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.
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