Police Management of Property and Exhibits

Tabled: 5 September 2018

Audit overview

Property and exhibit management is integral to policing and critical to successful prosecutions. While managing property and exhibits is primarily a clerical function, mismanagement of property and exhibits can pose risks to the administration of justice and can impact the community's perception of police integrity.

An exhibit is any property in police possession that may be tendered in court as evidence.

Police collect a vast range of property in the course of their duties, encompassing all lost and found, created, surrendered and seized property that comes into their possession. Victoria Police records show approximately 470 000 items in police possession as at June 2018, stored at more than 200 locations, including police stations, central storage locations, Crime Command and the Victoria Police Forensic Services Centre.

Victoria Police uses its Property and Laboratory Management (PaLM) system to document the description and life cycle of property. This includes when the property comes into police possession, any movements and forensic analysis conducted, and the nature and circumstances surrounding its disposal.

Victoria Police has recently completed an improvement project, the Property and Exhibit Management Reform Program (PEMRP). The PEMRP aimed to improve accountability and governance, integrate legislation, create process efficiencies and reduce risks associated with property management.

In this audit, we examined whether Victoria Police stores and secures property and exhibits effectively and efficiently. In doing so, we considered whether Victoria Police has a control framework for the management of property and exhibits that supports high performance by clearly articulating expectations and internal accountabilities and which enables effective organisational oversight of the function. We also examined whether Victoria Police stores and secures property in a way that supports frontline staff, reduces associated risks such as occupational health and safety (OHS) risks and maintains evidentiary value, and how improvement projects for property management are prioritised and sustained.

Conclusion

Victoria Police holds on to more property than necessary. It cannot be confident that property is kept to a minimum based on its evidentiary value; that its handling and storage is safe and secure; or that its disposal is timely.

This puts strain on staff workloads and storage facilities, and exacerbates problems associated with security and disposal. The volume of property and exhibits, when combined with ineffective systems and processes used to manage them, results in additional avoidable costs for storage and administration and, at times, keeps police members away from their primary operational duties.

The root cause of this inefficiency is a weak control framework for the property management function. While most individual property officers and police members show a genuine commitment to the safe and appropriate handling and management of property at a worksite level, inconsistent and inefficient organisational arrangements do not ensure a consistently high-performing property management function.

While we did not find any evidence that these issues are producing adverse outcomes in investigative or judicial proceedings, inefficient property practices and procedures across Victoria Police are costing more than they should.

Victoria Police's recent concerted effort to implement improvement projects has addressed some important issues, but significant gaps remain. The appointment of the Operational Infrastructure Department as the new property and exhibits capability owner is an important first step to providing strategic leadership and active oversight for this diverse function. However, much work still needs to be completed to ensure that Victoria Police can maintain the momentum of the recent reform initiatives and that the role of the capability owner encompasses all essential aspects of property and exhibits management.

Findings

Property management control framework

Historically, Victoria Police has not had a single point of accountability to provide strategic direction and oversight of this important function. This has resulted in practices and procedures that are inconsistent across the organisation, and administrative inefficiencies:

  • Training and support services are not consistent or always available, leading to inconsistencies in practices.
  • The property management IT system is not fit for purpose and impedes, rather than facilitates, efficient property management.
  • Reporting and oversight arrangements are ineffective and do not provide an organisational view of all property holdings.
  • While there are systems to identify and manage individual property-related OHS risks and associated claims, Victoria Police does not know the volume and extent of these risks or property-related OHS claims across the organisation.

Victoria Police recently established a single organisational owner for the property and exhibit management function, with the Operational Infrastructure Department taking responsibility from 1 July 2018. However, Victoria Police has yet to clearly define the management and oversight responsibilities of this role.

The new property capability owner will need to address all essential aspects of the property management function and receive funding and resources to allow this to happen. While day-to-day property and exhibit management remains at the station or business unit level and divisions/regions remain accountable for managing property under their control, an effective capability owner will need to:

  • monitor coordinated reporting from the divisional and regional/department level to oversee compliance and to identify trends and strategically manage the property management function
  • develop and update policies and procedures
  • develop and disseminate comprehensive training
  • enforce stocktake audit requirements and monitor the outcomes
  • monitor organisational risks, such as OHS risks
  • manage the property management system, ensuring it is fit for purpose and upholds data integrity
  • prioritise and oversee improvement projects.
Policies, procedures and training

The property officer is responsible for day-to-day property functions, including lodging received property, updating databases, and organising disposal once approved.

The informant is the investigating police member. The informant is responsible for the property he or she has collected.

The officer in charge of each work unit is responsible for managing their members' property. For example, ensuring property collected is only that required for evidentiary purposes and that property is disposed within timelines.

Victoria Police does not have comprehensive policies and guidelines to underpin and support property management. The Victoria Police Manual (VPM) and local Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) do not provide comprehensive advice and guidance for the day-to-day management of this function. There are no other formal guidance documents or a central contact within Victoria Police for staff to seek clarification or support.

This, combined with a lack of formal property management training, has meant that property officers and police members have mainly relied on informal training opportunities. This has resulted in inconsistent practices for property management and some noncompliance with policy requirements. For example, there are large variations in the way property is recorded within PaLM that can make it difficult to analyse data. Also, a property officer from one of the eight stations we visited was not aware of the property store audit requirements, despite being in the role for over two years. Lack of auditing increases the risk that property may go missing or be recorded incorrectly.

Victoria Police released a new e-learning training course on property management in January 2018. The training provides a good foundation but does not currently address all training and skill gaps. To provide support for all police ranks and staff roles, the training requires additional modules, such as those for informants or the officers in charge, however resources and funding have not been committed to develop these.

Property management system

The PaLM IT system has many usability and functionality issues and does not support the business needs of Victoria Police. These issues create considerable additional work, which could be better spent on operational policing or on other aspects of managing property. Overall, the system's reputation among police members and property officers is not good, and it is seen as a barrier to discharging their property management obligations rather than an aid.

PaLM is slow, with lengthy, convoluted and non-intuitive processes for recording property. There are also limited data quality controls, such as mandatory fields, which would help drive consistency of recording.

Further, the reporting function is not fit for purpose and does not allow police to generate simple monitoring reports. However, of greater concern is that it does not produce reliable compliance reporting.

Victoria Police is in the process of developing a PaLM dashboard that will produce more valuable and effective business reports, with the aim of:

  • streamlining property destructions by holding stations and informants to account
  • providing more accurate compliance indicators.

This is a big step forward. However, as the data for the dashboard will be pulled from PaLM, underlying issues with the integrity of the data are still likely to result in inaccurate reporting.

Organisational monitoring and reporting

Property management compliance reports from PaLM do not provide an accurate view of compliance. This leads to several issues, including a lack of understanding of the actual performance of the property management function at a station level. It also means officers in charge need to manually review every reported compliance issue each month, which is time consuming and competes with operational policing demands.

There is a strong focus on compliance at a station level, however this can be counterproductive as the compliance reports do not provide valuable information. Compliance is displayed using a traffic light system and police members advised us that management 'doesn't want to see red', which indicates noncompliance. This has led to staff manipulating the gauges to correct the PaLM data to show greater compliance. However, a 'green' rating on the compliance report may provide false comfort if the compliance model itself is not accurate.

A brief of evidence (brief) is a compilation of all documents relevant to the prosecution of a case.

Briefs are assigned a number, the brief book number, which should be linked to the PaLM record for property items that have evidentiary value in that case.

The focus on achieving compliance, coupled with existing system limitations in how property can be recorded, has created conditions that prompt police members to use workarounds. For example, one noncompliance category is when items are in possession for three months or more without a brief book number. While there are legitimate instances where this can occur, such as when there has been no offender or suspect identified, PaLM does not have the ability to identify these items and take them off the noncompliance list. Therefore, some officers insert 'dummy' brief book numbers so that they are not inappropriately flagged as compliance issues. While members use this workaround because of frustration with the system, tolerating a culture where members may feel free to alter or inaccurately record details for a variety of reasons weakens the control framework. This is especially concerning for a law enforcement agency.

Above the station level, there are no clear lines of accountability and reporting through the divisional or regional levels to a central point within the organisation. This limits Victoria Police's ability to understand the performance of its property management function across the organisation and for it to identify any organisation-wide matters that it needs to improve.

Failure to effectively manage property exposes individuals to multiple OHS risks—for example, handling dangerous items or hazardous materials such as cannabis, other drugs or firearms and weapons. While Victoria Police has systems to identify and manage individual OHS risks and associated claims, it cannot readily identify the volume or trends of OHS claims specifically caused by activities related to property management . The lack of organisation-wide monitoring limits Victoria Police's ability to identify any common and systemic risks to staff and to act accordingly to mitigate them.

Victoria Police's practices for auditing property stores also vary, with most stations and storage locations not fulfilling the required four full audits a year. Our data analysis showed that four locations had not audited any of their property items in 2017, and a further 12 locations had only audited between 1 and 5 per cent of their items in 2017. There is no organisational oversight to hold work units to account for not following up audit issues or for not completing the required property store audits. This increases the risk that Victoria Police does not have an accurate record of property holdings and that inappropriate handling or treatment of property and exhibits is not detected.

Seizure, storage and disposal of property

Test of essentiality and use of secondary evidence

The test of essentiality means that items should be retained only if required for evidentiary purposes and if secondary evidence cannot be used.

Secondary evidence is a copy, replica or substitute for primary evidence. For example, a photocopy, photo or video recording.

The test of essentiality seeks to prevent police members from seizing unnecessary exhibits and to encourage the use of secondary evidence where possible. Robust application of the test of essentiality to property management will reduce property holdings and potentially minimise other risks, such as manual-handling injuries. However, completion of the test is not documented, meaning there is no way to know whether the test is consistently applied when seizing property.

Victoria Police is also not making best use of secondary evidence to achieve storage and process efficiencies. While there are serious constraints on the use of secondary evidence, incremental improvements are possible.

For example, police officers, particularly investigators, described a strong disposition to err on the side of collecting and retaining physical items, as it is hard for them to judge at the time of initial seizure whether items will be significant to a case. While this is understandable, it highlights the importance of periodic reviews of the evidentiary value of property.

Another constraint is that the failure to produce primary evidence or make it available to the defence could result in a miscarriage of justice. While secondary evidence can create efficiencies, agreement will need to be sought with the Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) and Victoria Police Prosecutions about when and how secondary evidence is used for exhibits relating to serious crimes. Nevertheless, there is opportunity to maximise the use of secondary evidence for low-risk property types, such as car registration plates.

Storage

Victoria Police must retain exhibits from unsolved serious crimes for a minimum of 50 years—but it does not know how many items in its possession are subject to this rule. This creates a risk that Victoria Police is not storing items correctly to maintain their evidentiary value and that it will not be able to strategically forecast capacity requirements for these items in the future.

We identified significant gaps in Victoria Police's handling and storage of all property types. Policies and procedures do not set clear standards to ensure that all items are stored safely and securely and protected from contamination or degradation. We observed risks to the integrity of property, such as high temperatures or leaking roofs, in some property stores.

Victoria Police is attempting to address gaps in its policies and processes by establishing storage requirements through several PEMRP projects and through updates to the VPM. These confirm some minimum standards for storage facilities and define 'serious unsolved crime'. However, significant gaps remain, such as not requiring the creation of secondary evidence for all items moved to long-term storage and not assessing locations against known risks that may impact property's evidentiary value.

Disposal

The efficient and timely disposal of property is the responsibility of the informant managing the property. However, time pressure and process inefficiencies often prevent informants from actively managing the property they have collected, resulting in disposal being delayed indefinitely or overlooked altogether.

For property and exhibits already in storage, there is no programmed review to reapply the test of essentiality—including property currently in possession related to long-term serious unsolved crimes. Therefore, Victoria Police cannot be confident that the number of property items is being kept to a minimum and that they are retained based on their evidentiary value.

In a recent and successful pilot approach, secondary evidence allowed Victoria Police to destroy over 40 000 cannabis plants weighing over 18 tonnes—which is more than six times what could be destroyed during a similar period using a traditional approach. In addition to creating storage efficiencies, this also significantly reduced OHS risks related to this property. The pilot approach was recently approved to become business as usual.

Transport and Logistics Centre

Victoria Police has developed a proposal for the construction of a Transport and Logistics Centre (TALC). TALC would be a fit-for-purpose central warehouse with access to facilities and technologies to improve the management of records, equipment and property. Victoria Police forecasts that TALC would return a surplus to the state, due to revenue from the sale of existing sites, and benefit the organisation through minimising the time police spend transporting property. The TALC proposal has not yet been funded, and Victoria Police's Operational Infrastructure Department does not currently have plans to implement the identified transport efficiencies outside of the TALC concept.

Recommendations

We recommend that Victoria Police:

1. define the expectations and responsibilities of a property capability owner to ensure that the property management function aligns with the strategic direction of the organisation, including:

  • monitoring coordinated reporting from the divisional and regional/department levels to oversee compliance, identify trends and strategically manage the property management function
  • developing and disseminating comprehensive training for police members and property officers and continuing to implement the community of practice for property officers
  • developing and updating policies and procedures
  • ensuring the integrity of data captured in PaLM
  • prioritising and overseeing improvement projects
  • ensuring adequate conditions for warehousing and infrastructure (see Part 2)

2. develop an end-to-end property management handbook (see Section 2.2)

3. encourage all existing and new staff with operational or administrative property responsibilities to undertake the property management e-learning training (see Section 2.3)

4. improve or replace the current property management IT system so that it is fit for purpose in supporting frontline staff and reporting requirements (see Sections 2.4 and 2.5)

5. implement a standardised stocktake audit schedule that is based on the level of assurance that Victoria Police requires for effective property management and:

  • ensures baseline safety and OHS requirements are met
  • ensures the evidentiary value of property and exhibits is maintained
  • ensures risks associated with ageing infrastructure are identified and addressed
  • is adequately supported with audit tools and technology
  • improves assurance processes through the enforcement and monitoring of stocktake audit outcomes (see Sections 2.6 and 3.3)

6. consult with Victoria Police Prosecutions, the Victoria Police Forensic Services Centre and the Office of Public Prosecutions to identify and assess opportunities to increase the use of secondary evidence (see Section 3.2)

7. assess how much property related to unsolved serious crimes is currently in police possession and forecast future storage capacity and packaging needs for all items that fall under the 50-year retention rule (see Section 3.3)

8. consider alternative methods to implement the potential efficiencies for property transportation, identified through the TALC proposal (see Section 3.5).

Responses to recommendations

We have consulted with Victoria Police throughout the audit and we considered its views when reaching our audit conclusions. As required by section 16(3) of the Audit Act 1994, we gave a draft copy of this report to Victoria Police and asked for its submissions or comments. We also provided a copy of the report to the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

The following is a summary of Victoria Police's response. The full response is included in Appendix A.

Victoria Police accepted seven recommendations in full, noting they have resourcing and investment implications, and one recommendation in principle. Victoria Police has provided an action plan that addresses all recommendations.

In its response, Victoria Police noted that while some processes can be improved, they have longstanding policies and guidelines that have supported numerous investigations and judicial proceedings.

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