Detectives from 31 police agencies packed a seminar this week at the Washington Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien to learn how ballistics testing can reveal links between guns in their evidence lockers to crimes that may have been committed in their jurisdiction or across the country.
“Is the gun from your murder case hiding in the evidence vault of a neighboring police department?” firearms expert Pete Gagliardi asked the group of detectives and personnel from cities like Quincy, Mercer Island, Bellevue and Mountlake Terrace.
A KING 5 Investigation in October revealed that most police departments in Washington state wouldn’t know the answer to that question because they do not conduct what should be routine ballistics tests on their crime guns.
“We can get a lot more evidence, more evidence off of the shell casings than I was ever aware we can get,” said Det. Sgt. Mike Russell of the Yakima County Sheriff’s Dept. “I know at the sheriff’s office in Yakima, when I look at this, we are not sending nearly as much firearms evidence as we could to the lab to be looked at.”
The Washington State Patrol crime labs urge departments to test fire their crime guns and to send the spent shell casings to the lab for testing. The service is free of charge.
Those shell casings are digitally photographed and the images are placed into a national database of shell casing images. Each gun leaves a unique mark on a shell casing, and a match can link a shell casing to a previously unconnected or unsolved crime.
“We’ve got over 500 hits,” said WSP Crime Lab Manager Terry McAdam. “By hits I mean connections to crime” that an investigator would not have known about without the ballistics test.
The crime guns police have are taken off of suspects, recovered at crime scenes, obtained through search warrants, or turned in by the public.
Since KING 5’s original investigation, many police departments have taken steps to analyze those guns. Crime lab records show that submissions of shell casings since the report aired in October have increased by 30 percent when compared to the same time period last year.
While the picture is improving in Washington, nationwide it’s a different story.
Over the past two years, the federal government has been quietly recalling the ballistics computers it previously placed with crime labs around the country. Records KING 5 obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that computer terminals have been pulled out of police departments and crime labs in 60 cities since February 2011 -- a 25 percent reduction from the 235 ballistics computer terminals that were in place in early 2011.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says those computers were pulled because they weren’t being used very much and the agency needed to make budget cuts.
“It’s frustrating to watch, and I will say that part of the reason it isn’t working now is the way we set it up when I was there,” said Brad Buckles, who was the ATF director when the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) was created in 1999.
He said the ATF has not provided the leadership and support to convince local police agencies that the ballistics network can solve crimes.
“I think there are thousands, probably tens of thousands of firearms around the country in police department vaults that are never test-fired and are never entered into that system, and the person they picked the gun up off of saunters into the sunset,” said Buckles.
The ATF says it’s been trying to direct its ballistics resources to departments that are most willing to use them.
In Washington, the State Patrol deserves credit for bolstering usage of the ballistics network. The State Patrol’s Seattle crime lab has a new 3D terminal to connect to the NIBIN network. The 3D imaging allows more advanced analysis of shell casings.
ATF has been upgrading to 3D those agencies that make high numbers of shell casing submissions to the network.
Watch every segment from Chris Ingalls's Trail of the Gun series.