Dear Chief…The Things I Wish My Chief Understood About Evidence Management – Part 1

Posted on: Jan 20, 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 this episode, 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 began by saying, “I started the Evidence Management Institute (EMI) about two years ago. The goal was to provide a different kind of evidence management training; a course that was tailored and geared more toward problem solving and trying to help people be successful. Help them become more efficient, more effective, and more sustainable as operations. 

I will tell you I’m a zealot when it comes to evidence management. I was infected by it when I was assigned to the evidence management unit many years ago, and it’s become my passion. It’s become the thing that I’m trying to contribute to in some small way and help other agencies really change their culture of evidence management.

Before starting the Evidence Management Institute, I taught classes for other organizations around the country, and I’d done a little bit of consulting work, but not on the scale that I’ve been able to enjoy the past two years. When I get out across the country to teach classes and do consulting work – pandemic notwithstanding – I see the same problems over and over again. 

Something that’s been on our long-range, strategic plan, is a way to communicate with chief executives – whether they’re Sheriffs, or Constables, or Police Chiefs – but, how do we get our message to them? And that’s what we’re going to start talking about today.

The things that we wish police executives knew about evidence management. This is the beginning of a conversation. It is not the whole conversation, but it is a conversation that has been missing from the equation. And that’s what we want to address today. 

This episode is loosely titled: The Things We Wish Police Chiefs Knew About Evidence Management. I’ll give you the cliff notes…

Crowdsourcing Culture Change is really the main thing that we’re working on today. Plus: The Things That Keep Me Up At Night, Custody Without the Chain, the Five Things Every Police Chief Ought to Know, and then a little bit about Speaking the Language. I will also talk about the next topic on The Evidence Show.

As far as quick updates… The pandemic has made it extremely difficult to schedule training classes. It is almost impossible to get people to open up their doors and say, Yeah, we think this thing is going to end. We would love to do live training. 

We would love to get out. If you work in an agency that is thinking about opening its doors to train again. We will go wherever we are able to go. We’d love to be out there. But, I’ll stop talking about that, because that’s not what we’re here for.

We’re talking about police chiefs and the things that we wish they knew. I want you to know that the Five Things That Every Police Chief Ought to Know is a completely unfinished work. I’ve put some things out there, but honestly, the things that police chiefs ought to know about evidence should really come from people working in an evidence room, right now. So, we’ll be asking for your input.

I think I have a pretty good idea of what they need to know, but really I would love to flesh that out and make sure that what I think they need to know, is what you think they need to know. We’re going to start working on that problem together this year. And, I think it’ll be fun. 

We’ll talk a little bit about speaking the language, which is a topic that we’ve addressed in the past. Speaking the language of executive level leadership is going to become a critical skill if we want police chiefs to understand our operations and the things that we deal with on a daily basis. 

When it comes to Crowd Sourcing Culture Change – not just with the pandemic, this has just been true for time immemorial – evidence units across the industry are in dire need of culture change. We need the culture around evidence management to change: The way that agencies package evidence, the way that we preserve evidence, the way that we return evidence to people that own the things that we store. Even the thought process of an officer submitting evidence, all of these things, in most agencies, are in dire need of change.

You are an evidence custodian. Your job is to take care of the evidence for the duration of its custody, but it’s not yours. A lot of agencies still have that: Submit it and forget it culture, with respect to evidence. The officer turns it in and then three years from now, when you ask them, Hey, what do you want me to do with this? They say, I don’t know. I don’t care. That’s your evidence. It’s not mine. In reality, it is their evidence. 

RELATED: THE EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT ROLES OF CUSTODIANS AND OFFICERS

Those are just small examples of culture change that are required. Now, I’ve got Anecdotal Evidence from teaching across the country, from talking to people across the country, from going to conferences, and doing consulting work all across the country; for little tiny agencies and massive urban agencies. I’ve done projects for both types. I mean, and we’re working on getting all the different sizes in between.

One of the things that we’re finding anecdotally is… if you’re working in an evidence unit, and you’ve been there for any length of time, you know what the problems are. I’m not going to come into your agency and do an audit and surprise or shock you with anything that I find, because you already know about it. That’s true almost every place we go, and it should be. 

I mean, it’s your environment. You work there. You’re aware of the problems. Most of what we do, when it comes to consulting work, is just trying to validate the problems that you already know exist and help give you the resources, or at least the independent observations, to help change those things.

I don’t have to come teach you a two day class to talk about problems because you’re already aware of them. Now, if you’re just starting, you might not be as aware. But, as soon as you open the door, you’re going to get an idea of what some of the problems are. And, you’re going to know them intimately, as soon as you spend a week or two in the office. 

The simple truth is that no matter how much we want things to happen, no matter how much we feel like things need to happen, no matter how passionate we are about the belief that we are in need of culture change as an industry, it’s not going to happen unless we have buy-in and support at the executive level.

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Hopefully, I didn’t just burst the bubble or make you sad, but we’ve got to have police executive’s buy-in, to support the type of culture change that we need, if we’re going to be successful as an industry. 

I was a cop for a long time, and I was born cynical. You might be saying, Culture change can never happen. Well, it can happen. And it does happen. It’s a process that takes time. It might even take some precipitating event to force it to happen, but change can happen with executive level buy-in and support. 

When I’m teaching my classes, I’ve had this feeling that I’m preaching to the choir. You know, I’m talking to you about what the best practices are with respect to evidence packaging, or digital evidence. You might learn some new things. You might hear some different things than you’ve been taught before. But, by and large, we’re preaching to the choir. 

When I’m doing consulting work, I’m working with evidence custodians, or supervisors, or front level, or supervisory level folks in the evidence room. I’m still preaching to the choir. If I’m just preaching to the choir, then I’m not reaching everyone that I need to reach. 

The Evidence Management Institute, as an organization, is not reaching everyone that we need to reach. We are all about advocacy. We’re all about culture change. We’re all about making things different with respect to evidence management. That’s why we will pay you, if you live in a state where there are no evidence associations, we’ll pay to have you form one. We will walk alongside you through that process. It’s that important! 

So, we’re intensely passionate about culture change. But, the one thing we know is we’re not reaching all the stakeholders that need to be involved in this change process. If we’re just preaching to the choir, then we’re not reaching everyone that we need to reach. We need to be doing a little more preaching at places where the choir doesn’t congregate. 

We want to start reaching other people that need to be a part of the change process; who aren’t in evidence rooms. So, we’re doing a couple of experiments. The first experiment that we’re going to do is participate in a CALEA training conference. The topic is the same topic that we’re talking about today: What executive level leaders need to know about evidence operations. 

I’ve got some very specific ideas about that, but I wanted to do this show and get some input from you so that we can kind of crowdsource this and bring the chiefs a cohesive body of information that really gives a voice to people working in evidence management.

The CALEA conference is our first opportunity to get in front of police executives, or at least accrediting officials with an agency, and talk to them about the things that they need to know about evidence management. 

But, we’re not going to stop there. In the second phase, we’re going to create an executive level training class for police executives, police chiefs administrators, sheriffs, and top-level leaders to educate them about what they need to know about evidence management. I think it’s so critically important to reach this audience that just hasn’t been reached in the past. They have not been a part of the equation and we’ve got to have them in the fold in order to affect real, meaningful, and lasting change.

We would love to crowdsource a little bit of that, to make sure that we’re able to have your voices heard and concerns known. If you’ve got a police chief that says something to the effect of, One of the things that keeps me up at night is my evidence unit. Then the next question to ask them is, Okay, so what are you doing about it? Those are the questions that we want to start answering today. 

I’ve got a few assumptions about law enforcement, and about the current state of the evidence culture that exists in our industry, that will keep them up at night and make them want to work on the problems. 

This next statement was true when I was serving as a police officer…We, as an industry, have always been luckier than we’ve been good. We’ve always been extremely lucky as police entities, especially with respect to evidence. No one has really kicked the tires on the evidence that we store. They’ve just not questioned the integrity of our evidence. They’ve not questioned our chain of custody. Not questioned our documentation. They’ve not questioned our storage conditions or our accountability measures. Therefore we’ve gotten away with a lot that could be questionable.

So, we’ve been extremely lucky in that respect. We’ve not necessarily been good. Good would mean you do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons. We’ve been lucky. You don’t hear a high number of cases that are kicked out specifically related to evidence. 

There are some news stories that pop up when they’re egregious things that happen with respect to evidence. But, by and large, we’ve been very lucky. It is very possible for us to change that part of the culture and not rely on luck, because luck will wear out and you don’t want luck to wear out at an inopportune time. 

Many of us are working in agencies where our luck could run out at any time, because we haven’t taken the steps to do the right thing. So chief, if you’re watching this … what are you going to do about it? We need to figure out what to do when things keep us up at night… that should prompt us to act. 

It is absolutely one of the easiest areas for a chief executive to lose their job, or lose the faith of the people that hired them, or the public that supports them. It’s when they find that there are problems related to evidence, or integrity, or use of force. Those are the things that will cost a police executive their job the fastest. So, we need to have a little bit of a new perspective on that. 

Another thing that police chiefs don’t understand… A whole lot of police agencies have custody of evidence, but they might not have a chain of custody for their evidence. I don’t think that a lot of executives understand that there is a difference between having custody of something and having a chain of custody for the same thing. 

Everybody’s got stuff. I can’t tell you how many vaults I’ve been in, where there’s a lot of stuff that was piled up to the ceiling. Sometimes row, after row, after row, after row. A lot of stuff doesn’t mean that you have a chain of custody. So, we’ve got to rethink that.

RELATED:  WHY IS CHAIN OF CUSTODY TRACKING IMPORTANT?

One of the things that we’re going to try to help police executives do is rethink chain of custody. To look at chain of custody, not as just a UPS document or a tracking thing from FedEx. That’s part of it, but it’s much more than that. We’ve got to help police executives understand that that chain of custody is more than just a tracking document. It is a system of accountability for every single item (and every movement of each item) in your operation from the time it is picked up in the field, until that beautiful time when it is disposed of at the end of its life cycle. 

We’ve got to have a 360 degree view of the chain of custody. That little document is not sufficient, and we’re going to have to start re-explaining the chain of custody in the context of a 360 degree chain of custody. 

A 360 degree chain of custody is a tracking history of what has happened to that item from birth to disposition. It is also documentation of security conditions, accountability measures, and the storage environment for evidence. All of these things are a part of the chain of custody. 

One of my really close friends ran a pretty large evidence unit out on the east coast and they had a huge, huge mold problem at their operations. If you looked at their computer records, you could have seen the chain of custody information from collection to almost disposition, still in storage. But, it would have never included anything about the mold outbreak or mold contamination with respect to that item; or the storage conditions that evidence was stored under.

The stuff was kept in a basement. It was incredibly humid. It was the perfect condition for growing mold, and lo and behold mold grew. But, if they had tracked storage conditions in those storage areas, they might’ve been able to predict that they’re going to have a mold problem. And, might’ve been able to proactively problem solve and reduce the levels of humidity in those areas. 

So, 360 degree chain of custody is not just a conceptual thing. It’s not just a gimmick. It’s really taking care of your evidence across the board, and making documentation so that you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt – which is generally the burden of proof – that you have done the absolute best that you could possibly do for that item. That it was preserved appropriately, that no one had access to it, that it couldn’t have been tampered with, and that it wasn’t cross contaminated by other evidence packaging or evidence.

You have to be able to demonstrate that to people, not just philosophically, but actually. And, that’s the type of chain of custody that we’re going to try to get our police executives to start understanding.” 

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.