In January of 2009 guns, drugs and money went missing from a police evidence room in Galveston, Texas. While police personnel searched for the evidence in pending cases, they only turned up more missing narcotics. Meanwhile, prosecutors put dozens of cases on hold.
This isn't the tale of one rogue agency. Similar scenes play out every day. Departments are continually subject to changing policies, space constrictions, high employee turnover and faulty tracking. It's all too easy for agencies to simply lose their grasp on good maintenance.
Maintain the chain
Master Sgt. Tammie Byers, Illinois State Police statewide evidence custodian since 2003, is familiar with the challenges of maintaining property and evidence to the highest standard. The main vault for the Illinois State Police is in charge of long-term storage of items considered too large for field vaults, items for fugitive cases, evidence destruction and functional supervision of all custodians. Her team keeps vigilant tabs on policy changes, legislative initiatives and law changes regarding evidence storage and oversees 32 Illinois State Police vaults statewide. She knows that properly maintained evidence pays dividends, which is why she is sought out regularly by agencies looking to reorganize and regain control of their facilities.
"The whole thing with evidence, no matter where it's at in the process, is that chain of custody," says Byers. "The integrity of the evidence can make or break a case." When a piece of evidence goes missing it not only compromises the case at hand but others as well, as defense attorneys can easily point to it in court and say, "Well, they've lost the evidence before, how are they keeping the evidence in our case?" This is why it's important to manually or electronically document property every time it changes hands.
Timm Fautsko, principal staff member at the National Center for State Courts, has seen problems occur when documentation is lax. Often the care and control of court evidence is in flux between whoever keeps an eye on it during trial and the sheriff. "During this time, where does it go? Does it go back into the lockers or the control of the clerk of courts? Those are what I call some prickly issues of that process, irrespective of technology."
But technology can help. Byers' team uses a regularly updated evidence management computer system that serves as an entry log as well as a numbers reference for management and internal investigations. The system is currently being rewritten to better support modern software and allow for more interfacing with Illinois State Police crime labs. The vault's EVM computer also prints receipts, runs barcodes, and its online security system keeps track of who is making entries.
It is maintained entirely by Illinois State Police; only evidence custodians and the computer programmer are granted access. If command requests to see something, it is printed for them. Custodians from other Illinois police vaults, for instance District Chicago, can log into the system but only have access to their specific vault. At the statewide vault Byers and the four officers that work alongside her can access all vaults and as such provide oversight and assistance via the computer, as well as in person.
Byers says once her team grew accustomed to the evidence management system they were able to "free the programmers" and function as the help desk for anybody logging evidence. This left the programmers to do just that — program.
At your disposal
Another common problem that keeps departments from organizing is simply a lack of adequate space. Andrew Scott, president of The Evidence Storage Co. LLC (TESCO), says this is exacerbated by federal requirements and now state-to-state laws, that require agencies to hold onto evidence in criminal cases for as long as the individual is incarcerated, or as long as the case remains open from statute of limitations perspectives. Scott, a retired chief of police for the Boca Raton Police Department, now advises other departments on best practices and procedures on a number of topics, including property and evidence storage. He says although homicide evidence is never to be disposed of, more mandates are being placed on evidence with DNA implications, which sometimes must be saved for as long as the case remains open, or must remain available to convicted individuals during the terms of his or her incarceration.
"This is creating more of a burden on agencies than ever before," says Scott. When more must stay, more must be done to rid rooms of what can go. Scott recommends having an ongoing mechanism in place to purge extraneous property, saying "If [agencies] can enhance their procedures on how to get property in and properly stored, and how to get property out and properly disposed of, life is good." Auctions are one way to get rid of goods (and are an especially popular route for tangled bicycles), otherwise items may be given away.
In addition to evidence that routinely comes in for storage and immediate destruction, the Illinois State Police Statewide Evidence Vault currently has about 6,000 pieces of evidence that must be maintained and not destroyed for 10 years. The items get scanned into a destruction section and are kept separate from other destruction exhibits.
The stashing point
When other departments call upon Byers to help them regroup, she starts by helping them find their best use of space. She recommends agencies "start from the ground up" and look for the best type of storage equipment, then put even better security practices in place.
Last year the Illinois State Police Statewide Evidence Vault (the agency's "model vault") relocated to a brand new facility with custom-designed storage areas. Overland Park (Kan.) has also gone into a new facility that offers state-of-the-art computerized pass-through lockers and good working space. "For agencies that have the financial capability of building a new property room or retrofitting a current facility with the latest technology, securities and protocol, evidence doesn't become burdensome," says Scott. "It's a very big responsibility, but it doesn't become a burden."
But what if you can't afford to uproot or remodel quite yet? Sometimes an off-site option may be cheaper than refurbishing an existing facility. At TESCO, law enforcement can deposit evidence in a safe, secure (and automated) facility. The units or containers can facilitate any amount of cubic feet of property that needs to be stored. After storage, all the information pertaining to who accessed it and how they accessed it is digitally recorded. The container is then taken to a climate-controlled warehouse where it stays, untouched, until agencies need to access it again. "No human being walks the corridor," adds Scott.
The company is currently working on launching a new refrigeration product that can store DNA evidence as well. "It's so painless, and it really provides them with a legitimate option that is also cost effective," says Scott.
A red-headed stepchild
Perhaps even more important than where or how, is who. After all, evidence management is only as good as its custodians, a title that doesn't seem to do justice to the task at hand. High turnover is especially detrimental in evidence vaults where consistency over time translates to less errors.
Byers says first, officers need to be interested. Second, they must be organized. And finally, they must be credible. She also feels that frequent training is essential.
Another part of the problem regarding property and evidence's revolving door, according to Byers, is simply a lack of understanding from command staff. Scott agrees that all too often evidence custodians get no respect. "Remember: The property and evidence room in almost every agency is like the red-headed stepchild. It's under appreciated, it's not looked upon as being anything other than a nuisance … but it is one of the biggest Achilles heels for a chief executive officer, because if things go bad, they'll look to the chief as to what they knew, what they didn't know and why they didn't do anything about it."
He recommends all property and evidence personnel be trained on law enforcement accreditation standards and implement ongoing and regular inspections, audits and full inventories, which are then submitted to (and reviewed by) the chief. This is one corner of the agency where checks and balances are critical and department support is too often lacking. A strong organization starts from the ground up. Solid evidence handling shoulders well-managed cases, and in turn reflects a credible, respectable agency.