Accurate Record-Keeping Drives Accountability in Law Enforcement

I have conducted numerous investigations during my law enforcement career that involved serious injury and death. The investigation that I recall most vividly involved a propane gas explosion which resulted in the death of two people-- that one stayed with me for a long time. Some of these investigations resulted in criminal charges and some, though serious, weren’t crimes but rather unfortunate accidents. Most of these investigations also resulted in civil suits in which compensatory, and sometimes punitive, damages were awarded.

A good investigator follows the evidence and doesn’t try to prove anything specific. Instead, he or she allows the facts to reveal things like causation, intent, and if specific elements of the law were violated. In each of these investigations--whether a motor vehicle accident, a gas explosion, or some other catastrophe resulting in serious injury or death-- records play an important role. Records are obtained either voluntarily or through court orders, analyzed and interpreted, and sometimes later introduced as evidence in either a civil or criminal trial. A critical component of investigations, records can also be a strong factor in determining culpability. Records of the residential gas line installation, the service calls documenting the gas line issues, and the actions taken by the gas company to remedy the problem were all evidentiary at the wrongful death civil trial involving the propane gas explosion I mentioned above.

Accurate record keeping is a cornerstone of property management, as each record contains a significant amount of information about a specific asset- including how it was procured, maintained, used and ultimately disposed. There are many stakeholders involved in managing property, each with their own specific interests regarding a particular asset. Procurement and budgeting personnel, for example, are concerned with how and where the procurement was executed. Did the procurement use government funds and/or grants, or was there a forfeiture or seizure order in place for the asset? If the asset was obtained pursuant to a grant or court order are the terms of its use in compliance with regulations?

Property managers are charged with the responsibility of ensuring the integrity of a property management program. Maintaining accurate property records, a key component of a successful property management program, provides asset users confidence that assets will perform as expected, when needed. Each of these stakeholders depends on the records associated with a specific asset to satisfy their objectives and ultimately meet organizational mission responsibilities. The user of a pistol must have a degree of certainty that the firearm will fire, and perform correctly, when the trigger is pressed. Inspection and maintenance records completed by a factory-trained armorer help to provide the user with this certainty.

A property record should include all pertinent asset information in one central location. While this information could reside in something as simple as a file jacket in a filing cabinet, a web-enabled asset management system is a more comprehensive and reliable solution. All stakeholders that have a need for information regarding a specific asset should have access to its property record. In addition, agencies should have procedures in place outlining property record accessibility. The need for access restrictions is important because the integrity of the record system requires that records are only accessible to those with a necessity to see them. In larger agencies a specific person might hold this responsibility, but in smaller agencies accessing property records might be something as simple as completing a sign-in/sign out sheet when a record is removed from filing.

Sensitive assets are those assets that, if not maintained and managed properly, could compromise mission and/or operational security or cause a lack of confidence in an agency. Sensitive assets require an added level of protection regarding record-keeping and access to sensitive records should be specially designated by the agency head. Sensitive asset records should be clearly identified as such and access granted only to those with a specific need to see them at the time they are seeing them. Agency-identified sensitive asset records and the need to have access to them is analogous to the need to know requirement for classified material. A property professional may need to see portions of a record for inventory purposes but may not need to know additional details such as an asset’s present deployment status.

Records are the documents that tell us all there is to know about a particular asset. They should be accurate and available to those that have a legitimate need to see them. Records should be retained in accordance with applicable standards outlined by the Government Services Administration (GSA), states, and/or local governments. At a minimum, an asset record should be retained while the asset is in the custody of the agency. Sensitive asset records should be retained long after the property is no longer in the agency’s possession, possibly forever.

Repeatedly, history has shown us that records (or the lack of them) can implicate civil or criminal wrongs. They can establish or disprove elements of malfeasance, misfeasance, and non-feasance. However, a concern for personal or vicarious civil liability, or even criminal prosecution, should not be our primary concern for keeping accurate records. The importance of record keeping is much greater than simply protection from civil liability or criminal culpability. Our primary concern for accurate record keeping should be to ensure our assets are readily available and in optimal condition for use by operational personnel. Agency heads must do everything that they reasonably can to ensure this, and accurate record keeping aides them in this certainty.

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