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How We Fix This

Denver Builds Out Pioneering Gun Crime Investigation Unit

The city that set the bar for sharing ballistic intel is pushing its successful approach regionwide.

Denver gun crime investigators have expanded upon an already pioneering crime-fighting approach by creating a law enforcement supergroup made up of 11 agencies that will work together to solve more shootings.

Formed in January, the Regional Anti Violence Enforcement Network (RAVEN) includes federal agents, police officers from cities and counties across the area and prosecutors, among others, who will share information and evidence to solve crimes that cross geographic boundaries.

Looking at gun crimes across a region allows investigators to understand and prosecute criminal networks and trafficking patterns, not just individual crimes, said Pete Gagliardi, a former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives official who consults with police departments on how they use forensic technology. “Criminals move, and as they move across county, city, state lines, the evidence of their crimes gets left behind in all these jurisdictions,” he said.

RAVEN is an expanded version of Denver’s Crime Gun Intelligence Center, a 2012 partnership between the city’s ATF field office and Denver Police to investigate gun crimes across the region. When that group was formed, its approach was considered  truly innovative, largely because of its efforts to generate and share investigative leads using the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN), the ATF’s central ballistics database. Before that, most police departments treated shootings as isolated incidents. Rarely did they step back to look at the bigger picture — how the crime they were investigating might connect to other crimes across the region.

Denver’s Crime Gun Intelligence Center was so successful that the model, funded in part by Bureau of Justice Assistance grants, has since spread to 25 regions across the country.

The Denver center now makes an arrest in 70 percent of the cases in which it ran evidence through NIBIN — far above the national average for either homicides (about 46 percent) or nonfatal shootings (about 30 percent).

“They’re the model upon which many other regions based their operations,” said Ron Nichols, who once ran NIBIN for the ATF and now works as a private ballistics consultant.

RAVEN, like the Crime Gun Intelligence Centers, will use NIBIN to connect shootings in which the same gun was used. From there, investigators will share leads with police in nearby areas, and use evidence like surveillance videos, license plates, and cell phone data to solve crimes.

Jeff Russell, who supervises RAVEN for the ATF, said the need for police across the region to cooperate is all the more crucial because a rising cost of living in central Denver, combined with a growing population, has pushed gun crime into many of the city’s suburbs. He said it’s fairly common for police to connect shootings that are 60 or 70 miles apart, in different jurisdictions.

“We realized that NIBIN opened up a plethora of investigative avenues for us,” said Russell. “We started putting pieces together like a jigsaw.”

RAVEN includes 42 staff members, most of whom are stationed in a central office where they can meet regularly and coordinate investigations, said Joe Montoya, who heads the investigations division for the Denver Police.

Montoya said his department, which has a robust crime lab, encourages police from neighboring jurisdictions to bring their shell casings in for analysis. “We’re processing these casings for anyone who wants to bring them down to us,” he said.

Network officials encourage police to collect shell casings any time they get a report that shots have been fired, not just when someone has been hurt, Russell said. “We try not to dismiss an unlawful discharge as just good old boys getting together and shooting at a stop sign,” he added. “We think of it as an attempted murderer who just missed.”

In investigating shootings in which no one was hurt, the hope is that the shooter might be identified before someone gets hurt or killed. The more casings that are entered into NIBIN, the higher the chances that evidence from one of the shootings — say, surveillance video that identifies a shooter in one case — will lead to an arrest in a different case that involved the same gun. The group also shares information with prosecutors, who are able to better identify the most dangerous shooters and their criminal networks.

Gagliardi, the former ATF official and police consultant, said he expects to see other regions following Denver’s lead. “This is a recipe game plan that can be replicated everywhere where there’s gun violence,” he said.