“We realized we couldn’t effectively manage evidence with our RMS system.”
– Lt. Matthew Stowers, Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office (WA)
The process of managing evidence is dynamic and complex. Each entry and movement, from the field to disposition, requires careful documentation and attention. Evidence managers appreciate how important it is to use the right tools to accomplish their tasks and cringe when hearing the words that can send viable evidence operations in a backward direction. Those words: “We want you to use the RMS.” Read on to understand the RMS vs EMS debate.
To combat the RMS order, it has become increasingly important for evidence managers to understand the value and function of RMS systems and to be able to communicate the deficiencies and the unintended consequences of relying on an RMS for evidence management. Understanding the initial attraction of a single system solution for law enforcement executives is a crucial step in building a case for maintaining the right tools for managing evidence.
So why use an RMS?
An RMS (Records Management System) is best suited for one thing, managing records. A good RMS makes reporting and case filing a logical and unified process. However, the main benefit of an RMS system is in the initial stages of investigative documentation, which includes reporting the incident, approving and filing criminal casework, and archiving case records for court or closure. There is minimal movement or change to RMS cases once filed unless new information is produced after the initial investigation.
Traditional RMS processes are limited and relatively rigid, so regardless of the type of case, there isn’t much variation between a kind of case or report and another. Like almost all other software companies, RMS vendors look for opportunities to expand their services to meet different areas of need for the agencies they serve. This becomes a particular challenge for meeting the needs of evidence management and other dynamic or non-linear processes like training or evaluation processes; any area that requires a cumulative or collaborative approach involving multiple stakeholders or workgroups. Think about all the potential interactions and transactions related to any piece of evidence. That might involve the submitting officer, investigators, crime labs, attorneys on both sides, and the owner of the evidence, each with a different relationship and responsibility to that single piece of evidence.
If it sounds too good to be true:
The holy grail of all law enforcement software is the one-stop shop for all your agency’s needs. RMS vendors will tell you they have this solution for everything. The problem is that the magical, single solution just doesn’t exist. The technology needs and variety of processes are much too diverse to expect one system to perform all the required functionality with any degree of excellence. A single solution system generally fails to provide adequate functionality outside of the original purpose of the software.
So, if one solution cannot meet your agency’s needs, should you simply accept that your IT department will have to work with many unrelated software systems for every task? The short answer is no. One solution that fails to meet your needs is just as ineffective as many solutions without integration. Finding the right balance to meet the needs of all the stakeholders is the key to a successful integrated technology strategy.
The right tool for the right job…
We have learned that having multiple tools throughout many areas of law enforcement, working to accomplish our goals makes perfect sense. For example, in use of force scenarios for law enforcement personnel, we equip officers with lethal and non-lethal force options to address the situation’s needs. We expect them to use the right tool for the job. However, when it comes to technology integration and software, we try to force our technology tools to accomplish tasks that they were not designed for and expect better results.
Why isn’t evidence management considered a specialized department, similar to how a LIMS system is viewed? RMS systems do not focus on evidence, just as they don’t focus on labs. Have you ever seen an RMS system try to be a LIMS? What about ballistics or latent prints? Usually, the RMS is chosen for one primary reason, cost, and evidence isn’t considered a department with specialized needs like the lab. If cost was the only deciding factor, shouldn’t officers drive patrol cars with excellent gas mileage and not consider power or other factors?
Evidence managers need capable technology solutions that address the unique and changing needs of the justice system. Quality evidence management software systems integrate and automate the full spectrum of physical and digital evidence management processes from submission of documentation and labeling during intake through final approval and recording at disposition. They provide a detailed and complete chain of custody records that also offer real-time data on storage and movement. They facilitate critical accountability processes like inventories and audits and a wide variety of functions directly linked to managing evidence.
Top 10 Reasons why an Evidence management system is better than an RMS
10. Focused on Evidence – RMS vendors will agree that if your evidence needs are something more than fundamental, you should use a specially designed system for evidence management. When these RMS vendors say “basic,” they are speaking about a bare-bones system and typically means they can do a chain of custody and allow you to put items in specific storage locations. Many can’t even do transfers or returns to owners, and some cannot print barcode labels or do scanning operations.
9. Missing admissible and relevant data for evidence – A “basic” evidence module in an RMS system will not collect and contain critical data collection methods. Take a close look at the most important categories of evidence, such as firearms, money, and drugs. Are these customizable to any extent? A sound evidence management system allows for customizable fields on any category of items collected.
8. Barcodes and Scanning – It is often reported by departments that they might have the ability to print a barcode label. Still, it isn’t customizable, and the RMS system has no barcode scanning capabilities. Therefore, the system is missing one of the most critical capabilities for improving workflow and production.
7. Ability to enter information in the field – Many RMS vendors may have this planned or in the works but are unavailable anytime soon.
6. Customization – Often, this is a widely used term that means different things to each vendor. The ability to customize the system to your needs is essential. For example, the system should enable you to create new data fields, arrange them on your screens for workflow, and then search and report on those fields immediately.
5. Ad-hoc and prebuilt reporting – This is reported as one of the biggest problems with most evidence system operations. Are you able to gather information as needed from your RMS evidence management system? A good system should allow you to find any query quickly and easily on relevant data and then produce reporting on the results.
Examples of this could be: How much currency have you taken in during the last year and how much was returned to the owners, or how much drug evidence have you disposed of in the previous two years and how much of it was incinerated with a particular vendor you use?
4. Evidence workflow – This type of feature begins to show off the specialized function of your EMS (evidence management system). An advanced evidence system should be able to set up text message alerts when specific types of evidence are received, like sexual assault kits. What if you could get an alert every time currency is manipulated in any way? What if you only wanted an alert where currency greater than $100 is manipulated or when a drug weight, or quantity, was modified?
3. Notifications or tasks – A critical function in evidence collection is working with others to determine the status of evidence and the preparation for it to be disposed. With a “basic” RMS system, you will be generating paper-based reports that will be distributed to officers (maybe), and it will be impossible to track that correspondence down the road. Communicating with others via a tasking-type system will fully automate the entire process of communicating about evidence and leave a chain of custody about all this communication. If evidence is ever questioned, you should be able to not only view all the relevant info about that evidence, but you should be able to see a history of all communication.
2. Letters/Forms/Templates – better evidence management systems should allow users to customize reports, generate required letters, and fill in forms automatically to avoid manual work. RMS systems do not usually offer this.
1. Dispositions – One of the most critical and specially designed features of any EMS system should be automatic reminders and guidance for dispositions. With this type of function, you can fully automate the disposition process and make sure your most important asset, the case officer, can drive this process into high gear. How can you stay on top of your evidence disposition problem (and storage problem) without fully automating the evidence disposition process? We have seen agencies go from few dispositions to very high levels of dispositions simply by using this feature built into the ERIN7 system. We have yet to see an EMS vendor create this type of specialized function.
Essential features such as the above will seriously impact the evidence process, and many of these features are simply not included in an RMS solution. It’s no wonder that evidence managers wince at the idea of using the RMS system when it comes to evidence management. It is often the wrong tool for the job. However, simply knowing this as a professional does not nullify the importance of communicating it to management.
Stay tuned for Part 2 – How To Counter The RMS Initiative.