It’s a cliché of the television police procedural — gumshoes stalking a crime scene, picking up cartridges with plastic gloves and tweezers, looking for evidence that will send them on the chase for the shooter. But for real investigators, bagging and sealing bullets is just the beginning of ballistics study. Since 1999, local law enforcement offices have had access to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN), which uses 3-D imaging software to look for matches between markings on spent cartridges and the gun from which they were fired.
Now, a new initiative seeks to make ballistic reports worth their weight in brass not just when it comes to solving individual crimes but also reducing overall urban gun violence. Crime Gun Intelligence Centers, which got their start in Denver, Colorado, in 2013, allow different agencies and jurisdictions to share information on gun crimes, establishing leads in cases when weapons show up in multiple places. They also point out patterns and prioritize investigations.
Greg LaBerge, the director of the Denver Police Department’s Forensics and Evidence Division, worked with former ATF Special Agent John Risenhoover to develop the program. “The entire discussion of case triage — pulling a package of cases together — is new,” LaBerge tells The Trace. Before, he says, the role of his ballistics lab was more passive: “We’d send out the matches and detectives would decide whether or not to follow up.” The Crime Gun Intelligence Center puts science in the driver’s seat, and in the process, can preempt political pressures that drive police to downplay nonfatal shootings.
Since first testing the program with the Denver Police Department, the ATF has established similar intel centers in Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, and other cities. Here’s how they work.
Painting a complete picture of gun-involved crime
A 2014 study of NIBIN funded by the National Institute of Justice found that the use and effectiveness of ballistics imaging varied widely from one jurisdiction to the next. Ballistics documents often lacked the context necessary to make them useful, and “hit reports” — matches indicating a bullet was shot from a gun used in another crime — “were rarely used strategically to assist in the identification, investigation, and prosecution of criminal groups.”
The Intelligence Centers were conceived as a way of drawing the connections between cases that ballistics reports otherwise lack. They coordinate information on parole records, past prosecutions, and other police reports to create a comprehensive picture of which guns are used in which crimes. Participating police forces supply the network with casings and bullets recovered from all crime scenes; the Intelligence Center then generates a report within 72 hours tying the gun to any other cases or suspects. Cases that may appear to have only piecemeal evidence to go on — a getaway car here, a description there — can coalesce into something more substantial for detectives to act on when considered together.
The need for a new police mindset
In order for this forensic coordination to bring down the overall gun violence rate, a local police department must make a second commitment: It has to allocate significant resources to gun crimes often taken less seriously than murders. In Risenhoover’s experience, the only reason a shooting doesn’t result in a homicide is often the shooter’s aim; stopping the shooter from trying to kill again requires using ballistic evidence from an unsuccessful attack. But based on more than two decades in law enforcement, he’s also aware that anything short of a homicide will usually command far less attention from investigators. “A cop hears: ‘Joe shot at Bill and missed.’ If it’s not solved by the next day, they forget about it,” he says. It’s a mindset that he argues has to evolve.
Another mindset that might have to change is the pressure that police departments feel from above to de-emphasize everyday gunfire. Though he cannot cite specifics, Risenhoover believes political incentives drive police to report nonfatal shootings as lesser charges, since accurate reporting could suggest serious crime is rising and endanger the jobs of elected officials and the police commissioners they appoint. “If someone does a drive-by, shoots up a house, but doesn’t hit anyone — that’s not attempted murder, that’s unlawful discharge of a firearm!” Risenhoover says.
Making even the most minor gun crimes matter
It’s a pattern familiar to fans of The Wire — “juking the stats, making robberies into larcenies” — and because a missed shot does little damage, Risenhoover claims gun crimes are a ripe candidate for such misdirection. But sometimes, someone who has been unlawfully discharging at rivals all across town hits his target and commits a homicide — and a dead body can’t be reclassified. Risenhoover would have cops seriously investigate victimless shootings to get repeat offenders — those whom Risenhoover and other police believe drive a disproportionate share of urban violence — off the street before they cause injuries or take lives. Crime Gun Intelligence Centers are designed to do just that. In Risenhoover’s words, if police forces make the most of these centers, “It’s the closest thing you’ll get to Minority Report.”
LaBerge touted arrests of Denver suspects identified by the program as evidence of that Intelligence Center’s success. As of late last year, he says the system resulted in the arrest of 25 repeat shooters connected to 40 incidents. A study by the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs on the program should be out next year, shedding more light on its effectiveness.
[Photo: Flickr user Hiren Jakison]