- 10 December 2013
- Published: 09 December 2013
SALT LAKE CITY, UT (Dec 10, 2013) – Police chiefs of the country’s largest law enforcement agencies have both a responsibility and opportunity to ensure that evidence in their property room is tied to the tightest chain of custody possible. That’s the opinion of the Major Cities Chiefs Association Director Darrel Stephens.
The responsibility, of course, is embedded in a chief’s job since he oversees all aspects of running his police department. The opportunity is that the chief can make his department’s evidence management protocol nearly airtight, assuming the right policies, standards, practices and tools are in place. When this happens, and particularly when tight evidence management is part of a successful accreditation process, the community can feel assured that evidence management is securely in place and a high priority.
“It’s a critical issue for the police chief and for the police organization itself,” said Darrell Stephens, executive director of Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA). “The chief’s role is to make sure evidence management is properly in place so that evidence can be produced for court as needed, or for analysis.” What’s more, Stephens continues, “If you don’t handle evidence properly, you run the risk of running out out of (storage) space. “It’s not just evidence being handled, but there is a lot of property, too,” Stephens adds. “The property may start out as evidence, but may turn out not to be, so it has to be disposed of, which is a significant budgetary item.”
Software Can Document Evidence Policies, Legal Aspects - For these reasons, automating evidence management via software such as the EvidenceOnQ program from FileOnQ can be immensely helpful. EvidenceOnQ offers these vital capabilities: fully customizable home screen, real-time tracking of all evidence items, ability to set retention status on all items for improved review of evidence, instantly generate reports and forms that were created manually, and enable easy queries.
The MCCA’s Stephens views software that automates evidence management as helpful. “Whatever your policies or the legal requirements (for evidence) are, they can be programmed into the software,” Stephens said. “That becomes part of the initial record. And when evidence is barcoded, reminders come up about these aspects for reviewing the status of evidence. You also have the step of going back to the officer who originally collected the evidence because he has some responsibility for reaching the decision that the evidence is no longer of any value,” Stephens explained.
Evidence Storage A Factor - The MCCA has no specific standards or policies on evidence for its membership. Yet it provides opportunities at member meetings for police chiefs and their staffs to exchange ideas and information about policing issues, including evidence management. Evidence handling often is addressed with respect to overall evidence storage, Stephens said, such as what is being done to manage it and ensure it is out the door at the right time, and what evidence needs to be kept and for how long.
Software Aids DNA Evidence Handling - DNA is another important aspect of evidence management, and usually is examined relative to cold cases that are tied to homicides and sexual assault, Stephens said. “DNA evidence in these cases is an important factor that often determines whether or not those cases are going to be solved,” Stephens said. Once again, evidence management software can be tremendously helpful for setting and maintaining chain of custody of DNA evidence. John San Agustin, inspector for the El Paso County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Office, agrees. “When you talk about evidence, the number one issue regarding anything involving evidentiary issues is always going to be chain of custody,” San Agustin said. “By having some type of automated software or evidence management system in place, this allows you to determine what is this chain of custody.” Agustin notes that years ago, everything was very paper driven and it was hard to know if evidence was accurately represented on a piece of paper. Having software in place enables the user—the detective or criminalist—to identify all the items in an evidence facility and recognize what items potentially may have DNA value. Also, these items can be accessed from a desk or other locations and the user can choose what items need immediate analysis and testing.
Stephens said policy on collection of DNA samples from offenders varies. “States differ in their laws on this,” he said. “Some require a felony conviction before a sample can be collected, while others require a misdemeanor conviction,” Stephens said. “Others allow collection based on an arrest for certain kinds of charges.”
Grants Can Help Agencies Acquire Software - Although no chief would argue about the need to have a reliable evidence management system, installing one or upgrading from an existing system can be a significant financial commitment for some police departments. Help is available via The Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Grants Program (www.ncjrs.gov – enter Paul Coverdell Grants in this website’s search box) which awards grants to states and units of local government to help improve the quality and timeliness of forensic science and medical examiner services. One of the uses for the grants is to eliminate a backlog in the analysis of forensic evidence and to train and employ forensic laboratory personnel, as needed, to eliminate such a backlog.
Stephens feels that evidence management is an issue that his association’s members are concerned about. Although different evidence management programs are used, “All of these agencies have some sort of automated process for evidence management.”