Online document management (Jirsak/Shutterstock.com)

How records management ensures a secure chain of custody

A modern records management system is helping the Ramsey County, Minn., Sheriff’s Office keep better track of evidence as it comes in from crime scenes and moves through the chain of custody.

Previously, the office tracked evidence using a system that was basically a database that could be queried to see inventory and its location, said Molly Casanova, records supervisor for the sheriff’s office.

“Being a records manager or records supervisor is not just reviewing records anymore,” Casanova said. “It’s now staying on top of the technology component of your record management system.”

The department is using CentralSquare Technologies’ Public Safety Pro Suite and its Records Pro element. Now, when an item is seized or recovered as evidence, deputies put it into a temporary storage locker and enter the details into the records management system. That triggers a notification to the evidence technicians who then move the item where it needs to go -- either into permanent storage or to the crime lab for additional testing -- and note that in the RMS. If the item can be returned to its owner when it’s no longer needed, the software has a prebuilt form that owners can fill out at the sheriff’s office to retrieve their possession.

“Releasing a piece of property has become so much easier because the paperwork is built into the system,” Casanova said. “It’s so much more robust than just that query-based database.”

The system also helps control who has access to evidence data through permissions that can be granted by job type. “Most of our people are assigned by their personnel group,” Casanova said. “Our deputies have a certain amount of rights to property and evidence, and then our [two] evidence techs are in their own group and they also have their own set of permissions.”

An off-the-shelf item, Pro Suite allows customers to configure the system according to their needs. For instance, if a law enforcement agency wants to use a bar code scanning app on an Apple and Android device, it’s compatible. (Casanova said her office uses iPads and has experimented with bar code scanning, but does not use it yet.)

“We really view our relationship with Ramsey as a service,” said Steve Seoane, general manager of the company’s public-safety division. That means that as the company adds capabilities or technologies to the suite, they automatically get pushed out to the office with the next update. Similarly, Casanova can request capabilities be added.

For instance, the Ramsey Sheriff's Office has created a custom module for tracking the needs of the K-9 unit, including training, vet visits and food. CentralSquare added the module to its suite so that other customers can apply it if they want.

“It’s rare that somebody just forklifts and takes exactly what somebody else did, but it is very common for someone to take a piece of it -- like the K-9 module -- and say, ‘We want to do something just like that,’” Seoane said.

Currently, Casanova is looking at connecting a point-of-sale module to the financial component. “It will make our statements much easier, it will make invoicing much easier. When we close the books at the end of the month or year, we have all of that information in one system,” she said. “It’s easy to just print a report and send it off to our finance department at the county level.”

This ease of reporting is a major benefit, she said. For instance, the county’s seven city managers request weekly statistics based on calls for service. A manager asked for the top 10 to 20 addresses where calls for service originated in the past three years, broken down by incident code and percentage of change over time to find patterns or trends.

“I’m able to winnow it down to what I need and then be able to tell the narrative and tell that story so that manager is getting the full picture,” Casanova said. “Our previous record management system was pretty much just a word processing program. So you would just go in, type up your reports and you’d be done. We had another person who would go in, look at those reports, pull out the reportable data and send it.”

Pro Suite and Records Pro are powered by Zuercher, a solution formerly made by Zuercher Technologies, which became part of CentralSquare a few years ago. The data that flows through it is fully encrypted at rest and in transit, and the software complies with all public-safety security standards, Seoane said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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