There’s an old adage that says, “If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right.” Whether that proverb is attributed to Ray Charles, or to one of our founding fathers, or even to your mom when she was getting on you about finishing your Algebra homework back in high school, it rings true. It’s true in things large and small – whether doing the dishes or managing property and evidence storage rooms.
We can argue over who said it first, of course. What cannot be argued is that “doing it right” is far more important in the world of evidence and property storage than it is in the world of… well… dishes.
Why Evidence Storage Organization Matters
We’ve written before on these pages about the importance of proper DNA evidence storage. More than ever before, it’s being used to help convict or exonerate individuals accused of all sorts of crimes. Shows like “CSI,” “Law & Order” and “NCIS” did a good job of showcasing how the proper handling of DNA evidence can play a pivotal role in police work. It’s important to note here, however, that while biologicals (e.g., blood, saliva, semen) can play a critical role as evidence, they are far from the only kind of evidence. Indeed, anything can be evidence. A weapon. Furniture. Clothing. Utensils. Whether large or small, if an item was used in – or can be connected to – a crime, it can become a piece of evidence used at trial.
Think of the magnitude. Now consider this other stunning fact: less than one percent of all collected evidence is ever brought to trial. Of course, there’s no way to know which pieces of evidence will turn out to be critical. While most items probably won’t be, it behooves all public safety officers to treat each and every item as if every item were a winning lottery ticket. It just may be. With that in mind, knowing what a department has – and where it’s kept – is crucial to that aforementioned pursuit of justice.
Compliance with adequate property and evidence control procedures is vital to ensuring the continued smoothness of our legal system. How does a police department or any public safety facility with an area best outfit, organize and secure their evidence storage areas? Here are four tips:
1. Personnel Selection
The items that serve as “evidence” can play a real role in determining the fate of defendants. Let’s remember, too, that many of those committed crimes had victims. Suffice it to say, every piece of evidence is important. Many agencies now have either a blend of both law enforcement officers and civilian staff overseeing their evidence storage areas. In some cases, it’s completely civilians. These same individuals, who may have little or no prior experience in such an environment, are nonetheless responsible for the proper storage and safekeeping of physical evidence that is crucial in criminal prosecutions.
The goal of any agency ought to be to maintain an organized, secure evidence storage area. To further this end, it is advantageous to staff the area accordingly. Opting to assign only sworn, trained professionals to oversee the area is the best way to ensure compliance with both preset rules and regulations and higher expectations. Ideally, any individual who is hired to work in the property room should undergo a background investigation, financial screening, drug testing, and if possible, a polygraph examination. And, those individuals need to be trained. Try to treat the area with the requisite respect it deserves.
2. Departmental Procedures and Steps
It is true that many agencies are saddled with having to keep a lot of evidence in far too small a space. That does not mean, however, that organization must necessarily suffer. Many of us have our “personal spaces” at home where we like things to be just so. Even if it makes no sense to someone who walks into the area for the first time, we have our own way of keeping things. The same needs to be said for property and evidence storage areas in today’s law enforcement facilities.
Once you’ve determined that your facility will have its own way of organizing things, that declaration needs to be canonized. Establishing firm Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that are related to property and evidence help inform all members of a department of the requirements for the proper handling, packaging, and storage of physical evidence – or property that is accepted as either found property or property for safekeeping. Decide, declare, and disseminate.
3. Evidence Storage, Security and Disposition
A plan is only as good as the details it contains. Once you’ve decided on who will tend to your facility’s evidence storage and under what rules and expectations they will operate it can you address the specifics of storage? How does something get checked in? Who takes it from the pass-thru to the lockers? Which items are stored where? In what sorts of containers, files, or boxes? Which shelves are designated for which types of evidence? How flexible will these decisions be? Will the firearms and drug paraphernalia be stored in the same locked room or separately? Consider how long the different types of evidence will be held, too. Will you be able to routinely walk through your collection and know when it’s all right to dispose of certain pieces or types of evidence? Is there an established method for doing so?
The realities of limited space and the extended shelf-life of many pieces of evidence (enabled by advances in DNA testing technology) are forcing law enforcement officers and evidence custodians to think more thoroughly about all their procedures. While time-consuming, it’s an exercise that’s well worth the effort.
4. Professional Standards and Work Environments
There’s no reason to go it alone. Organizations like the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA®), the International Association for Property and Evidence (IAPE), and others help provide law enforcement with a set of property and evidence standards.
Both scheduled and random audits and inspections of the property room should be a priority. Minus such oversight and inspection, it’s only a matter of time until that agency joins the ever-growing list of law enforcement organizations that are facing evidence and property scandals.
Some people spend a lot of time and money keeping their tool collections organized. Their books. Their golf clubs. Their doll collection. Whatever. The point here is that the “collections” today’s evidence custodians are managing could affect far more than aesthetics; they could affect lives. It is not possible to over-stress how important adequate organization, management and security of evidence can be.
Do it right, and everyone wins.