Assessing property management needs

     All too often, missing, mishandled or hard-to-find property and evidence jeopardizes the reputation and hard work of law enforcement agencies. Seemingly airtight cases can fall apart when evidentiary chains-of-custody are questioned. Furthermore, disorganized, over-crowded and inefficient property and evidence rooms can drain limited departmental resources.

     Several property and evidence tracking systems have been introduced to address this problem. But how can property room managers determine whether these systems will meet the specific needs of their departments? The following questions can help departments accurately assess their tracking needs.

What needs to be tracked?

     Evidence can take any form — from items that require special storage, including DNA, cash, drugs or weapons; to large and bulky items, such as vehicles. Adding to that already large task is the reality that many property and evidence rooms are undersized areas packed to the rafters with decades worth of items. Between those over-stuffed property and evidence lockers and the various offsite locations used to store specialty evidence, such as cash or controlled substances, efficiently managing disparate items is a real challenge. A good place to start is to track all evidentiary items within a single system.

     Property and evidence management systems can provide single-point visibility to the storage location and security level for every item. Some systems create labels for items, track who has had access to them, and automatically identify where items are stored, so they are available to retrieve.

     These systems help reduce lost evidence by offering property and evidence supervisors a view of exactly where property is located at any given time. They can streamline evidence handling and improve efficiency by making information instantly accessible.

     The following questions may help property room managers ascertain the importance of tracking in their jurisdictions and determine the features required in a property and evidence management system:

  1. How long does the majority of evidence in your environment end up in storage?
  2. Who can access it during that time?
  3. How must it be maintained in perpetuity — how much offsite storage is there to track?
  4. What is the tracking process when items are destroyed, returned to their owners or dispositioned?
How critical is security?

     Securing property and evidence is often just as important as storing, tracking and accessing it. The most secure systems control access to items by content type, and are based on security roles that limit different personnel to different levels and types of access.

     Some systems include property audit functionality that shows all the actions taken during the property cycle, including data changes. That allows property room managers to identify who accessed a piece of evidence, when they accessed it and what they did with it.

How important is adaptability?

     Another important consideration is flexibility. Most departments have years of experience handling property and evidence. It's common to find unique workflows and processes to meet specific chain-of-custody requirements. If individual processes are important to an agency, finding a property and evidence system that can be mapped to those processes may spell the difference between success or failure with an implementation.

     In this situation, agencies should avoid systems with rigid processes that inhibit customization and look for solutions that allow them to easily add or modify fields to reflect specific types of data capture, reporting and records linkage needs that accurately reflect how the department operates.

     Scalability also may be an essential requirement for some agencies. This is the ability to handle up to millions of physical and electronic entities. This is especially important if a jurisdiction is experiencing rapid growth or stores property and evidence in multiple locations.

Is electronic record tracking and imaging important?

     One of the fastest-growing trends in property and evidence tracking is adding electronic imaging to the mix. Capturing scanned images of property, such as digital photos of crime scenes, offers visual verification of the items and provides a means to assess their condition. The key is ensuring the digital images are tied to the correct property and evidence record in the system.

How important is ease of use?

     Even if an agency has a property and evidence system, there's no guarantee that clerks and officers will use it — or use it correctly — if the system is inflexible and difficult to use.

     Look for a solution that's easy to deploy and fast and simple to use. It should be logical and intuitive, with features and functionality that employees can learn quickly and utilize immediately.

Evaluating your options

     When considering making improvements to a property and evidence system or even implementing a new one, agencies have plenty of options. They range from barcode labeling and tracking of only physical records, to more sophisticated systems that provide a much greater range of customizable tracking and management functionality.

     The evaluation process should begin with an internal needs assessment. These questions are designed as a place to start when property room managers review what's important for their departments.

     Billy Mitchell is a 20-year veteran of the software industry who has helped thousands of companies and government agencies with their records management needs. He may be reached at billy.mitchell@smead.com.

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