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How automation has improved case management for one agency’s crime lab

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Moving from a patchwork of databases to an integrated LIM system has made tracking and reporting fast and easy for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office

By Rachel Zoch, PoliceOne BrandFocus Staff

Crime lab management and compliance are challenging for any agency, and regulations vary from state to state. Tracking the chain of custody, however, is a must across law enforcement. Software that automates administrative tasks and tracks progress while processing evidence can greatly improve the efficiency of a crime lab, as well as provide an ironclad chain of custody for court.

Kelly Donaldson is commander of the scientific analysis division of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona, which comprises two units: the crime lab and the firearms lab. She supervises both units after rising through the ranks in her 34 years with the agency, where she started as an analyst.

The MCSO has been using QueTel software to manage its property/evidence room for several years and in 2019 adopted its Lab TraQ laboratory information management, or LIM, module. Donaldson says the system has made a tremendous difference in just a few months.

MOVING AWAY FROM A MANUAL SYSTEM

“We were far behind the times, using an old and outdated case tracking system to manage documentation and reporting of our casework,” said Donaldson. “We were literally using an Access database to manage our case tracking. As we got cases, we would put them into a spreadsheet, which is not very secure, because any user who has a password can get into it and delete or add or change information in that database, and it did not fit our needs.”

In the six months after the division went live with Lab TraQ in July 2019, 700 cases had been assigned, and Donaldson says she can now report the progress of all of them in minutes instead of hours of manually gathering data from several different databases.

“Before, it would take the better part of a day to get that, and now it’s just minutes. It’s amazing,” she said.

After a 2016 report from an audit of the division highlighted the need for a more secure LIM system, the agency started looking for funding and the right solution. The process took about two and a half years, and the agency selected QueTel because of its tracking and query capabilities, as well as its customer service. They also needed to query the system for information like how many cases any particular analyst might have, turnaround times and progress of cases underway.

“We really needed to be able to track the cases and the time that it took from an analyst to receive the case to finishing the case,” said Donaldson. “QueTel is one of many LIM systems, but it really fit the bill for us.”

FINDING THE RIGHT SOLUTION

MCSO also needed a system that would communicate with its existing software. Because the agency was already using QueTel’s evidence module, adding the Lab TraQ module would be seamless.

“It’s very difficult to use five or six different software systems because they typically don’t talk to one another,” said Donaldson, “so we prefer to have something that would talk to our other system. I guess we were just lucky in that QueTel was our evidence module vendor.”

QueTel also offered to customize the lab module, she added.

“We had some custom needs, and they were very willing to do that for us,” said Donaldson. “We were really looking for case management, and QueTel was right where we needed them to be.”

Donaldson also appreciated the company’s “outstanding” customer service, from the sales presentation through to implementation and ongoing technical support.

“They really took the time to bring everything we needed to the table and show us step by step what they could do for us,” she said.

It took less than six months to implement the platform, says Donaldson, including the purchase, several site visits from a QueTel programmer, creation of MCSO’s custom forms, other tweaks and revisions, then actually going live.

AUTOMATING CASE MANAGEMENT AND EVIDENCE TRACKING

“Already it’s impacted us so much, and I can only see that growing,” said Donaldson. “QueTel allows us to query the cases, and that was our biggest compliance issue. Also, because we can talk to the evidence side and the LIM side at the same time, we can very easily track chain of custody electronically.”

Instead of having to do everything by hand, every time evidence moves from place to place, an electronic signature is added, which streamlines the process and greatly reduces the potential for error, as well as making the division essentially paperless.

“Every single thing we do with this system has made our life easier, from the chain of custody to going paperless to tracking to all the queries you can make,” said Donaldson. “There’s never a day that goes by that you aren’t working in the system. That’s how well used and how valuable the system is. It is absolutely essential to working casework.”

MAKING THE PROCESS EASIER FOR EVERYONE

Donaldson says the combined Evidence TraQ and Lab TraQ systems have greatly simplified the process from intake to disposition. The system provides an automatic notification every time something changes – for example, when the case has been assigned to an analyst or the evidence returned to storage – and any authorized individual can check the status at any time.

“It’s all automated. The officer is kept in the know from the moment he’s impounded the evidence to the moment it has been returned from processing and a finalized report is created,” said Donaldson. “Everyone’s in the know. There are no hidden secrets. Everything’s very transparent, and everything is at the officers’ fingertips for them to visualize.”