Electronic logging and tracking technology is helping local police keep better tabs on evidence in Maplewood, Mo.

Using a handheld mobile device similar in size to a BlackBerry, officers record each item of note at a crime scene. The embedded software takes the data and generates a radio-frequency identification label or bar code to attach to each piece of evidence. The device stores details such as the time and date, temperature and geolocation of where each item was collected, which is later uploaded to a database at the station.

The system, called eTWIST — Evidence Tracking With Information Solution Technologies — was developed by Primary Marking Systems Inc., a product-tracking equipment provider. The concept of evidence tracking isn’t new, but the technology has had quite an impact on how members of the Maplewood Police Department (MPD) are handling items from crime scenes.

Prior to using eTWIST, the department used a paper-based system and tracked evidence using a simplistic database that cataloged each item brought into the station. But now that evidence is filed using a more advanced electronic system, tasks such as purging and disposing of items are much easier.

“From [a] practical standpoint, I find the bar coding the most useful tool,” said Detective Kerry Daniels in an email to Government Technology. “It allows me to double check my work to verify each item is actually received, processed and stored into the evidence room. When dealing with evidence, you cannot have too many precautions.”

Currently the department has one eTWIST device, which is built into a Motorola mobile chassis. Daniels said initially the plan was to buy just one device when the system was installed a few years ago. But after seeing how the technology can help improve the speed and efficiency of evidence gathering, plans are in the works to purchase more and issue them to patrol officers.

Right now, Daniels manually records all evidence into a database. Officers not using the handheld device drop the evidence through a locker system, and Daniels verifies that the items have been received by comparing an evidence sheet with the specific item in the locker. He then scans each item into the eTWIST device and places the item back into an evidence storage area.

Previously, information had to be uploaded from the scanner to the database system. But the technology was recently upgraded so that instead of connecting the device to a computer, it now automatically uploads recorded evidence into the database server through a secure Internet connection.

The convenience and accuracy has helped decrease the chance of making an error.

“If someone needs a specific item for court or if the item is transferred to the crime lab for processing, I update the system to acknowledge the location,” Daniels said. “The system also stores information regarding who the victim, suspect and witnesses of the crime [are].”

Ongoing Investment

The department is planning to purchase two more of the eTWIST handheld scanning devices. Daniels said he’d prefer that each officer has his or her own scanner. But since the MPD is a small unit comprised of 31 officers who work 12-hour shifts, they can make due with sharing three of the devices.

As with many local law enforcement agencies, funding has been harder to come by in recent years and the MPD is working with Primary Marking to secure grants to purchase the additional scanners.

For those police departments starting from scratch, one eTWIST Station Kit (which includes mobile and enterprise software, the handheld Motorola scanner, a printer, preprinted bar-code labels, cables and a case) runs approximately $7,000. Based out of St. Louis, Primary Marking touted the Creve Coeur Police Department in Missouri and a law enforcement agency in Cold Spring, Ky., as other users of its technology.

The software isn’t limited to only Motorola devices. According to Primary Marking, its eTWIST Mobile software can run on most Windows Mobile handheld devices, and the company is currently developing the software to run on the Android platform.

While the eTWIST device can make cataloging evidence easier, ensuring proper chain of custody is still very much about person-to-person trust. Although an officer technically should never hand off a piece of evidence to another officer, Daniels said if it’s for some reason necessary, you can record transactions from one person to another on the scanner.

But the device lacks the ability to sign for that evidence exchange.

“The only problem [is] you would not have the physical signature to show the transfer,” Daniels said. “Hopefully there is still a certain degree of trust in the law enforcement field where an electronic transfer (logging) of evidence from one officer to the next will suffice instead of a physical signature.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.