thinking about signing up for the job. Hey, you think I’d enjoy this? I said, Absolutely. You’re detail-oriented. You believe in making sure that the right thing is done over the expedient thing. You pay attention to detail. You don’t mind speaking your mind. You don’t mind hard work. And, because you’ve got those five qualities, I think you’re going to be incredibly successful. 

When we walked in, it was an utter, absolute mess. They’ve got no documentation. They’ve got no storage. They’ve got nothing. But she’s going to be successful because she’s got the makeup that is going to help her be successful. And turn that thing around.

RELATED: THE EVIDENCE VAULT THAT TIME FORGOT

Police chiefs need to be able to identify people with those types of skills and those skill sets in order to work in their evidence rooms. You need a very specific type of person that can deal with ALL types of people. We’ll talk more about that later. 

The second thing I think police chiefs should know…If there’s a problem at your agency, it’s your problem. You’re an executive. The buck stops with you. It is incumbent on you to fix it. Even if you can’t fix it yourself, it’s your responsibility to make sure that you put people in place that can fix it. Now, that seems like an oversimplified thing that you wouldn’t necessarily have to say, but it’s absolutely true. Nothing’s going to happen if the police chief doesn’t put the right people in place to solve those problems.

There are also five things that I think police chiefs need to know about their evidence operations, day in and day out. How much stuff do you have? What do you have in inventory? How many items do you have stored in your custody right now; including guns, money and drugs? How much money do you have in your vault or in your evidence room right now? How many firearms do you have on hand? How many drug items do you have on hand? What’s the total weight of those drug items? 

If you really want to get fun and creative, What’s the total value of the currency? How many handguns, how many rifles, how many biological evidence items do you have in your custody? How many SANE kits do you have in your custody?

A police chief needs to know, and have those answers in seconds. Not minutes, not days, not hours. Even if they don’t feel like they personally need to know it, they need to have access to that knowledge immediately. If those are unanswerable questions at that particular executive’s agency, then that is a clue that there might be problems. 

Police chiefs need to know whether or not they’re doing it right. I don’t pretend to think that every police executive, every sheriff, every police chief needs to be an expert in evidence management. That’s just not going to happen. They’ve got a whole different slate of issues and a whole different focus on the entire organization. But, they at least need to know how to ask the right questions to know whether or not we’re doing it right. 

Police chiefs need to know about the accountability processes that are in place at that agency. They need to be able to know the last time that an audit was performed. The last time that an inventory was performed. They need to know the last time an inspection process occurred at their agency. Those are just things that police chiefs ought to know. And, even if they can’t recall it from the top of their head, they need to be able to bring that information up or ask the right person. 

RELATED: INVENTORY – A CRUCIAL PART OF EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT

The chief also needs to know, Have you equipped your agency for success? Do they have the right resources in order to be successful? When I’m talking about resource questions, we’re talking personnel resources, we’re talking technology resources, we’re talking storage and capacity resources. If they can’t answer those very basic simple questions… Do you have enough space? Do you have enough people? Do you have the right technology on board? If they can’t answer those questions, then that’s another red flag for a police executive. 

Last two questions… If everyone that works for me in the evidence unit quits tomorrow, what would happen? If the answer is… I would just sit down and cry, that’s not the right answer. If you don’t have protocols built into your operations, as executive continuity next steps, what happens when everybody leaves, or if everybody quits, or if we have to fire everyone? If you don’t have a plan for what’s next, then that’s another red flag. That’s something that every police executive needs to know, or should at least have a person on board that can answer those questions.

And, my favorite question to ask a chief… and this is kind of telling… is, Can you get into the drug vault? There are two types of chiefs out there. Well, there are like 78 different types of chiefs, but we’re going to talk about two different types of chiefs today. 

Can I get into the drug vault? When that question is asked, you’ll have some chiefs that want to say, Yeah, I should be able to go anywhere. I am master and commander of this small municipality or this tiny little county. There is no place that I shouldn’t have full and unfettered access to, because I am the king and I should be able to go everywhere. That kind of response tells me that they don’t understand the importance of chain of custody. 

RELATED: WHY IS CHAIN OF CUSTODY TRACKING IMPORTANT?

They don’t understand the importance of security. They don’t understand their role as the head of that agency. It’s about power and ego. Power and ego create bad outcomes for police executives. 

The best answer that I can get from a police executive is, Man, I don’t want access to the vault. I don’t want to be able to get in there by myself. I never want to be in the chain of custody. I understand that if I have access to the vault, I’m always part of the suspect list. 

If anything goes missing, that’s the absolute best answer for a police chief is, No, I don’t want access into the drug vault, but I do want to be escorted into the drug vault at least quarterly, or monthly, or yearly, so that I can see for myself how things are going and how I can help support the team and help them move forward.

I don’t know if that’s ever happened. But, that’s really the best answer… that you don’t want to access. You don’t be able to get in there yourself because you’re not the master and commander of the free world in your little burb. You’re just a caretaker, like all the rest of us. 

But, you should have eyes on that because you are responsible for it. If you’ve never been inside the drug vault, as a chief executive of an agency, then you don’t know what it is that you’re responsible for. You also have no idea whether or not it’s being run properly, or improperly, or run it all. And, we’re not in the kind of business anymore where we can just bury our heads in the sand, because those heads will get plucked out of the sand when bad things happen and you’re still responsible.

So, those are the five things every chief ought to know.

Now, I want to talk real quick about the chief’s speech, learning the language and speaking to chiefs in a way that they understand.

I’ve talked about this before in other episodes. So, I’m not going to explain in a lot of detail, but we’ve got to understand, as line-level people, and as supervisors, how to speak the language of an executive-level leader, in order to put things in a context that they understand.

When I’m talking to a child, I try not to use extremely big words and concepts that they can’t understand. And, I’m not saying who the child is here… the police chief, or the evidence custodian, because neither is the right answer. But, I do want to speak a language that can translate into something that they’re going to be able to understand.

Police Chiefs understand key performance indicators. If you don’t know what a key performance indicator is, it is a simple, quick measure of success. It is a way to evaluate in a snapshot how an agency is doing. The disposition ratios for a year are great as a key performance indicator. If I know what my ratio is, I can get an idea of how I’m doing as an agency.  

RELATED: USING YOUR EVIDENCE ROOM DATA AS AN ANALYTICAL TOOL

Our SANE kit analysis percentage. I know if that number is 100%, then we’re probably doing a pretty good job. There are other types of key performance indicators; ways that we can evaluate ourselves, that can give the chief a snapshot that will communicate to him our success or lack of success in running our operations. 

Another thing that I’ve learned over the years is the executive level summary. I love to write audit reports because they’re fun. But, they can be 70, 80 pages of information. There isn’t a chief in the world that’s gonna read 70 or 80 pages of stuff, so I’ve learned to condense things into an executive-level summary. 

Police chiefs have a lot of things competing for their attention. It may not be that they don’t care. It means that they don’t have time. Literally, they just don’t have time to focus and understand everything at the granular level that you understand it from. So, if we can condense that information into an executive-level summary: one paragraph, two paragraphs, no more than a page that communicates concisely, succinctly, specifically, and directly, that’s something that’s going to resonate with them. That is a way that you can communicate with them.

 

My favorite thing to do when I’m talking to a police executive is to speak the language of liability, to let them understand the consequences of inaction. That they will incur liability, whether it’s vicarious or direct liability, when we do the wrong thing. Teaching them what their liabilities are, exposing their risks, and their literal liabilities for the actions that we take as an agency is usually huge in helping them make better decisions. If you can translate events, things, and requests into liabilities, generally, you’re going to have a much higher rate of acceptance from the executive to make change. 

Another fun thing that you can do is speak the language of cost. We’re all competing for resources, and there are different types of costs that we need to talk about when we’re dealing with evidence management issues. There are financial costs. There are personnel costs. There are costs of inaction. There are opportunity costs for doing other things. Those are the types of cost terms that we need to start focusing on when we are providing them solutions for our problems.

I say we’re providing them solutions to our problems because you don’t want the police executive to solve your problems; they don’t understand what you’re doing. You need their trust, you need their support, but you need to bring them solutions for your problems. Those need to happen in business plans. They need to be objective, not subjective. You have to learn how to communicate with them, so that they will be able to communicate with you and make decisions quickly, based on the information that you’ve given them. 

Training is critical, not just of your evidence custodians, but of your officers. Everyone needs to have an understanding of the right thing to do. So, there’s internal department training, procedural training, but there’s also evidence management training that I would love for y’all to come to my class and, and receive. But training is absolutely critical and that’s certainly something that we will carry forward. 

As long as you have a police chief that supports you and understands that they are responsible and liable for the operations that take place within that evidence room, consider yourself lucky. But, if they refuse to enter the room or to understand anything about the room, then they’re going to have to rely on just trusting you 100% for their success. That’s a pretty dangerous, dicey proposition for a police executive.

Unfortunately, as evidence custodians, as line personnel, even supervisory personnel, we’re not going to be able to compel many executives to do anything. They are the chief executive of that agency. We have very little positional authority. What we’re trying to exercise here is influence, and you can’t always have positional authority, but you can always have influence.”

RELATED: LEADERSHIP WITHOUT AUTHORITY

Shawn asked the attendees for additional things that police chiefs should understand. 

One viewer suggested the topic of dispositions. 

To which Shawn said, “Yes, dispositions are incredibly important! The things we will definitely work into the conversation with police executives is, You probably don’t have a storage problem, but you probably have a disposition problem. You might not have a personnel problem, but you probably have a technology problem. You might not have a submission problem, but you’ve got a training problem. 

For example, if officers are submitting rocks into evidence on burglaries, where there’s no probative biological evidence associated with it, you have a training problem. So, those are the things that definitely we need to talk about with dispositions.”

Another attendee wrote, Excel is not an evidence management system

Shawn laughed and said, “That is definitely true, but you would be surprised how many agencies use Excel. Now, if you’re an agency that has like 12 items, Excel might be great. But for most of us that have more than 12 items, you definitely want a more sophisticated way of dealing with your evidence. 

And, the folks that I mentioned at the top of the hour, Tracker Products, they would love to talk to you about something other than Excel to manage your evidence.”

An attendee wrote, Any ideas on how to get administrators involved in evidence training? 

Shawn said, “Well, one, let me develop this class, and then we will make it available to them. You can invite them to one of our two day classes, but police chiefs aren’t going to go to a two day class to talk about evidence. I’m going to have, at most, between one and four hours to capture their attention. I’m assuming it’s going to be an hour. 

That means I’ve got 30 minutes of that hour to make my point. So, the training class that we’re trying to develop is about an hour long. The first version of it will be an hour. I don’t have any illusions that police chiefs are gonna flock to a two day class. I’ve got an hour, and that’s the time that I’m going to use to at least broach these subjects and discuss these things. 

We’re going to figure out different ways to do it. We will do it live. We will offer it online. So, we’re going to reach them. I think that they will pay attention to dispositions, the importance of destruction to reduce liability of losing or misplacing items.

RELATED: THE POWER OF AUTOMATING EVIDENCE DISPOSITION

I had a friend that worked at an agency that was the exact same size as my agency. We had about 80,000 items in our vault and my friend had 400,000 items in her vault because her agency refused to destroy or dispose of any evidence… ever. So, she had five times more evidence than I had. And that is something that we will definitely be talking about and adding into the curriculum.” 

An attendee wrote that Police Chiefs Should Know About: Written policies, training, packaging manuals, real audits, and not just a full inventory.

Shawn said, “One of the things that we’ve got to help chiefs understand is there’s a difference between an audit and an inventory. An inventory is just knowing what stuff you have. An audit is knowing whether or not you’re doing the right things, or that you’re in compliance with laws, with policies, with procedures. There’s a huge difference.” 

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 600 other evidence custodians – join the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook.