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."