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CALEA Update Magazine | Issue 94

Property and Evidence Control — the Hidden (and Ticking) Time Bomb

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Traditionally in most law enforcement agencies, the property room or property component has been a low priority in terms of operations, staffing, and resource allocation. One chief of police, when queried as to just what the property room staff does, replied, “Oh, they just put the crap on the shelves.” 

While that chief’s comment may be an anomaly, it nonetheless speaks to the perception of too many law enforcement Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) who view the property room as a place to assign disgruntled employees, officers/deputies who have been restricted from carrying firearms, and employees who are recovering alcoholics or have other problems. One department even labels the property function as “the penalty box.” Some agencies staff the property room with civilian employees who have had minimal, if any, background investigation prior to hiring and/or assignment. Often, these civilian employees are the lowest paid employees within the organization. Whether sworn or civilian, the property room employees are given unescorted access to drugs, currency, firearms, etc.

This article addresses many of the issues that law enforcement agencies currently face, as well as evolving challenges that lie ahead. Specifically, we address the issues of personnel selection and training; departmental policy and procedures; CEO support of the property and evidence function; evidence storage, security, and disposition; and finally, professional work environment and standards.

Personnel Selection and Training

In the past two decades there has been a discernable movement away from the traditional assignment of sworn personnel staffing the property room. Many agencies now have either a blend of both sworn and civilian staff, or the property function has been totally civilianized. As previously noted, the staffs of evidence rooms are charged with the security of and accountability for high profile items such as firearms, money, and drugs. These same individuals, who may have had little or no prior experience in the property function, are responsible for the proper storage and safekeeping of physical evidence that is crucial in criminal prosecutions. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the CEO of a law enforcement agency to insure that any individual who is hired to work in the property room has undergone a thorough and complete background investigation, drug testing, financial checks, and if possible, a polygraph examination. The depth of the background investigation should be the equivalent of that which is conducted for the hiring of a new police officer or deputy sheriff.

Once the new employee has met screening standards, the department should have a prescribed course of training that provides a solid basis for the proper performance of the property custodian. Areas that should be included in the training are: departmental policies and procedures related to property and evidence; property room operating procedures; safe handling of firearms and biohazards; and chain-of-custody of evidence. Training can take place in-house or the new employee can be sent to an outside training course, such as “Property and Evidence Management” which is offered by the International Association for Property and Evidence.

Proper selection and training form the foundation upon which future property functions are built. The training need is not limited to the new employee in the property room; supervisors and managers also need to be trained. For the most part, law enforcement supervisors and/or managers have been trained for their professional career in law enforcement. None of their previous training has prepared them to oversee the intake, processing, security, accountability, and proper disposition of evidence. It is imperative that those who are responsible for the property function be well versed in acceptable property room management concepts.

Departmental Policies and Procedures

General Orders or Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that are related to property and evidence are the directives that 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. Department directives either prescribe or proscribe actions by officers who are booking property or evidence into the agency. The orders or SOPs direct such things as requiring that evidence be booked into the property room or temporary storage lockers prior to the end of a tour of duty; not storing evidence in an investigator’s desk or an officer’s locker; or insuring that firearms have been rendered safe and unloaded prior to bringing them to the property room or placing them in a locker.

To illustrate the importance of these SOPs, consider this January 2007 news article that reported that a judge in Florida declared a mistrial in a capital murder trial. The basis for the judge’s decision was the failure of the prosecution to produce all of the evidence related to the case, specifically audio and video tapes. During the trial it was ascertained that an investigator had stored the tapes in his office desk and that he had never booked them into the property room with the other evidence. This story is included to reinforce the need for departmental directives related to evidence, as well as the need for compliance with the directives.

In addition to providing guidance to members of an agency as to the handling of property and evidence, the creation of an official “Packaging Manual” is highly recommended. The packaging manual provides step-by-step instructions as to the method of packaging and labeling of the most common items of evidence that are booked into the department’s property room. The inclusion of photographs that illustrate the proper method of packaging should be included in the manual.

Procedural Manual for the Property Room

Once the department has developed General Orders and SOPs that govern the handling of evidence by personnel, it is incumbent upon the management of the organization to facilitate the development of a “Property and Evidence Manual.” This manual is the road map to operating the property unit, i.e., it is the “how to” guide for the day-to-day function of the unit and all of its activities. The Property and Evidence Manual should include such topics as: removal of evidence from temporary storage lockers; documentation of incoming evidence; chain of custody; storage locations and methods; notification protocols; destruction practices; safety procedures; security measures; internal controls; auction and diversion procedures; and inventory requirements and instructions.

CEO Support of the Property and Evidence Function

Once the department’s directives and Packaging Manual are established, it is imperative that agency personnel understand that it is the desire of the CEO that there be compliance with the directives. The CEO must also delegate to the evidence custodian/officer the authority to exercise a “right of refusal” when an officer or investigator submits evidence that is not packaged, labeled, and/or documented in accordance with departmental requirements. The CEO should communicate to the rank-and-file, as well as all supervisors, that the “right of refusal” is to be treated as if it were coming from the CEO.

In furtherance of the need for command support, the CEO must insure that necessary audits and inventories of the property room are accomplished in accordance with the written directives related to property and evidence. Provisions for the necessary staffing, resources, storage space, etc. for the property function are all areas that require the CEO’s support.

Evidence Storage, Security, and Proper Disposition

The technological advances in the science of DNA have had a dramatic effect upon the evidence rooms of law enforcement agencies. The ability to obtain DNA evidence from a myriad of items has resulted in a dramatic increase in the amount of evidence being booked into property rooms. Additionally, based upon the reversals of several hundred convictions, i.e., reversals based upon DNA technology, many states have either eliminated or extended statutes of limitations for certain crimes. What is the impact on local law enforcement?  Evidence will have to be held for longer periods of time in law enforcement evidence rooms. More items being held for extended periods of time, all of which require proper security and environmental concerns, chain-of-custody, and accountability, will have budgetary, staffing, and other implications for agencies.

Where will the necessary storage space come from?  One possible, short-term fix is to free up space by having an effective and aggressive property and evidence purging policy. Items that are no longer needed should be expeditiously disposed of in accordance with departmental guidelines. The support of investigating detectives and officers, as well as their supervisors, is essential to accomplish the purging tasks. Continuous disposal of inventory not only assists in finding more available space, it also effects the evidence custodian’s ability to properly store, inventory, account for, retrieve and restock property and evidence.

All too often, it is quite easy for an administrator to mandate that the inventory of their organization must be brought under control and that sound disposition review and purging protocol be established. While the formulation of directives and operational policies for review and purging may seem to be the solution to an overcrowded property room, the implementation of this new guidance can be for naught unless the necessary resources are also committed. Purging of unneeded evidence is time and staff demanding.

We have been involved in property room studies where police administrators found themselves in a position where draconian measures had to be taken in order to get the inventory under control. Based upon our extensive work experience, we have established a guideline that assists managers and supervisors in projecting the amount of staff hours necessary to reduce the inventory of an evidence room. It is proposed that in order to purge the evidence for a single case, i.e., evidence that is sitting on the shelf in the property room; it will require approximately thirty (30) minutes. In order to purge a case, there must be research done to insure that the evidence is no longer needed, the items must be located and retrieved from storage, the items must be released to the rightful owner or disposed of through destruction/auction/diversion to agency use, etc. Then, when those steps are completed, the records must be updated to reflect the disposition.

There are examples where it has literally taken years for agencies with overburdened and bloated evidence inventories to rectify the problem. Depending upon the situation and the time frame within which the inventory problem must be fixed, some agencies have had to assign 15 to 20 additional detectives to the property unit to resolve the situation. Once an agency falls so far behind in its inventory purging, the only solution to resolve the situation is to assign additional staffing. As the old saying goes, “You can pay me now or you can pay me later, but you will pay me.”  Unfortunately, this payment isn’t only in fiscal costs. For many departments, failure to properly purge evidence has cost them criminal prosecutions, the loss of public confidence in the agency, and resulted in the firing of administrators.

 

Professional Work Environment

Law enforcement agencies have an obligation to store evidence and personal property, i.e., property booked for safekeeping or found property, in a secure, safe, professional manner and in a controlled environment so as to insure the integrity of the items. [See Photo B] In the case of evidence, the storage must insure there is no tampering with the items, that the items are secured from theft, that there is no cross contamination, and that there is no degradation of the evidence due to atmosphere. In most departments evidence sits in the property room long after there is any reason to hold onto it. Once there is no vested interest on the part of the investigator, the prosecutor, or the courts, it is often forgotten.

Alternatively, criminal cases in which there never was an arrest and which have gone beyond the statute of limitations add to the conditions in the property room. Unless someone authorizes the disposition of the evidence in those cases, they just languish on the shelves. And while surveys indicate that about one percent of all evidence stored in property rooms ever gets to court, the remaining ninety-nine percent still are in the agency’s custody and must be properly stored, accounted for, and preserved.

If a law enforcement agency continues to intake more evidence each year than the amount that it disposes, the inventory just continues to grow and grow. As available storage space diminishes and disappears, evidence is placed anywhere it can fit. Proper tracking, accountability, and security begin to break down and the system begins to disintegrate. It is not until evidence cannot be located for court, firearms are found on the streets that are supposedly still in the property room, or empty cash or drug envelopes are discovered that it becomes a major issue.

Professional Standards

Each year the news media reports hundreds of stories related to scandals over missing evidence like the case in Florida mentioned earlier. Investigations into these scandals frequently find a lack of formal directives, necessary internal controls, supervision, and/or standardized packaging processes. When one aggregates the data from the news media reports, a common thread is the lack of clearly communicated professional standards. In order to provide the best possible professional standards there is a need for collaboration among professional organizations, such as the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA®), the International Association for Property and Evidence (IAPE), and others with the goal of providing law enforcement with a set of property and evidence standards.

Law enforcement administrators must insure that the evidence function of their agency is handled in a professional manner in keeping with recognized standards of organizations such as CALEA and IAPE. Scheduled and random audits and inspections of the property room must be made a priority of every law enforcement CEO. Those charged with conducting the audit must be thoroughly familiar with the specifics of operating a professional property function. Absent such oversight and inspection, it is only a matter of time until that agency joins the ever growing list of law enforcement organizations that are facing evidence and property scandals. In the long run, it is far cheaper to “pay now” rather than “paying later.”

About the Authors

Joseph T. Latta – Joe Latta is a retired lieutenant with the Burbank (CA) Police Department, where he retired after 31 years of experience. During the past 24 years he has taught and consulted in property and evidence management concepts. Joe has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration, is a graduate of the 146th Session of the FBI National Academy and California’s POST Command College. He has been the Executive Director of the International Association for Property and Evidence, Inc. for the past 10 years.  

William P. Kiley – Bill Kiley is a retired deputy chief who spent 30 years with the Suffolk County (NY) Police Department. A retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, Bill Kiley holds two Master’s Degrees, one in Criminal Justice and another in Computers in Education. Bill is a graduate of the 146th Session of the FBI National Academy, as well as the Police Executive Research Forum’s (PERF) Senior Management Institute for Police. He is the President of the Board of Directors of the International Association for Property and Evidence, Inc.  

For information about the International Association for Property and Evidence, Inc. see their website at: www.iape.org.

Author
Joseph T. Latta and William P. Kiley
International Association for Property and Evidence, Inc.
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