By William P. Kiley, Deputy Chief of Police (Retired), Suffolk County, New York; and President, International Association for Property and Evidence, Inc.
any law enforcement agencies are facing the challenge of having no more space to store property and evidence. When property rooms are filled beyond their designed capacity, the results can have a devastating impact on the agency and often on the entire criminal justice system. Agencies lose their ability to properly track, secure, locate, and dispose of property and evidence. Recent headline stories in newspapers and other news media concerning lost evidence in criminal cases have caused embarrassment, having the potential to affect prosecutions and civil litigation adversely. However, the space and storage challenges facing law enforcement agencies today will increase exponentially in the upcoming years because of new state legislation extending the statutes of limitation for the crimes of sexual assault, homicide, and even burglary. In some areas of the United States, police departments now must maintain homicide evidence “forever.” Many police executives are now facing the ramifications of these decisions and are attempting to determine where and under what conditions the evidence from these crimes will be stored, for the sake of accountability and the maintenance of the chain of custody. The purpose of this article is to call the attention of police executives to the impending crisis in property and evidence storage.
Existing Space Challenges
Lack of sufficient storage space for evidence and property is becoming a common problem for chiefs. It does not matter if a law enforcement agency is very small or very large; the responsibilities of handling found property, property for safekeeping, and evidentiary property vary only by degree, and every agency has common challenges in this regard. Often, the competing demand for available space within an agency results in spreading the property function throughout several locations within the existing facility or moving it entirely to a satellite location. Many police chiefs find themselves advocating for capital projects to build new property warehouses or seeking funds to rent necessary storage space. Others seek the efficiency of high-density shelving that can double the storage capacity of existing facilities.
Dealing with inadequate storage capacity requires a diagnosis of the underlying cause of the problem. Many law enforcement property rooms are filled with items that either have no evidentiary value or are no longer needed for criminal prosecution. Two examples of items that frequently consume the precious little space available in the property room are recovered or found bicycles and evidence from misdemeanor crimes that have no suspects or leads and are beyond the statute of limitations. Other items of evidence sit on shelves for years awaiting a disposition from the courts, an approval from the prosecutor’s office, or action by the investigating officer or detective. Property rooms are commonly filled with enormous quantities of items that agencies could dispose of by implementing well-designed procedural systems that are supported by the agency’s senior management, prosecutors, and the courts. It is imperative that agencies begin to focus on methods of reducing the inventory in their property rooms as the new laws mentioned earlier begin to take effect. Among the many reasons behind these new statutes, three are preeminent: advanced DNA technology, a renewed focus on previously unsolved crimes, and postconviction appeals.
Advanced DNA Technology: Advances in forensic sciences, especially in the area of DNA analysis, have resulted in an increased amount of evidence collected and stored. This evidence is not only from interpersonal violent crimes; it also includes property crimes.1 Many agencies throughout the world are seeing significantly more evidence intake than they have in past years. Once the evidence enters the property room, it is kept longer than ever before. Part of this trend is due to the fact that jurors in court cases are expecting more physical evidence than ever before to be introduced in evidence to prove guilt. Some prosecutors refer to this expectation as the “CSI effect” on jurors. That is to say, due to the current popularity of crime scene investigation (CSI) television programs, jury pools now contain many individuals who could be influenced by what they see on such shows.
Renewed Focus on Previously Unsolved Crimes: Today’s forensic capabilities are enabling agencies to reexamine evidence containing biological materials that have remained on the property room shelf for years. Again, popular television series such as Cold Case have affected the public’s understanding of this capability. Investigative units tasked with the responsibility of reexamining older, unsolved cases are commonplace in police departments and prosecutors’ offices. Arrests are now made sometimes decades after crimes have taken place based on DNA and other forensic evidence that has long sat in a property room.
Postconviction Appeals: With an increasing number of convictions reversed due to DNA testing, the law enforcement community can expect to see more legislation that will direct agencies to hold onto evidence for much longer periods of time. The cases that catch the attention of legislators are similar to those taken up by the Innocence Project, where evidence is reexamined with new technology, resulting in the exoneration of the convicted person.2 It would not be surprising to see many states pass laws that require the holding of evidence as long as the convicted individual is
The trend is clear: state and local law enforcement agencies will see larger quantities of evidence booked into their property rooms, and they will have to maintain that evidence in a professional manner for a longer period.
What Can Chiefs Do?
Recognizing the current space issues with property rooms and noting potential future challenges, law enforcement leaders can take the following steps to deal with this issue:
- Be aware of the impending property and evidence crisis—the first, important step toward dealing with the challenge.
- Require statistical data that will provide a longitudinal view of the activity of the property room, which will help to develop factual information about the quantity of property handled. A review of the yearly data for a period of at least five years for total items in/out—with special attention to firearms in/out, drugs in/out, and cash in/out—will provide a view of property activity. Bicycles tend to consume a large amount of storage space, so the timely disposal of recovered/found bicycles is important to property room management.
- Assess staffing levels of the property room. Experience has shown that where staffing levels remain constant while intake figures dramatically increase, in a short period the property room becomes bloated. Inadequate staffing cannot ensure that purging and disposition take place—increasing the inventory.
- Focus on property room policies, procedures, and systems needed. All of these assist agencies in keeping inventories at manageable levels.
- Analyze the impact of changes in state statutes of limitation to project the new evidence storage demands that will be placed on the agency.
- Conduct a local dialogue about property and evidence issues with the prosecutor and the presiding court judge. Draw up approved guidelines for disposing of evidence and bulk storage items.
- Consider the possibility of procuring a regional or state-operated property facility (that is, a warehouse) for the proper storage of long-term evidence.
Strategic planning for the future of an agency’s property room will involve making the relevant issues a matter of importance requiring proper examination. Regional and state chiefs associations should ensure that elected state officials understand the implications of the mandatory storage laws. Law enforcement leaders should establish a task force or committee with representation from the entire state criminal justice system to examine the long-term implications of increased evidence retention.
- Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc.(CALEA) www.calea.org
- IACP Model Policy: Evidence Control in the Workplace www.theiacp.org
- International Association for Property and Evidence, Inc. (IAPE)www.iape.org
Need for Training
During the past few decades the staffs of property rooms have incrementally shifted from consisting only of sworn law enforcement officers to a blend of officers and civilian staff or, in many cases, to solely civilian staffing. Whether sworn or nonsworn, property room managers need training to run the system and maintain inventories. Property managers must know about packaging and storage, purging systems, evidence tracking, safe firearms handling, biohazards and hazardous materials, safe working conditions, disposition notification systems, proper disposal of property and evidence, and the proper documentation to account for all property on hand and/or destroyed or disposed of. Training, such as the two-day Property and Evidence Management Course offered by the International Association for Property and Evidence (IAPE; www.iape.org), must address agency-wide policy and procedures regarding property and evidence. There are also training needs for any supervisors and/or administrators who have oversight of the property room. The goal of this training is to ensure an effective and efficient property and evidence operation that properly stores, tracks, safeguards, and releases items from the property room.
As a police function, the property room usually falls at the fringes of a chief’s administrative radar screen; it cannot compete with crime investigation, traffic fatality reduction, street gang violence, and other pressing concerns. In times of diminished budgets, any staffing and equipment requested for the property room are usually eliminated in the first round of budget discussions. However, chiefs can still provide support to the property room function by ensuring that general orders, evidence packaging/submission, and timely action on disposition requests are priority actions for the agency. Necessary overtime, flex time, and temporary detail of additional personnel are all strategies available to chiefs for consideration. Additionally, to maintain a successful property operation, chiefs must support issues related to property and evidence packaging and submission, property room security and access control, automated tracking systems, and adequate storage capacity.
Begin Planning for the Increased Demand
Property room managers and property/evidence custodians must keep abreast of local and/or state legal changes as well as evolving trends that will affect their agencies’ property operations. Make no mistake about it: every law enforcement agency will face the requirement to warehouse more and more evidence for longer periods of time. Now is the time to begin planning for future storage needs. As the old adage goes, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” The time has come for chiefs to begin local, regional, and statewide dialogue about this issue. Only through planning as well as adequate budget and administrative support will the law enforcement community be able to address future property room needs. ■
1See Bill Berger, Joe Chimera, and John Blackedge, “LODIS, a New Investigative Tool: DNA Is Not Just Court Evidence Anymore,” The Police Chief 75, no. 4 (April 2008): 150–157; Raymond J. Prime and Jonathan Newman, “The Impact of DNA on Policing: Past, Present, and Future,” The Police Chief 74, no. 11 (November 2007): 30–35; George Epp and Brian Webster, “Colorado Sheriffs Develop DNA Training,” The Police Chief 73, no. 6 (June 2006): 23–25; and Ralph A. Barfield, “Forensic Investigation: It’s Not Just for Big Cities,” The Police Chief 71, no. 4 (April 2004): 158–161.
2The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, New York, to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. To date, 218 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 16 who served time on death row. See http://www.innocenceproject.org/about/Mission-Statement.php (accessed June 5, 2008).
William P. Kiley, M.S., is a retired deputy chief of police who served for 30 years with the Suffolk County, New York, Police Department. Currently president of the Board of Directors of the IAPE and president/CEO of Kiley Associates, LLC, an e-learning consulting company, Kiley is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, Police Executive Research Forum Senior Management Institute for Police, and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.
From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 8, August 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.