How to buy investigation products

By Tim Dees

The array of products to aid criminal investigations is broad, covering everything from evidence packaging to devices that help you determine if someone is lying. There are a few common threads, and we'll try to address those here.

1. Return on investment
Consider the investigative tasks requiring the most time. This may be governed by the kind of crimes your agency investigates. House-to-house canvasses to locate witnesses are commonplace in crimes against persons and burglaries. If your outfit's focus is on traffic matters, you don't do canvasses, but you might expend many man hours taking measurements and producing diagrams.

To demonstrate you are spending taxpayer dollars wisely, be prepared to show how a purchase saves money. A reverse-911 system that robocalls all of the phone numbers in a specific neighborhood cuts down on canvass time; a laser measuring tool or spherical camera system produces better crime scene measurements and details than humans can, and does it faster.

2. Frequency of use
Every home has a toolbox, and in the bottom of that toolbox are likely some special gadgets you purchased for a specific job—a drill bit that countersinks a depression for the head of a screw, a center punch for seating a pin in a gun frame. That you don't use them much doesn't mean they are bad tools; the uses for them just don't occur often. During a previous case, did you have one of those "If only we had Widget X..." moments when Widget X would have saved the day? Before you put Widget X into the budget for next year, ask, "How many times have we needed this?" If that previous case was a type that comes along once a career, whoever succeeds you may not be able to use Widget X by the time one happens again, and the expensive device will collect dust.

3. Training
Complex devices often require specialized training. Vendors usually offer training to customers, and you'll have at least one or two people trained to use the new product. As those people move to other agencies and assignments, get promoted, retire, etc., will you continue to have someone in the appropriate slot who is able to work the product? How expensive will a second round of training be? Is periodic recertification or update training required, and what will that cost?

People have been known to build mini-empires over specialized tools. They jealously guard the equipment, professing that only those who have been made one of the priesthood may gaze upon it. Their typical goal is to make themselves indispensable, even if they don't contribute much otherwise. It's fine to have experts in your organization, but every one of them should be training their replacement, with a schedule of how long it will be until they are capable of working independently.

4. The simple stuff
Great products don't have to be fancy or expensive. If your evidence locker is full of guns piled on shelves, specialized cardboard boxes can bring order to the chaos and protect the evidence better, too. What do you really need to do the most professional job possible?

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at

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