RuBee tags are typically the size and thickness of a credit card, but they can be as small as one square inch. Photo courtesy Visible Assets, Inc.
Navigation in BEAST is via a graphic user interface. Screenshots courtesy Porter Lee Corporation
Entering an evidence item into the BEAST application.Screenshots courtesy Porter Lee Corporation
EvidenceTracker.com’s Item Entry screen.Photos courtesy Tracker Products, LLC
EvidenceTracker.com’s PDA device for remote operation.Photos courtesy Tracker Products, LLC
EvidenceTracker.com’s PDA device with signature capture.Photos courtesy Tracker Products, LLC
FEATURED IN TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATIONS
There was a time when the most common police sidearm was a Smith & Wesson Model 19 revolver, a phone call away from home base meant fishing a dime out of your pocket, and when you needed evidence for court at my department, you went to Gene. Gene was our evidence-room technician, and he was very good at his job. Away from work, he behaved like everyone else. But in the evidence locker, Gene was the most rabidly, anal-retentive neat freak you would ever encounter.
When working at his desk, Gene would have one document centered precisely in the middle of his green desk blotter. The blotter s edges were perfectly parallel to the desktop sides. Telephone, pencil cup, stapler and other tools were outboard of the blotter, placed equidistant from the desk pad and each other, and also aligned with the edges of the desk. When asked to fetch an item of evidence, Gene would write the log number on a notepad, tear that sheet off and take it with him into the nobody-goes-in-there-but-Gene storage room.
Let the games begin: In Gene s absence, irritating twerps such as myself, who learned this bit of sport from my FTO, would move something on Gene s desk just a teensy bit. Without fail, Gene would return with the requested items, put the offending desk accessory back where it had been and hand you the evidence tag to sign. He never got upset or even changed his expression. He knew exactly where everything was.
If guys like Gene were easier to come by, we might not need property room software. Agencies can t replace their evidence technicians with a software package someone still has to physically put stuff on shelves, in drawers, take it to the lab, bring it back again and so on. But, the job can become considerably easier and the chain of custody can be more reliably documented with the right technology solution. Two of the products in this review are software packages mated with barcode tracking systems, and the third is a brand-new technology that goes beyond barcodes.
Crime Fighter BEAST
by Porter Lee Corp.
Crime Fighter BEAST is one of many database-centric software packages from Porter Lee Corp. for law enforcement, crime-lab and allied-agency use. Evidence items are marked and tracked with barcode labels you print as needed, and then scanned as the evidence item moves through the system, documenting each scan and the status change accompanying it. The name BEAST comes from the software s official title: Barcode Evidence Analysis Statistics and Tracking.
BEAST uses two types of barcodes, depending on the type of evidence and the process underway at the moment. Code 128 one-dimensional barcodes are similar to those found on the UPC labels of consumer products. The spacing and thickness of a series of vertical lines represent a serial number the barcode scanner can translate. The Code 128 barcode usually corresponds to a unique item number assigned to a piece of evidence, which in turn is associated with the relevant case number(s), officers, evidence technicians, etc. recorded in the database.
Evidence items transferred between the evidence facility and a lab receive a two-dimensional PDF417 barcode. These barcodes are rectangular arrays of dots that resemble snow on a TV screen or ink splatter. Two-dimensional barcodes contain considerably more information than their one-dimensional counterparts and are a more secure method of transmitting information to and from the crime lab and keeping that information with the evidence item itself. Both types of barcodes are printed on the spot, using specialized printers supplied by Porter Lee or other vendors.
Setting up BEAST is a fairly involved process because it requires input or import of a considerable amount of information unique to the environment, such as personnel lists and corresponding ranks, contact information, criminal statutes and their section numbers, agency case-number formats, etc. Purchase of the system includes on-site training to facilitate the startup process.
Once up and running, BEAST offers many ways to locate evidence items and their disposition at any given moment. You can locate a case via searches for department case number, lab case number, case name (the name or names of victims, suspects, etc.), date/officer/location, related case numbers, item information, voucher number or via ATF-ETrace, a firearms tracking database administered by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Name searches are enhanced by a SOUNDEX system that returns information on names similar in spelling or sound to the name entered in the search field. This feature is really useful, considering how often names are misspelled and/or entered multiple times into databases without making an association between them.
For ready identification of evidence items without physically pulling out the property itself, each record can contain an image of the item either recorded at the time the item is catalogued or later. Images can be uploaded from a conventional camera, taken from a webcam or imported from a scanner or other TWAIN-compliant device. There s also a provision for recording the type of container (e.g., envelope, plastic bag, box, etc.) the evidence is stored in, so that a technician can start a physical search for the item and have some notion of what they re looking for.
When evidence is destined for lab analysis, the person entering the item can create the lab request slip at the same time. The process of transferring evidence and information to the crime lab can be enhanced if the crime lab is using Porter Lee s companion Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) package, but this isn t required.
At inventory time, two types of wireless scanners are available to scan barcodes in the evidence locker and download that information into the system. Many reports are pre-configured in BEAST, including evidence pull lists when it s time to go to court or the lab. Evidence transfers can be documented via a signature capture pad (like the one at Wal-Mart) and electronically recorded in the database.
The preferred installation for BEAST is on a SQL server, but Oracle servers can be accommodated as well. A typical installation costs approximately $13,500 and includes two workstations, on-site training and one year of maintenance and technical support.
Tracker Products LLC
Although most property room software applications rely on an in-house server, EvidenceTracker.com s typical installation is browser-based, which allows the data to reside on Tracker Products servers and not the client agency s. This allows the database to be accessed anywhere there s an Internet connection, if that s the client s preference. Access can be restricted to pre-designated computers/IP addresses. The software can also be purchased outright and reside solely on the client s servers.
This architecture provides much greater flexibility for the client, especially if a client has many evidence processing and/or storage sites spread over great distances. State agencies with offices throughout their jurisdiction can use the same application and database, regardless of how far apart they might be.
Most purchases are prompted by disasters, says Dale Norman at Tracker Products. Evidence is lost, stolen, mislabeled, mishandled or otherwise rendered worthless, and a scandal ensues. An application such as EvidenceTracker.com doesn t guarantee you ll never again have an evidence problem in your outfit, but it does make it much easier to document where things are, where they went and who got them there, and presents more of a challenge to people who try to defeat the system.
EvidenceTracker.com data is protected by 128-bit encryption and non-standard system ports, which provide a much more secure environment than you may think. High-profile news stories of personnel lists and credit card databases falling prey to hackers are seldom rooted in the interception of Web-based transactions, which are typically encrypted at levels less stringent than what EvidenceTracker.com uses. When files are stolen, they are most often taken via the theft of a notebook computer or when an online database is left unprotected, not by the interception of an encrypted transaction. In the browser-based configuration, EvidenceTracker.com entire database and the transactions are all encrypted all the time, and data doesn t reside on portable computers unless someone purposely downloads a file and stores it there, which is almost always a bad idea.
This system also uses one-dimensional barcodes to physically label and track evidence items, which Norman says are more efficient and secure than hand-written evidence tags. While some barcode based applications sell pre-printed sheets of adhesive barcodes, which can cost a lot, EvidenceTracker.com uses a barcode printer and rolls of blanks, which sell for about $20 per roll of 700 labels.
This system also allows the storage of digital images with each evidence item, and digital capture of signatures from the screen of a handheld PDA.
To reduce the time required to enter items into the system, the application is customized for each client, with most form fields completed from forced-choice, drop-down lists. This method has the added advantage of making it impossible to misspell words, transpose digits or make other errors common with freeform text fields.
EvidenceTracker.com is presently deployed at more than 200 sites, including the various offices of the Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP). During one recent drug interdiction seizure, THP troopers were able to log 32 bales of marijuana into the Evidence Tracker system in 19 minutes, with another seven minutes required to have the material secured in the evidence locker. This is a testimonial to the ease of use and efficiency provided by the application.
Transfers of evidence to the crime lab are made easier by the integration of the lab s own forms into the system. When multiple items of evidence are transferred in the same event and by the same person, only one electronically-captured signature is required before all the affected items are logged out to that signer. When lab reports are returned, they are scanned into the system and saved as electronic documents, making them available to any user with the appropriate level of access.
There are five pricing packages for EvidenceTracker.com, but the scalability of the system places it in the reach of the smallest agencies. A basic browser-based installation costs $5,000 for the first year, including all hardware, first-year hosting and support. On-site training is available. A purchase option in which the application resides on the client s servers typically runs $10,000 with full support and access to any updates or upgrades for one year. Price largely depends on the size of the operation, but it s important to note that these prices are per server, not per user or workstation.
Visible Assets Inc.
I saw Visible Assets demonstrate their product at this year s SHOT Show in the Sig Sauer booth. Visible Assets and Sig Sauer are involved in a cooperative venture, using the technology to track small arms and similar materiel at nuclear and military installations.
The Visible Assets product is more hardware than software-centric and has applications for any kind of critical inventory control for nearly any setting. The key technology is a wireless tag called RuBee. RuBee tags work on the same principle as the RFID tags that are deployed widely in retail as anti-theft measures and in the new U.S. passports.
Tags can be active or passive. An active tag requires a power source and transmits a string of data at fixed intervals. If there s a receiver capable of reading the signal, the tag and its data are identified and located. Passive tags give up their data only when interrogated by a transmitter that has enough energy for the tags to send the data and alert the transmitter to its presence. Example: The tiny glass-encased chips that are injected just below the skin of pets, so that they can be returned to their owners, use passive RFID.
RuBee tags overcome the shortcomings of RFID tags, which don t play nice with water. In addition, metal blocks RFID signals, and the tags are also fickle when it comes to who and where they will reveal themselves. (Example: The RFID tag in a passport is intended to be read by a scanner less than an inch away, but it s possible to pull the data off of an unshielded tag several feet away with the right equipment.) Finally, because RFID tags aren t very smart, they don t care who s asking for their information, and whether that person is authorized to receive it or not.
RuBee tags have an operational range of 10 50 feet, and their range can be set very precisely. If a RuBee tag is configured for a range of 15 feet, then at 15 feet plus one inch it remains passive, whether the sensor interrogating it is authorized or not. The information on the RuBee tags is encrypted in several different ways, as are the responses of the tags themselves. Even in range of a transmitter intended to ping that tag, it remains silent unless the interrogation protocols match.
And RuBee tags work through steel, water or most any other common material that insulates RFID. Working through water makes it difficult to conceal RuBee tags with your body, so you can use the tags in medical implants deeper than just below the skin. You can also place them inside firearms or other items made of ferrous metal.
Visible Assets is presently exploring RuBee applications as controls on firearms and similar gear, but the applications for property rooms are easy to visualize. Presently, the idea is that personnel authorized to remove equipment from the arms locker will have RuBee tags on their ID cards or some other item carried all of the time. When they pick up their weapon(s) and pass trough the door, a reader logs the presence of the tags on the operator and the equipment and records everything going out with that individual. The process repeats in reverse when the operator returns at the end of their watch.
To conduct an inventory, a user can scan an entire rack of rifles and/or handguns in one pass. Whether the weapons are placed in their appropriate slots or not, the report will indicate which items are there and which are not. All of this information is transmittable to a database that can reflect the up-to-the-minute status of every tagged item.
The system could even be expanded to monitor the threshold of the police motor pool. When a vehicle passes through the scanner, it would record the vehicle number, the IDs of the occupants and all of the tagged equipment carried by them or the vehicle.
Most importantly, only the people who are authorized to have this information can get it. If the RuBee tags are interrogated by someone or something that doesn t know the secret handshake, they play possum.
Just about any safeguarding technology can be defeated by someone sufficiently skilled and determined, but products like the ones described here make that interloper s job more difficult, and may be sufficient to deter someone from trying to beat the system, even if that reason is that it s just too much trouble.