Cross Examination

Design for Evidence Storage Turns the Tables, Making Architects the Interrogators

Police Evidence Storage Facility, Henrico County, Virginia

“If I’m checking in evidence here, where do officers check out?”
“Is that in the same place?”
“Does it need to be two different locations?”
“How do you interface with the public and how do you keep that separate from officers?”
“Is there a separate secure lobby?”

For evidence storage technicians, the questions that arise from designing or redesigning with architects can be maddening to think about—especially from the trenches, says Jay Hall, evidence supervisor for Henrico Police Division’s evidence and logistics unit in Henrico County, Va. “You’re in it and doing it every day,” Hall says. And after 32 years with his division and 22 as an evidence supervisor, at some point you lose sight of the issues that plague a work environment or everyday practices, he adds.

At the same time, working with an architectural firm that specializes in evidence storage is an introspective trip through day-to-day cycles, Hall suggests—one that can not only lead to better facilities, but better and safer practices. When his department teamed up with Moseley Architects to create a new facility, “For me, there was a little bit of fear,” he admits, as he expected the collaboration to be stressful. Instead, he found it invigorating.

“It made me rethink some things,” he now says.

Architects who specialize in evidence storage carry an in-depth knowledge of the work that’s performed within those facilities. But the job also requires assuming the mindset of an evidence storage technician, says Josh Bennett, civic and justice operations manager for Moseley Architects.

“It’s about tailoring the design to their exact needs, while thinking things through visually,” Bennett says. In the end, the space should not only be secure, efficient and safe, but it should enhance all aspects of the job, he suggests. “It’s about saying, ‘Okay, they walk 15 steps over to this counter, and then take a piece of evidence, then go to this cabinet and pull a tag and a bag. But do they ever lose sight of evidence in the process?’” Bennett explains. In some cases, the answer might be, “‘Well, yeah, actually they put it down on the counter and then have to go around the corner and to this closet,’” he says, “In which case, you have to ask, ‘Could somebody come in by following behind them?’”

It’s this type of sleuthing that makes the difference between a typical evidence storage facility and one that’s custom tailored, based on how each department operates or, in some cases, how it should operate. When it comes to designing, there are givens—many of which are connected to local, state and federal requirements. But on top of those mandates, every law enforcement unit and evidence storage facility has its own unique circumstances that influence storage needs. For instance, Henrico’s facility tends to handle a high volume of flat-screen televisions, says David Craig, principal of Spacesaver Storage Solutions, the company that collaborated with Moseley Architects to design and manufacture the facility’s storage features. “This wasn’t something we had done before,” Craig says. “So, we had to go out and figure out the best means. It’s about protecting the evidence, and not damaging it or contaminating it, but also about creating an efficient way to store those items.”

For this reason, in order to arrive at the safest and most effective designs every project must start with a thorough case study and examination, Bennett says—one that places facility personnel around the table with architects and other professionals for some interrogation.

“We try to not make any assumptions when we walk into the room,” Bennett says. “My preference is to begin by saying, ‘From the moment an officer enters the building to the moment they hand off a piece of evidence to you, walk me through that process.’” From there, the process becomes a combination of investigative know-how and creative envisioning. And when it comes to evidence storage, there’s an added gravitas for the process, Bennett and other professionals say, as, “Storage is absolutely crucial to our justice system,” Craig points out. “There have been instances where they thought they had a conviction in the bag and then evidence is called into a dispute because they aren’t sure how it was handled and secured.”

When it comes to the basics, there are things that most architects will know by default, or can easily deduce, Craig says, such as the flow of evidence processing, and separation of drugs, guns and money. A little deeper into the field, though, comes the knowledge of such things as metal mesh throughout walls and into concrete slabs, and protective grates in air ducting systems. Beyond those basics lies an array of factors only envisioned by architects who specialize in evidence storage, Craig suggests: how to provide separate, secure access to mechanical rooms without compromising secure access points; how to provide increased exhaust ducting and fresh air intake for evidence areas without compromising other parts of the facility; locating and accessing IT server rooms within secure perimeters; secure and contained access to ADA toilet rooms for public use without compromising staff safety. In the end, there is no one-size-fits-all formula, nor can you feel your way through the process, he says.

“Some of the most important things have to be planned ahead in order to get them right,” Craig explains. “Architects have to not only understand why they’re important, but some features have to be built into walls and therefore considered early in the design process, before it’s too late.”

Along the way, there are also epiphanies based on the information gathered.

After gathering intel and returning to their drawing boards, Moseley Architects’ designers had an idea about the Henrico project—one involving hazardous materials. In the process of designing a check-in area, the firm asked, “What if we just put the whole space under negative pressure?” Bennett says. The team then added three independent task exhausters to its design that hang from the ceiling and can be pulled down to provide hyper ventilation when needed. With substances like the drug fentanyl, which can be fatal when inhaled, the measure could be lifesaving.

“We have these arms, so that if powder spills out onto the countertop or into the air, you flip these on and they provide suction,” Hall says. “That’s a new feature for us.”

And something he would not have thought of, he says.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” he points out. “No one knows what you do better than you do … but sitting on this committee and working with architects who truly specialize in these types of facilities … the perspective you gain from it and the outcomes can be amazing.” For this reason, “If your department gives you the opportunity to work with designers on a project like this, you owe it to yourself to do it,” he advises other evidence storage professionals. It’s those interrogations that lead to the best facilities and the best practices.