Sunday, July 30, 2006

Everything in its place

We watch police dramas on television, and take for granted that certain things happen when a case is investigated. Among the chief misperceptions that result is that evidence, when it is not sitting loose on some detective's desk, remains unseen by us until trial because it goes to the crime lab and then is kept in some magical place that we never think about.

Let's talk then, about evidence storage realities. Think what is happening all across the country, when officers and detectives bring evidence in, all day long.

An article by Tony Plohetski in the 7/31/06 edition of the Austin American-Statesman, "Austin police looking for more evidence storage space," will give you an idea of the problems faced in one city.

The Austin Police Department is short on evidence space and has no central storage facility, a situation that for years has left investigators cramming property for criminal prosecutions into anything from empty closets to rented warehouses.

Authorities said the space crunch leaves investigators with the threat that evidence will be lost, contaminated or stolen — none of which has happened so far, police say — and requires hours of additional work for employees....
Austin is very far from being alone, and is far from the worst case:

Evidence space shortage is a problem that has long faced police agencies, particularly in growing cities, said Joseph Latta, executive director of the International Association for Property and Evidence.

"It's a huge problem across the country," he said.

The length of time for which evidence must be stored is often determined by law, so departments can't just dump old evidence on the basis of the amount time it has been held — the type of evidence and the type of case will play a role.

Another part of the problem is overcollection — in the effort to please jurors who might be expecting television-drama forensics, officers may collect, as one forensic scientist has said, "Everything that isn't nailed down."

But keep in mind that many of these departments do not have proper or adequate storage facilities for even that evidence which is necessary, more than 1 out of 4 labs do not have the computers they need to keep track of it.

If at this very basic step of collection, tracking, and storage of evidence, we do not provide law enforcement and forensic scientists with what they need, how can we expect detectives to do their work, or for a speedy and just resolution to criminal cases?

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