Safe and Secure
The adage “Safety First” has been tossed around in today’s lexicon so often, that for many, they are simply words with little or no meaning.
For law enforcement across the board, safety should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind when it comes to handling potentially-deadly evidence, such as fentanyl and carfentanil, and other drug-related paraphernalia.
In Pulaski County, for example, a change in the sheriff office’s policy put a halt to field testing, and suspected substances are now sent off to a lab for analysis, Pulaski County Sgt. Glen Bland said.
“If (deputies) are confident they have a charge of first-degree controlled substance, charge the (suspect) with ‘drug unspecified’ and get it tested at the lab,” he said.
That practice is the best practice, Department of Criminal Justice Training Instructor Shawn Moore said. Moore and fellow DOCJT instructor Chad Powell began teaching the Property and Evidence Room Management Course in 2017.
“It is important for officers across the board, not just those serving as property and evidence custodians, to wear impermeable gloves when handling any evidence,” Moore said. “This is a best practice that, though inconvenient, can save lives and keep them from being exposed to not only the dangers of narcotics but also illnesses as well.”
The practice of field testing substances is no longer taught, he added.
“The benefits of field testing pale in comparison to the dangers associated with fentanyl and carfentanil exposure,” he said.
If officers encounter suspected fentanyl or carfentanil, they should be kept in the container they were found in, Moore said.
“Do not take it out and weigh it or transfer it to another container,” he said. “These substances should be double bagged and properly labeled so as to warn others of the potential dangers associated with the contents of the package.”
As a safeguard to potential exposure during processing, the Pikeville Police Department has Narcan available to officers in the evidence room, Pikeville Police Detective Bruce Collins said.
In addition to the life-saving drug, Collins said a drug-screen measure was put into place to protect the officers who may come into contact with drugs while performing related evidence room duties.
“Another thing we took from the (DOCJT) course, is the idea of providing a drug screen for evidence personnel,” Collins added. “After you conduct an inventory or perform a destruct order, you may be exposed to some of those substances. If you get called in for a random drug test, it will show up. If we do a drug screen immediately after (the inventory), it protects me (as custodian) down the line.”
In addition to those dangers, Powell said having the basics such as a first-aid kit, Narcan and an eye-wash station should be a part of property and evidence rooms standards.
Shortcomings in this area could result in fines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health, Moore added.
Aside from officer safety, evidence-room security and tracking are nearly as important.
When he took over in 2012, Collins said he noted several areas he and the department could improve upon.
The most glaring need was a modern tracking system.
“We went from a paper-tracking system to a digital (barcode) evidence-tracking system,” Collins said.
Once officers package the evidence, they enter it into the PMI (Progressive Microtechnology, Inc.) Evidence Tracker software and then place the evidence into a temporary storage locker, Collins said.
Having an automated system streamlines the process, Bland said.
“I’m confident this is a widespread problem throughout the state, but you have evidence that has lingered for decades and it’s still logged in under the old hand-written log that has long since been obsolete, but that evidence was never transferred to the new (automated) system,” Bland said. “That’s what I ran into (in 2015). I had evidence that I really had no idea what was recorded on the evidence itself to understand how long we’ve had it.
“Your evidence room will only be as good as the (tracking) program you have,” Bland continued.
Pikeville uses temporary storage lockers when patrol officers turn in evidence collected in the field.
“We have temporary storage lockers and I’m the only one with a key,” Collins said. “Once they lock it, I am the only one who can get into it.”
Evidence remains in the temporary storage locker until Collins comes in and processes it using the tracking software.
“It shows me how many items have been entered, and I check the locker and inspect it and make sure it is what it is supposed to be and make sure there are no errors (in packaging),” he said.
After everything checks out, Collins will accept the evidence and a barcode is produced. Every piece of evidence for that case will have a barcode.
Once a tracking system is in place, security comes into play to ensure the chain of custody is not compromised, Moore said.
“One of the easiest ways to protect the integrity of the evidence and maintain the chain of custody is to limit the number of people with access to the property and evidence room,” he said.
The first and perhaps easiest step is making sure the property and evidence room remains locked and secure.
“In addition to the main door being secure, we teach that firearms, narcotics and money be kept separate from each other and from other items under a second lock,” Moore said. “We bring this up several times during the course because these three things are the most valuable items inside the property and evidence rooms, which makes them the biggest targets for thefts.”
In Pulaski County, the property and evidence intake room requires a code to enter. The primary evidence room requires both a code and a card to gain entry. On top of that, surveillance video monitors the rooms.
“The rooms are video-recorded, and I can sit at my desk – any of our employees in here can do this as well – and watch the room whenever they want just by clicking on an icon (on the computer screen),” Bland said. “We can see what happens and recall it whenever we need to do so.”
The Pikeville Police Department has limited the possibility for an officer to take money from the evidence room altogether, Pikeville Police Capt. Aaron Thompson said.
“One of the things we did to minimize (potential theft) is we no longer store currency of any form,” Thompson said. “If we do a drug seizure, and let’s say we come up with $2,500 or $10,000, immediately that money is converted into a cashier’s check and it is taken to city hall and deposited.”
The money stays in the account until the court decides who it belongs to, Thompson added.
“It will either be transferred to us if the court deems it’s ours following the case, or a check is written to whomever it was taken from,” he continued. “This way, we’re taking away an enticement.”
Pulaski County handles currency differently, but it is no less effective, Bland said.
“Money and valuables are stored in cabinets, which are coded and alarmed,” he said.
Security is something that shouldn’t be skimped on, Moore said.
“Since some agencies do not have personnel on site 24 hours a day, alarm systems and video surveillance are a good idea,” he said. “One of the biggest elements of physical security we discuss involves key control. Essentially, you can have the most high-tech locks and security available, but if everybody has access to the keys, then you have nothing. Key access to the property and evidence rooms should be limited to those directly in charge of maintaining the room.”
An additional security measure comes from required audits.
Regular audits are much like a medical checkup in that they are designed to prevent problems before they happen, Powell said.
“Audits are paramount for reviewing the overall process of the evidence room from start to finish,” Powell said. “Audits review the property-room system only, and should not be used to catch an employee issue – that is done during an inventory. The purpose of the audit is to identify areas of improvement for efficiency.”
Pikeville’s audits are unannounced and the tracking program initiates them.
“Our system is programmed to determine how many pieces of evidence we want to pull out,” Collins said. “So we go item by item to make sure everything is there. Another good thing about evidence tracker is, if you run over the (audit) date when you log in, the system will tell you a random audit is due.”
Audits also provide documentation that the agency is on the up and up, Thompson said.
“We want to have a document that shows our (custodian) is doing the right thing,” he said. “It shows that we have checked our officer ‘X’ number of times, and we’ve never had an issue. It’s all about the integrity of what you’re trying to do. It’s a document that supports the officer and lets everyone know that he or she is doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing.”
With the exception of money, drugs, firearms and biologicals, Powell said the evidence room contents should be audited on a yearly basis. Items such as firearms and money should be audited on a quarterly basis.
Operating a top-notch property and evidence room is a vastly underrated aspect in law enforcement, Moore said.
“When it comes to property and evidence room management the old adage ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ can be applied in all areas,” Moore said. “The importance of taking a proactive approach to the various situations and concerns unique to property and evidence room management cannot be overstated. Through new tracking software, safety and security measures, as well as updated policies and procedures may come with some upfront costs and inconvenience — in the end — the headache it can save an agency pales in comparison to the liability that comes with ignoring these areas.
“When you factor in the potential liabilities associated with failing to address these concerns in a proactive manner, and the loss of public confidence that will come from a compromised room versus the upfront cost, the benefit of proactivity becomes clear,” Moore continued. “It’s a lot easier to solve the problems before they become disasters, and that is one of the main points we try to stress in the class.”