“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 will take a look at the unique issues that impact evidence managers, custodians, and the law enforcement community in general. This episode answers some of the most common questions Shawn receives about evidence management.
Shawn continued this webinar by saying, “Next question… I can’t get our officers to package correctly; whether it’s money, guns, or anything. Do you have suggestions for getting them to do things the right way?
I’ve got four recommendations with respect to getting officers to start packaging, or start doing anything, the right way. The first thing that you have to do is establish the right way.
You have to set your expectations before you can expect those conditions to be met. So, have you written down packaging procedures? Do you know exactly what it is that you want? For most of us, that question has been answered with a YES.
If you like your procedures, the second thing that you have to do is make sure that you document them in a way that people can understand. For Police Officers, it can be very helpful for them to see pictures of the right way to package things. Sometimes it is difficult to translate a written description into a physical, tangible outcome.
So, I would make sure that you document your procedures in a manner that is understandable to the end-user. If they can’t figure out what it is that they’re supposed to do, then you’re going to continue to deal with the problem of people doing things the wrong way.
For me, the most important step in this process is intake. Now, if you’re an agency like Minneapolis or Baltimore, where you get 24-7 property evidence operations, that’s the exception to the rule. But, the most important time for making sure your officers do the right thing, the right way, is during intake.
If they know that you inspect every package that comes in and you immediately reject every package that is packaged inappropriately, that’s a way to start changing the culture at your agency for the better.
The fourth layer is accountability. You might not have the authority to compel them to do anything, but by setting the expectation, by establishing what the right thing to do is, and then making them do it, that’s the way to get officers to start doing things the right way.
You’ve gotta figure out what the right thing to do is, communicate the right thing, and then hold them accountable. Create an environment where the right thing is the only acceptable alternative. I will say this if you accept evidence into your vault that has substandard packaging, the more you can expect to receive. So, you’ve got to draw a line in the sand and learn to reject packaging that doesn’t meet the established standards.”
Shawn took some questions from the attendees. The first question was, “How do you deal with the safekeeping of firearms? Our policy doesn’t allow it because it violates second amendment rights.
This is a great question. And I will tell you, the answer is going to change in every jurisdiction in every single one of the 50 states. Let me tell you a story. Towards the end of my assignment in the property unit, the law in the state of Texas changed.
Now, if you are a Texas legislator, or related to one, I apologize, but in Texas, the legislature is bad at doing one thing: writing laws. It’s just not their forte. It’s not their sweet spot. For example, they wrote an evidence-related law, with respect to firearms, that covered the safekeeping of firearms. Which we should be thankful for, but the way that this law was written, it was impossible to follow.
It required us to check jurisdictions and databases that didn’t exist. It was an unfollowable mandate, but it was the law of the land. So, we changed our policy to not take in firearms. There’s nothing under the law, there’s nothing under the constitution – unless your state is different – that requires an agency to take items in for safekeeping in general, especially firearms.
It is the custom and practice of most agencies that I know of, especially on a call where there was a suicidal subject involving a firearm, that firearm would be seized. I also know that there are jurisdictions where all firearms are seized all the time. And, if your state provides you with the authority or the obligation to do it, then absolutely do it.
But, if there is no obligation to seize firearms, and there is no obligation to remove firearms, there are other creative measures that your agency can do to avoid safekeeping those items. Now, the fact that your policy indicates that you don’t allow safekeeping of firearms because it violates the second amendment… safekeeping involves a voluntary agreement. We take things on behalf of our citizens either because they’re not able to speak for themselves, or they willingly give us these items. So, that’s not really a second amendment violation.
It becomes a problem when we take things for safekeeping and there is no process, there is no receipt that is given to the person that owns the firearm. If there’s no due process, we’re not just violating a second amendment issue, we’re talking about a fourth amendment and a 14th amendment issue. So, safekeeping has huge implications.
I love this question because it gets into some very slippery slopes with respect to evidence management. We are required to store evidence. We elect to store property. But, there is no ‘shall’ in most states. So, the way that we dealt with safekeeping in our jurisdiction, especially firearms… we stopped taking firearms in for safekeeping because the law was impossible to follow.
But, if you’re in a jurisdiction where you do take in firearms, I would recommend providing a receipt, giving them due process, and a way to have those items that belong to them returned. In short, follow the law of your state, and the policies of your jurisdiction.”
Shawn took another question, “How much research is considered ‘due diligence’ when trying to locate an owner of property?
This is another great question. It’s also unquantifiable. Due diligence is a legal term for an appropriate amount of activity directed towards a specific task. I’m not sure what the standard of due diligence is at your agency.
Sometimes that’s crafted by statute. Like in Texas, due diligence for us means we have to post the property in a paper of record. Nobody reads papers anymore, and nobody posts things in papers, because we don’t travel in wagons anymore.
Due diligence is a qualitative term, not a quantitative term, so I would establish a standard. There are certain databases that we can check. It really depends on the property item itself. Even though we should probably apply the same standard to try to locate a low or no value item, like a tire iron, as we would for a high-value item; how much identifying information is associated with that item?
Another thing to consider, with respect to due diligence, is… during the intake process how much information were you provided? You can avoid a lot of due diligence by making sure that your officer’s document ownership when they enter an item to you. But, I would say that if you do your level best, you check the databases that are available, and you’ve reached a point where you’ve exhausted your capacity to search, that might be the end of due diligence for you.”
Shawn addressed another question, “The only incineration facility near my agency or our agency is seven hours away. What can I do with biological evidence for disposal?
The agency that I worked for had one EPA approved incineration facility that was almost three and a half hours away. For Dallas, you would think that there would be ones closer. That facility actually went down for about a year and a half because they had a broken part on their main incinerator. So, we weren’t able to dispose of biological evidence for almost a year. And, the nearest facility was nine hours away in Beaumont. It’s not uncommon for many agencies to deal with that same issue.
How do you get rid of that stuff? There are a couple of things I would encourage you to consider:
One… partner with another agency that has an existing contract with an approved biohazard disposal company. Hospitals, labs, and fire departments will have contracts with biological waste disposition companies. They can help you. Partnering with other entities that routinely engage in biological evidence or biological biohazard disposition is a great place to start.
Number two: There are companies out there that do incineration work and people will mail their disposal items to that facility. It is entirely reasonable to construct a policy based around – especially if you’re eight to 12 hours away from a facility – a mailing process for disposing of that biological evidence.
I wouldn’t do the same with drugs by any stretch. I just think there are too many problems that could be associated with that. Too many laws, too many health issues, too many horrible scenarios.
But, with evidence that is primarily of biological importance or forensic importance, there’s not the same level of misuse that could occur. I would strongly consider contacting one of these companies about that mail-in program for disposing of evidence. You can do it properly. You can create policy and draft procedures that are appropriate and would still safeguard that disposition process.”
Shawn took another question from the audience. “The evidence labels we use fall off of some of our packages after a really short time. What kind of labels stick to most packages?
This is actually one of my favorite topics. Anytime this question comes up, we recommend using polypropylene labels. The label itself is important. The material that the label is printed on is important. If you use paper, it’s going to degrade, it’s going to fall apart. If it gets wet, it’s going to fizzle.
You want to use polypropylene as the substrate, if you want your labels to be permanent. They use polypropylene labels on oil field pipes. Those conditions, especially for labels, are some of the roughest possible storage and working conditions that you can imagine. They use those kinds of labels because of their permanence, because of their readability, because of their utility, and because of the way they handle the elements. Regardless of the extreme heat, extreme cold, or extreme pressure, they work.
The other thing that you want to look for is a permanent adhesive. I think that’s one of the things that people fail to understand… that labels stick differently. If you’ve ever bought a little plastic piece of junk at Walmart, and you’re trying to take the label off and it just makes a gooey mess all over the side of that thing, then you’ve experienced the rage of that. You understand that there are different adhesives. Now, why didn’t they use a different adhesive to easily pull that label off?
Polypropylene labels with permanent adhesive is really the only appropriate label adhesive combination for evidence. Polypropylene labels will also tend to mold to the package better than a paper label, which will tend to separate.
Any barcode printer will print on polypropylene labels with the permanent adhesive. They’re also going to print with a thermal transfer ribbon instead of a direct thermal. You want to use the right kind of ribbon to make it permanent. It is important to use a thermal transfer printer, not a direct thermal printer.
Also, don’t use strings to attach tags to evidence. If you use tags to tag large items, use a zip tie that’s durable and rated to withstand UV radiation, especially if it’s going outside. Instead of putting it on a paper or cardboard card, use plastic, use some kind of form that’s durable and will weather the elements and last under normal storage conditions.”
Another question came in. “How can I get my agency to see the benefit of a standalone evidence and property tracking system instead of using the RMS?
That is a great question. I am a huge proponent of evidence management systems. I would say, look at the needs of your property/evidence unit and compare those to the needs that are met by the RMS. A records management system is good for managing records. They usually throw in evidence as an add on, but they don’t do all of the things that need to be done.
If you look at our standards – especially, Chapter 4 – and you go to our resource links, we’ve compiled a list of everything that technology ought to be able to do. Look at the features of your current RMS as compared to our recommendations.
Does it allow you to complete an inventory and an audit process? Does it record and track chain of custody? Can you check evidence in? Does it integrate all the workflow processes from intake to disposition into the system? If the answer is no, that RMS can’t meet the needs of your evidence unit. And, it certainly will not make you more efficient, more effective, or more sustainable as an operation.”
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