Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Police evidence rooms another function we don't need cops to perform

We've been lately discussing functions of police that don't require a badge or gun to perform that might reasonably be removed from law enforcement's purview, and Grits can't believe I hadn't considered the evidence room!

In H-Town, the independent Houston Forensic Science Center will consolidate evidence management for both city and county law enforcement, including taking over evidence management from HPD, they reported in their latest newsletter:

Property rooms have historically been managed and overseen by law enforcement. But with greater demand on police and more emphasis on community policing and engagement, removing this high-risk, low-reward enterprise from their responsibility will allow them to focus on the jobs they were hired and trained to accomplish, namely serving and protecting the community.

“This is not about assigning blame. This is about improving parts of the justice system that have the broadest impact on all stakeholders,” Dr. Stout said.

“Evidence handling impacts everyone and everything from law enforcement to crime laboratories to prosecutors, courts, defendants and victims. It is time to ask the hard question of whether this is in fact a law enforcement function or if all parties would be better served placing that logistical responsibility elsewhere in the system.”

HFSC CEO Peter Stout added in his own letter:

property management is a high-risk component of the justice system. I see the nationwide struggle with implications of property management issues. In my mind, that means the obligation to pursue making this work for the entire system outweighs the prospect of the painful, hard work it will require. 

In terms of why potentially HFSC: Part of it is ease and convenience. HFSC is already independently structured with a board of directors whose bylaws allow for an expansion to include representatives from the county. HFSC has learned from hard experience what it takes to combine services and move oversight. To gain additional efficiencies that will have a significant impact on all lab operations we must tackle the weaknesses in evidence. That brings us to why property? HFSC, like every other part of the justice system, is enormously dependent on quality evidence to ensure the integrity of subsequent analysis. The testing we do is only as good as the evidence we receive. Labs, prosecutors and the courts bear the bulk of the “cost” of poor evidence quality. As the reliance on scientific results has grown, the interrelation between laboratory, crime scene investigation and evidence handling has become acutely apparent. Ever increasingly, once officers tag and bag an item it is no longer simply THEIR evidence. It moves to the lab, to the courts, to the prosecutors, to the defense. Historically, property management and evidence handling functions have been placed under the purview of law enforcement. Maybe now is the time to ask the question: is it the right place for this function? 

This blog has covered evidence-room failings for years, particularly in Houston. More than a decade ago Grits reported the head of the national professional association for property-room managers comparing them to "black holes" and declaring they were treated in most departments like a "red-headed stepchild." 

We've seen DNA evidence ruined and potentially innocent defendants remain incarcerated because DNA was unavailable for testing, as well as biological evidence spoiled before crime-lab analysts could work their way through years-long backlogs to test it. With the advent of so-called "touch DNA," evidence management all of a sudden has become a rigorous and complicated business. You can't just leave it to the cop assigned there because the brass didn't want them on the streets. Or, I guess you can, and agencies surely have, but it's not a great idea.

Historically, property-room assignments have sometimes been used as punishment within the police bureaucracy. But evidence handling is a complicated and supremely important task that deserves professionalization. Everyone relies on the property room: Not just police but also crime labs, prosecutors, trial courts, appellate courts, the press, researchers, historians. The validity of evidence is central to the public's acceptance of outcomes in the courtroom, underlying the very foundational basis for trust in the judicial system. 

When Grits was policy director at the Innocence Project of Texas, I got to work on legislation setting minimum standards governing DNA evidence management by police property rooms. That experience opened my eyes to the more widespread flaws: DNA posed unique challenges to police evidence managers, but they also weren't performing the basics well. Handing it off to civilians makes tons of sense.

This is one of those areas, like crime labs, where spinning off evidence rooms may not necessarily result in cost savings. Last I was told, the evidence rooms at every major PD in Texas suffered from sometimes-severe space shortages in addition to fumbling with the massive logistics of the job. An audit last year of the Denton PD property room found they were stuffed to the gills and "averaged about a 39% disposal rate over the last ten years," constantly struggling to make room for new evidence. Exacerbating the problem, Denton didn't have adequate destruction documentation, a deficiency which presents "an unacceptably high risk of theft."

In a place as big as Harris County serving so many different agencies, they'll need substantial facilities and computerized, probably RFID or bar-code-based inventory systems to manage the volume. It may cost more in the short term to do it well. But the long-term costs of doing it badly are too high to bear.


Steven Michael Seys said...

This is a very good idea. In my own case, the state lost the most important piece of evidence that could, with DNA testing, exonerate me between the lab, the police evidence locker and the DA's office. It's almost as if someone took the evidence out and burned it without keeping records.
Trial evidence is the only evidence a person is allowed to use in seeking exoneration according to the courts, but sloppy evidence procedures and multiple custodial agencies make a perfect recipe for injustice to be perpetuated indefinitely.

rozmataz said...

Please do an expose' of the life-threatening unabated heat in Texas prisons. This practice of further punishing the incarcerated is above and beyond humane treatment even for animals. In fact, an air conditioned barn for hogs on one of the prison farms took presidence over human beings. This inhumane treatment of people who are serving their time and who are then further punished by being subjected to inhumane treatment is a disgrace. The reputation of Texas as a civilized, modern, and forward-thinking state is a lie as long as human beings are treated worse than farm animals. Shame on you, Texas.

Anonymous said...

"civilized, modern, and forward-thinking" those are fightin' words round these parts!

Anonymous said...

Put my scrapbooking ladies in charge of this. Not only are they breathtakingly organized and used to dealing with disparate objects, one glance from their steely gaze would render a careless detective to a blubbering, remorseful acolyte. Nothing would be misplaced or mishandled again.

Deb said...

Any word yet on potential cost savings by moving it to independent/civilian vendors?

Also, this concept should also extend to property taken by LEOs of arrestees. APD has 'accidentally' destroyed phones (of copwatching) or not given property back upon release (most affected are the homeless, the least able to replace it) and just a few weeks ago, one of our medics was arrested that night of the building scaling anarchist-snipers (!) - NO one could figure out why (stepped in the street for a second tending to someone), but he just found out today that they destroyed his radios he was carrying (2 way/for medic communication) and much of his medical kit. :-(

Handling by an outside party would take away the revenge temptation. Cuz cops be like that :-(

Anonymous said...

My town has the evidence room in civilian hands and the police think that's taken-for-granted necessary to preserve independence. Works fine as far as I know.