Taming the Evidence Gorilla

When Gayla Robison took over property in 1999, she discovered a 300 pound gorilla. The Burleson, Texas Police Department property room was almost completely full, due to the difficulty of purging unneeded evidence. Texas law, which requires a court order to dispose of property, creates a gauntlet of steps making purging difficult. In addition, the manual nature of the steps to process items for purging adds to the difficulty.

Gayla could try to have the department invest in more space or space saving shelving to solve the problem, but that prospect did not seem viable. She had to do it on her own. But, she faced another problem. The process of keeping records on a growing volume of property, (2,600 items per year) from 52 officers left her little time for purging property. The first task was to find a way to identify items could potentially be purged. Luckily the City had purchased evidence management software system (Evidence TraQ from Quetel Corporation). In addition to keeping a record of each evidence item and printings for each, it provides an action date. That date, automatically set according to the length of the Statue of Limitations on the charge, marks the time when an item can be considered for purging. With a few key strokes, Gayla extract a list of items that are candidates for purging.

Next, Gayla needed a way to move the courts along. As Burleson’s boundaries overlap two counties, she had to cope with a wide variety of people and procedures—29 courts in Tarrant County (Fort Worth) and six in Johnson County immediately to the south.

One day, about a month after beginning her new duties inside the property room, an Investigator for the Johnson County Attorney’s Court visited the Department to serve subpoenas on Gayla and other officers for a court appearance.

Gayla took the opportunity for a tour of the property room with him to illustrate the lack of space. She also explained that when cases were closed, the courts were not sending her the dispositions so that she could put together the required court orders. (The court order needed to include how the case was closed.) That meant she had to do independent research to find the case dispositions.

To simplify that part of purging items Gayla asked him to help her work out procedures for his office to send dispositions to her. He agreed and working together they formulated procedures for the two County Courts, which he served. They would notify Gayla on a monthly basis as cases were adjudicated, plead, or dismissed.

He later interceded with the 3 different District courts to get them to adopt the same procedures. The result was that one problem in knowing when cases were closed (disposition), was overcome. Incidentally, all the other jurisdictions in the County benefited from these new procedures that Gayla helped adopt.

Gayla capitalized on this initial success by working directly with the courts to formulate a standard court order format that all would accept. (Previously, each court had its own format). The new format, which she got all to adopt, included a brief description of the disposition of the matter, how items should be disposed, and a list of t items themselves.

Finally Gayla made arrangements with the Burleson Municipal Judge that when she came to the Department for Arraignments that she would visit the property room and sign the outstanding court orders that Gayla had prepared. As an official of one court, she is empowered to sign for all courts.

The other part of getting on top of purging was to master the daily influx of evidence, logging it in, putting it away, checking it out to for court and taking it to the Lab, in addition to answering questions, and preparing reports for management.

The easy to use single screen in Evidence TraQ, lets Gayla enter items so rapidly that she can do 30 items in less than 20 minutes by copying and pasting of one record to the next. Without navigating among separate screens she can list as many persons as needed as suspects, victims, or witnesses, along with their addresses (for automatic owner letters to retrieve property). Any person can be marked as owning an item without entering their name twice.

She can check items out of the property room using a barcode scanner as quickly as check out at a grocery store. Searches are easy and she can search on any field including chain of custody fields. It lets her to enter a phrase, such as “black purse” to get a list of all black purses in the property room. When courts call asking for a copy of lab reports she can now email those results directly to the courts from the item record in Evidence TraQ system. She spends less time filing and retrieving files and searching for things.

Once she has done the research the Court Orders print out of the system as well as owner letters. She can record dispositions and items returned to owners, as quickly as she checks items out, as the final step in the life cycle of evidence.

The combination of quick, simple logging and control of evidence; the software tools in TraQ including printing a court order from the system; and her work with the Courts has allowed Gayla to purge over 10,000 items from the property room at the same time as the number of items submitted by officers has doubled.

In six years Gayla had become a self taught property expert, managed a doubling in the number of items coming in while at the same time freeing up space in about one-third of the property room, as well as winning kudos from CALEA. Her advice to others in a similar situation: “You have to do it one block at a time, otherwise you’ll be overwhelmed.” Dive in do it and keep doing it. But you have to look outside the box to see the finish line otherwise you’ll be doomed to the practices of the past.”

In Burleson the evidence gorilla has been tamed.