When a crime is committed, evidence is left behind and collected by law enforcement officers. That evidence is then processed and entered into a property and evidence room where it awaits the day when it will be presented in court.
A conviction could hinge on whether the chain of custody was adhered to from the point of collection to the submission and storage at the agency’s property and evidence room.
This is a scenario Pikeville Detective Bruce Collins knows all too well, as he sees it from both sides of the coin.
In Pikeville, Collins leads a double life.
On one hand, he investigates crimes that occur within that eastern Kentucky city. On the other hand, Collins is also responsible for every piece of evidence Pikeville police officers collect in his double duty as the property and evidence room custodian.
To do that job effectively, Collins lives by a single focus.
“Whenever you take that evidence, you owe it to the court system, you owe it to yourself, the suspect, the victim … everyone who is involved, you have to maintain the integrity of that chain of custody,” Collins said. “If I had to describe it in three words, I would say, accountability, efficiency and integrity.”
Across the commonwealth, it is not uncommon for smaller agencies to have officers who serve in a dual role when it comes to property and evidence room custodian.
The trick is finding balance, Collins said.
“I keep busy, and I have to arrange my schedule ‘just so’,” Collins said.
Having custodians serving in dual roles is the nature of the beast, according to Department of Criminal Justice Training instructors Chad Powell and Shawn Moore. Powell and Moore began teaching the Property and Evidence Room Management course at DOCJT in 2017.
“Most agencies work with a part-time staff in the property room, and that can cause a major liability for the agency,” Powell said. “That liability should be taken seriously by the agency and, really, the position should be full-time so the room can stay organized and operate efficiently.”
Functioning with a single officer in charge of the property and evidence room is quite a feat, Moore added.
“This is a testimony to the work ethic of Kentucky law enforcement,” Moore said. “One of the chief complaints from those part-time custodians is that by the time they get finished with their other duties, they have little or no time to properly focus on and address the property and evidence rooms.”
Command Staff Buy-In
In order to facilitate a smooth-operating property and evidence room, Pulaski County Sheriff’s Sgt. Glen Bland said the command staff must be on board and understand the needs that come with the position.
“If you go out and talk to any officer, one of the least-loved activities is processing evidence,” Bland said. “It’s time-consuming, but it’s one of the most important aspects of law enforcement. The easier you make it for your deputies, the better it’s going to be.”
Pikeville Police Capt. Aaron Thompson, who oversees the administrative duties of the agency, said his department realizes the importance of having a well-run property and evidence room.
“We’ve always known it was important,” Thompson said. “We just went through the (Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police) accreditation process, and the evidence room was an obvious area where we could make improvements. We sunk a lot of time, money and effort to get to where we are today.”
Part of that involved sending officers to DOCJT training, and the dividends were almost immediate, Collins said.
“One thing we implemented was a ‘trouble locker,’” Collins said. “If we have an item of evidence come in and it’s packaged improperly, I now have access to a locker that I set a passcode for. I can place the evidence in that locker and provide only that officer a code to access the locker to make the needed corrections.”
The lock Collins uses is a password-combination lock, on which he can reset the code after each use.
“So when he or she comes in on their next shift, they will have an email or text that lets them know they need to check the trouble locker, because there is an item of evidence in there that needs to be corrected,” Collins said. “They have a means to do that without having somebody come out and hand (the evidence) to them or pass it along via another officer in the chain of evidence – it limits unneeded personnel in that chain of custody.”
Whether it is implementing a trouble locker or sending personnel to training, the key to maintaining a well-run property and evidence room is establishing and following a detailed, agency-specific policy, Collins said.
His assessment was echoed by Moore.
“A well-thought-out policy is needed to outline the various roles associated with a property room and why those rules are in place,” Moore said. “A good policy will be developed in such a way that will allow little-to-no wiggle room when it comes to what is expected from property and evidence room staff, as well as officers logging in evidence and property.”
After attending the week-long course in December 2017, Collins and Thompson returned to Pikeville and revamped its evidence room policy based on new ideas they incorporated from the training.
“One of the highlights for me was the idea of weighing drugs,” Collins said. “That’s something we haven’t done in the past.”
Weighing drugs taken as evidence is a safeguard for the officer and agency, Collins added.
“An example they provided was an officer’s initial count was 140 pills, and they also weighed the pills,” he said. “Later on, another count was done and it came out to 138 or 139 pills. When they reweighed them on the scale, the pills weighed the same amount that the officer put down on the form.”
The agency’s policy should be detailed, and include what Powell calls a right to refusal. This often occurs when evidence is packaged improperly.
The Kentucky State Police lab provides a packaging manual to recruits to offer guidelines for proper packaging, Powell said.
“(The manual) is necessary to ensure the property room does not take improperly-packaged or dangerous material into the property room,” he said. “The procedure manual needs to be created by the agency and explains how things are to be completed within the property room.”
Most important is adhering to policy.
“Policies should also be departmental common practice,” Powell added.
DOCJT has model policies that agencies can review and use, but Moore cautions that what works for one agency might not work for another.
“There are plenty out there to choose from, many of which can be found online or through entities such as the Kentucky League of Cities,” he said. “We caution our students against simply taking a policy like that and changing the title and seal to their own and putting it out there to guide their people. Policy and procedures should be agency-specific because the policy of a large agency, such as Lexington, may not work at the smaller agencies throughout the state.
“As such, we tell our students to take a long and in-depth look at their agency needs, budget and individual concerns when putting together policy and procedures,” Moore added.
When evidence is logged into a property and evidence room, chances are, custodians will have it for a while, Collins said.
“It’s a long process,” he said. “Once the court case is adjudicated and a decision is rendered, the commonwealth’s attorney files for a motion to destroy the evidence involved.”
Each agency policy should have a section devoted to discarding evidence. Agencies cannot destroy evidence until getting the proper notification from the circuit clerk’s office, Collins added.
“Some of these cases take several years to get adjudicated, so it can be a long process and you have to maintain the evidence,” he said. “So you’re going to be storing it for a lengthy amount of time.”
Eventually, every case comes to a resolution. When that happens, property and evidence room custodians must go through the process of discarding or purging evidence from the system, Moore said.
“When it comes to purging old evidence, transparency is key,” he said. “Transparency starts with proper policy and procedure. The purging of evidence should not occur until a full case review has been done to ensure the items are no longer needed.”
Purging could involve destroying evidence or simply returning items to the owner.
“Regardless of the method, transparency through documentation is a must at all stops along the way,” he said.
Who’s in Charge?
When it comes to the approval and storage of property and evidence, the buck should stop with the custodian. That, too, should be spelled out in policy, Pulaski’s Bland said.
“When it comes to that evidence room, really the only ones who should be able to override the custodian is the sheriff or chief – the top administrators,” Bland said. “You can’t have the patrol supervisor or investigative supervisor meddling in your evidence policies or overruling you. I don’t have that here, and I’m blessed.”
There are many keys to a well-maintained property and evidence room, Moore said. But it all starts with an agency-specific policy and the custodians who follow the policy to the letter.
“We tell our students that policy tells you what needs to be done and why,” he said. “Procedures explain how they need to be done.”