Property and Evidence Warehouses: Ensuring Victims’ Rights from the Back Room

Our guest authors, Doreen Jokerst and Maria Pettolina, hail from Parker, Colorado. Doreen is the Support Services Commander for the Parker Police Department. She has 19 years experience in law enforcement working in various divisions including patrol, investigations, and professional standards. Maria is the Crime Scene and Evidence Manager with the Parker Police Department. She has 10 years of experience with evidence management, and has been involved with over 100 sexual assault cases. They share their thoughts on the ways property and evidence room managers can help improve the rape kit handling process.

As more states across the country work to clear their backlogs of untested rape kits, law enforcement agencies are going back into their property rooms to identify any previously untested rape kits and send them for testing. And, a growing number of states are mandating all sexual assault evidence kits are sent to a lab for testing. Property and evidence room managers are central to this process and are responsible for ensuring the recommended processes, policies, and state laws for receiving, storing, and maintaining sexual assault evidence are followed.

Sexual assault evidence demands stringent protections to preserve its integrity for prosecution of these cases. This evidence, when tested and entered into the DNA database, can be crucial to identifying offenders and linking crimes together.

Likely, the property room will retain evidence of a sexual assault long after the apprehension, arrest, and the disposition of the case—whether by trial or other means. Ensuring the evidence is handled through a proper chain of custody, with accurate documentation, is a must.

Communication and Coordination with the Investigations Division

A collaborative, multidisciplinary approach across law enforcement units handling sexual assault evidence and those investigating and prosecuting these cases must be in place. At the Parker Police Department (PPD), property technicians work closely with detectives to send sexual assault kits to the designated lab in a timely fashion, usually within one week. When an officer or detective submits a kit and/or associated evidence to the evidence section, the property technician will examine the packaging to ensure the integrity of the item has been maintained. The property technician then scans the barcoded item(s) into the property room to log the chain of custody. A color-coded label is placed on the sexual assault evidence, and it is stored in a location in a specifically designated area of the property room. Having a physically separate location for kits and using color-coded labels prevents the accidental purging of evidence.

This work cannot be completed without proper training, communication, and coordination. To ensure a seamless process, property and evidence personnel are trained to know and understand the standards for submitting evidence to the lab for analysis. Our unit also provides the standards to law enforcement department personnel in written and digital format when possible, and mandates the standards be used for all evidence submissions to ensure consistency. In addition to being accredited through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), our property and evidence warehouse has an additional separate accreditation through the International Association for Property and Evidence (IAPE).

Submitting Kits to the Lab

Not all states have laws and policies mandating the procedures for handling rape kits, but ours does. Colorado law requires kits verified as needing testing be sent to the appropriate lab within 21 days after law enforcement receives the kit. In our agency, once a kit and/or related evidence is accepted into the property room, the property technician will reach out to the assigned detective to confirm whether the kit is associated with a law enforcement report, a medical report, or an anonymous report.1 Once the status of the evidence is confirmed, the property technician will contact the lab to schedule an appointment for delivery. View more information on the Colorado collection protocol.

Using Technology in Processing Rape Kits

Property and evidence warehouses often store tens of thousands of pieces of property that are either items of evidence or found property. Without a system for accountability and tracking, items would get lost, misplaced, or destroyed. At the PPD, we use an electronic barcoding tracking system. With this system, reminders are set up for kits from cases that are “nearing the statute of limitations” or when a kit is still awaiting testing. The items of evidence also are meticulously tracked using barcodes to log pertinent information such as the time and date evidence changes location.

Continuous Checks

Even with a well-trained staff and detailed policies and procedures in place, mistakes can happen; this job is done by human beings, not robots. Knowing this, we have established safety nets to catch any errors. At least twice a year, a sexual assault inventory list is generated from the barcoding tracking system, and each item is researched to check that there are no unresolved or untested kits in the property room. This comprehensive inventory of all kits is also conducted to determine the number, evidentiary status, lab submission status, location, and packaging and documentation integrity of the kits in custody. Regular reporting helps us ensure that we do not have a backlog of untested kits in our property room.

More Than Just Evidence

Going through a property and evidence warehouse and looking at everything can be emotionally distressing, but to treat these items like “just a piece of property” would be dehumanizing. The old adage about treating something like it is your own carries on in the property and evidence warehouse. In Parker, Colorado, we realize every piece belonged to someone at some point. Each item represents a crime that has been committed and, in many cases, a person who has been harmed by that crime.

  • 1Law enforcement report: A victim chooses to obtain a medical forensic exam and chooses to work with law enforcement.
  • Medical report: A victim chooses to obtain a medical forensic exam, but at the time of the exam chooses to not participate with law enforcement. Any evidence collected is given to law enforcement with the individual’s contact information.
  • Anonymous report: A victim chooses to obtain a medical forensic exam, but at the time of the exam chooses to not participate with law enforcement. Any evidence collected is given to law enforcement without the victim’s contact information.

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