My team just got back from IACP and said they had a lot of conversations about the role that technology must play in modern law enforcement and criminal justice systems to maintain a strong, trustworthy chain of custody. One thing they noticed is that there is a clear division between those who see the value in technology and those who question its worth in the context of a century-old criminal justice practice. Some say there is value in tradition while others claim there is even more value in incorporating technology into the evidence management process.
So, I thought I would connect with Steve Englund, President, FileOnQ, to get his take.
Steve and his team have spent the last 20+ years working in various aspects of the criminal justice system. He understands that effective evidence management is not just about collecting, storing, and tracking items. It is about maintaining an airtight chain of custody, complete accountability, compliance with accreditation standards, and vital reporting capabilities. Of course, that may seem easier said than done some days. But Steve has some ideas about how to make your job easier, reduce your evidence management costs, and save your peers in the patrol, investigations, and corrections divisions a lot of time and heartache. Check it out…
Michael: Many agencies are finding that past processes and practices aren’t boding well in the present and will likely cause more issues in the future, especially when it comes to evidence management. Resources are constrained, officers and labs are overwhelmed, and the volume of evidence that must be collected, processed, and managed rises daily. Obviously, there are technologies available to relieve some of these burdens. Yet, we’re seeing some agencies reluctant to use them. What do you think is contributing to this resistance?
Steve: There are a number of factors we see that contribute to this resistance, but almost all of them start at the top. For many chiefs, their idea of automation is having one-system that “does it all.” Unfortunately, the evidence modules of most records management systems (RMS) fall short because evidence management isn’t the system’s focus. And in many agencies, evidence management is a “black box.” Evidence is collected and submitted and then stored until it’s needed or can be destroyed. This practice leads command staff to make a number of assumptions that can lead to inaction when it comes to improving their evidence management systems. Agencies need to look deeper if they want real improvements. We use the “Four Rs” to communicate what needs to be considered before a true evidence management solution can be implemented:
Responsibility – What are all the responsibilities surrounding your evidence management? This question goes way beyond just properly packaging and storing evidence. A good example is sexual assault kits (SAKS). It's not enough to properly package and store these kits. Every state has laws governing the timeframes for submitting these to the lab and, in some states, when and what communication needs to happen with victims. These kinds of responsibilities must be defined and considered for just about every type of evidence collected.
Repetition – Evidence management is full of repetitive actions. Every day, evidence is submitted by officers and received by evidence technicians. These repeat actions and special projects like destruction, audits, and inventories all need to be examined to see where they could be improved. So then, responsibility and repetition lead us to the third R – risk.
Risk – If all a department’s evidence management responsibilities and repetitive actions are not accounted for, then the department is opening itself up to greater risk that something will go wrong – and, in many cases, undetected. This idea leads to the fourth R – reputation.
Reputation – Even undetected problems eventually reveal themselves, and when they do, there can be irreparable damage to a department’s reputation. More times than not, a chief’s reputation and career are ruined in the process.
I know I’ve already given you a lengthy answer, but I think one more thing needs to be said in answer to your question about resistance and inaction when it comes to improving evidence management. One of the main factors we see in law enforcement agencies – big and small – is the command structure of these agencies. There is a constant promotion and reassignment of sworn officers. The Lieutenant in charge of evidence management oversight today gets promoted to Captain tomorrow; he or she is then reassigned to another area of responsibility. The new Lieutenant taking their place knows their assignment to evidence is only two years, so they think “Why rock the boat?” or “Two years isn’t enough time to make a difference.” Therefore, if an agency is serious about improving its evidence management practices, it needs to start “at the top.”
Michael: I know the business case for evidence management systems and RFID-based track and trace technology extends beyond records accuracy or evidence security. But would you say that the additional benefits of technology are widely understood within the law enforcement community?
Steve: In a lot of ways this is the flip side of your question about why agencies don’t employ automation to their evidence management practices. Many times, departments deploy technologies and not solutions. So, for example, we talk to departments all the time who say, “Yeah, we print barcode labels, but our barcode scanners don’t work – or have never worked.” Or the actual way the barcoding process works in their software is to only copy the barcode number into the field your cursor is in. There is virtually no real benefit of having a barcode label and, in fact, perpetuates command staff’s belief that their organization has a barcoding solution. However, the evidence techs know how useless and frustrating it is to have a barcode label that doesn’t even get scanned.
We see this with “cloud” solutions too. People are content to know that they’re using the latest technology trends but are often time surprised at the process bottlenecks and run-away costs of an ill-conceived solution for which they’ve signed a five-year contract.
RFID tracking technology is especially susceptible to the “technology looking for a problem” approach. RFID has provided incredible results in supply chain and logistics applications. However, those applications are in systems and processes that can be more easily controlled and standardized all the way through the process. Everything can be packaged in uniform boxes and pallets. Labels are always strategically placed in the same location in order to get optimal reads. Readers are then mounted to capture RFID tag data in this uniform and controlled environment.
Evidence packaging and storing is not so straight-forward, as anyone who’s ever walked into an evidence storage facility knows. Anyone who says, “We’ll just put RFID tags on all our items and then we’ll be able to walk around and inventory everything in real time,” is someone who didn’t do their research. This thinking is why agencies are reluctant to trust technology or technology providers – such an RFID “solution” was doomed to fail from the start.
It is imperative to proceed with a targeted approach to identify what evidence management processes are best managed with barcodes and which with RFID tags, or a combination tag, in order to get the pay-off you seek. When a technology provider works with an agency to take this approach, there will be real benefits and a real return on investment (ROI) because the technology will actually solve the problem at hand.
Michael: You work with over 350 law enforcement agencies in North America, so clearly there is some understanding of technology’s value. What sold decision-makers on automated evidence management solutions? And who ultimately were the decision-makers? Command staff? IT? Prosecutors who put pressure on agencies to bolster the chain of custody?
Steve: When we consider that first R – Responsibility – we need to understand “what” must happen with evidence. Additionally, we must define to “whom” we have responsibility and consider “who” does the work in evidence management. The best evidence management solutions include all these people and roles in the design and decision processes. As I said earlier, someone at or near the top of the organization has to say, “Yes, this is important enough to spend money on.” The folks in IT have to say, “This solution fits and aligns with our infrastructure and resources.” The evidence technicians and officers have to say, “Yes, this will make our lives easier and save us time for more proactive activities.” At the end of the day, it is prosecutors who will use the evidence to prosecute cases while pursuing justice for the ultimate “customer,” the community they serve. So, they may have the most significant interest in how evidence is managed. That’s why we always try to engage and bring to the table all responsible parties in order to get input and buy-in for the solution we’re partnering with them to implement.
Michael: How many hours of manual work are eliminated each week once an agency implements an evidence management solution? Are those savings derived strictly from the digitization of data and digitalization of the intake or checkout processes? Could even more time be saved in the evidence management and auditing process by adding RFID tags to evidence bags and boxes to automatically track their location?
Steve: A good rule of thumb that we’ve identified after working with hundreds of agencies – large and small – over these many years is this equation: one-half hour saved per week per sworn officer. So, for example, a department with 25 sworn officers saves about 12.5 hours a week when averaged out over a year. And a department of 1,700 saves on average 850 hours per week. These are real-time savings that can be redirected to more active policing and proactive things like catching up on evidence review and disposition.
Michael: Where are the time savings coming from? Is it just a matter of increasing the speed of each action required during the lifecycle of a piece of evidence?
Steve: A lot of the time savings are from improving the submission process for officers and making it easier for evidence technicians to properly receive evidence. We had one large agency tell us, “It used to take four people approximately seven hours to process our incoming evidence each day. Just three weeks after implementing EvidenceOnQ, it was reduced to two people, and it took only 90 minutes. It allowed us more time to work on purging projects to get ready for our move."
The savings extend beyond the day-to-day submission and receiving of evidence as well. Most departments are years behind in their disposition/destruction process because it is so time consuming. So, the problem just compounds and multiplies. Because they keep stuff longer than they should, they run out of space. More stuff means a higher risk that things will get lost. More stuff also means it takes longer to do inventories and audits.
Here’s a quote that’s typical of many departments’ quandary and the results of implementing EvidenceOnQ:
"I used to avoid purging because of the time it would take to stack, photocopy, print, cut in half, staple, alphabetize, file, remove staples, sort, and then have to date and initial every single item! I just ran through a couple of hundred items in a few minutes, and it was so great!"
Michael: Based on what you’ve shared, the benefits of technology for evidence track and trace and management are extensive and fairly straightforward. It’s hard to argue against technology, especially once that proof is provided that the technology systems are secure and can be trusted to be accurate. Would you agree?
Steve: You’ve done it again with your word choices. “Secure,” “trusted,” and “accurate” are absolutely essential to an automated evidence solution. We know that barcodes and RFID tags are secure, trusted, and accurate when they are deployed properly. Unlike a supply chain solution where you might say that 2-3% misreads or missed scans is acceptable as the cost of doing business, this mindset is unacceptable in the public safety and criminal justice world. So, we always make sure the right track and trace technology is matched with the processes we’re trying to improve and properly deployed to ensure system integrity.
Michael: That’s a great point to bring up. It seems that there’s an inherent fear that any new technology will add complexity to agency operations. Is there any truth in that?
Steve: Many agencies have a bad taste in their mouth from past supposed “solutions” that ended up failing, because they were not well thought-out on the front end and were too rigid and expensive to change after implementation. So, the department tried to twist their processes to fit the software, but they eventually abandon that platform – and the sometimes millions of dollars they spent – to roll the dice on the next new platform that is marketed as “the solution.”
A department – and really, the ultimate decision-maker – needs to be confident that they are investing their time and resources on a platform or system that meets their unique needs and requirements today. All of us want to be recognized and have a reputation of doing an important job with excellence and integrity. So, they need a path to meet their changing needs of tomorrow in logical, affordable, proven steps. That’s the only way they’re going to ever arrive at the true solution.
Michael: How long does it typically take to implement a true end-to-end solution? And how quickly can agencies expect to see an ROI?
Steve: Implementation is heavily dependent on the size of an agency and the place they’re starting from – currently paper-based versus replacing an existing automated system. At FileOnQ, implementation times of 2-3 months are typical for most small to mid-size departments. For larger agencies, we’re typically looking at 4-6 months from time of order to go-live. Agencies of all sizes will start to see immediate ROI when they implement a solution that addresses the “4 Rs” of Responsibility, Repetition, Risk, and Reputation. Whether it’s using a tried-and-true technology like the barcode, or a newer promising technology like RFID, the ROI is the result of properly scoping and implementing the solution – not just the technology.
You can learn more about FileOnQ’s evidence management experience and solutions here.