Q&A: How to tackle your evidence management challenges
Evidence management consultant Gayla Robison, a retired police property room manager, talks about the need for software to manage the chain of custody
Sponsored by QueTel
By Rachel Zoch, Police1 BrandFocus Staff
Two of the biggest challenges for evidence management are maintaining a secure chain of custody and making it easy to purge evidence when it’s no longer needed. Police1 sat down with Gayla Robison, president of the Texas Association of Property and Evidence Inventory Technicians (aka TAPEIT), to learn more about these issues and how software can help agencies effectively address them.
Robison worked with the Burleson Police Department in north Texas for more than 22 years, managing the agency’s property room and helping to design a new facility before retiring to focus on her consulting business and sales for QueTel, an evidence management software provider.
What do you recommend to address the challenges of managing the chain of custody for both physical and digital evidence, as well as disposing of evidence that is no longer needed?
You have to have some type of software. Some agencies are still doing the old log book, and it's a ticking time bomb because you cannot keep up with a full chain of custody on something like that.
Of course maintaining that chain of custody is your No. 1 thing, but the thing that takes the most time is getting rid of items. You start by reducing the amount of time needed to take in items by elimination of paper submissions that require transcription. For example, with the QueTel software, officers can use a simple computer wizard to enter data, so custodians only need to quality check. Our software even has the option to reject poorly packaged or described submissions, which allows more time for disposition.
The QueTel software alerts you automatically that you need to look at items potentially eligible for disposition. That's when the work truly begins. If there were charges filed, then you have to start looking for dispositions through the court. One little bitty piece of paper could take you days.
Sometimes property officers are responsible for this research, but in most agencies, officers are responsible for this and can be slow to do so. They receive emails requesting authorization to purge, do their research and send back printouts of the emails with their determination to release or retain. QueTel makes this process paperless, and in many cases our software can actually do much of the research for either officers or property staff.
How has the onslaught of video in the past few years affected evidence management?
It's impacted not only the property room, but the entire department. Now, most property rooms don't have to keep whatever was stolen because you can photograph it or video it and give it back to the victims. Instead of that big 44-inch TV, you have software or a CD that you manage.
Agencies are having to hire people just to manage all the video that's coming in. And now what do we do with all this video? If you don't have something to keep up with it, you're going to be inundated. QueTel manages all of that for you, too. We treat the video exactly as we do the physical evidence. It has the same chain of custody. Officers upload it to the computer so custodians don’t have to handle DVD/CDs. This saves at least 20 percent of a custodian’s time.
What is a unified evidence management system? How can adopting one improve a department's operations?
The right software is going to save time in the property room, so in turn, it's going to save the department because you're going to get more done. We've had people tell us it's like they have more people working in the property room because of the time saved with every step that the software does.
When you're doing your research and looking for evidence management software, you have to find out, is it going to help you to do your job in the property room, or is it going to add to the job you're already having to do?
The questions that need to be asked are, No. 1, are there alerts based on the statute of limitations? Second, can it be reported? Can you go in and search for data? How are those searches done? Third, can you customize it, or do you have to do everything differently now to accommodate the software?
The key thing is the alerts. QueTel automatically provides alerts based upon the crime charge. You tell it what the crime charge is, and we have it set up to give an alert according to the statute of limitation from that charge. It does all this automatically. No reports needed.
A truly unified system will automatically also produce a court order or notification letter for you within a matter of key strokes. If you don't have software like this, then you have to create each separate document, and that's time-consuming. Every little step that the system takes saves you time.
How does a bar coding system make a property room manager's life easier?
Bar codes are your life when you work in a property room. The officers and everybody else are so focused on the case number.
The difference in the property room is that we're interested in that case number, but we're more focused on the 10 items associated with that case number. Each of these 10 items basically takes on its own life. The property room has to keep up with who had their hands on it, when, where and why for each of those 10 items, not just for that one case number.
That's what makes everything about a bar coding system so much easier. It keeps up with those 10 individual items, but they're still associated back to that one case number. Everything has to be documented, and if you have good software, the computer should be doing the work for you.
What are some of the common mistakes made when agencies are adopting these kinds of systems, and how can they avoid those mistakes?
So many times when I go out and do training I hear, "We've always done it this way." I understand that was the way you did it and it worked well for you then, but now you're coming to a new computerized age, and that means you may have to make a few tweaks in your process to assure that things are not being misplaced, misfiled or placed with the wrong piece of evidence.
The property room can make or break a case for the department. A bad guy could get to walk away if that property officer or the officer collecting evidence does not do things the correct way. I had a case where the agency had two homicides the same day, and one of the people was only charged with burglary because the evidence got mixed in the two cases. That chain of custody was broken, and they had to throw the homicide charge out.
How often should an agency review or audit its evidence management process, and what are they looking for when they do?
The property room, under Texas best practices, has to go through a random audit at least once a year. If there is a personnel change, there should be a 100 percent inventory done to protect the credibility of the evidence room. If there are problems found during an audit, those need to be documented and investigated further until those discrepancies can be cleared up.
With QueTel, we have an inventory system that lets you scan the bar codes and move on. You can do a full inventory of a typical property room, 5,000 pieces, in less than two days. The system is going to list all of the items that you inventoried and log the time, date and location of every single piece. The second report is going to tell you the items you found that were supposed to be in that property room but were in the wrong location, according to the database, so you can make a correction. The third and most important report is your missing items. You have to find them, and the system gives you a starting point to figure out where something went.
What are some of the training and other resources that you recommend for evidence management best practices?
IAPE (the International Association for Property and Evidence) is a good start for training, but it does not go into state specifics on how to run a property room. That's why I recommend TAPEIT. TAPEIT was the first one to start a certification program for property room personnel to be certified technicians.
Check with your state and see if you have an association that deals with the laws for your state. That protects the property room, and it protects the department, because if that property room does not do what it's supposed to be doing, it can destroy the good name of the entire department. And it only takes one time. Evidence management software helps with that, because everything is documented.