Viewers of TV crime shows are familiar with plots that involve police investigators solving gun crimes with high-tech ballistics tests.
But while these tests are a popular with Hollywood script writers, the real life technology has not always been a favorite of police departments in the Puget Sound region.
A 2013 KING 5 Investigation revealed that many Washington State police departments submitted only a small percentage of the guns seized in their work for ballistics tests.
Three years later, it’s a very different story, thanks to a renewed push from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab and Seattle Police.
“My goal was to make it better than what it had been in the past. It had been underutilized before in the past by all law enforcement from federal, state and local levels,” said Special Agent Douglas Dawson, who heads the ATF office in Seattle.
For the two and half years that he’s been in charge, Dawson has ramped up use of the Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS). He said his office has charted a six fold increase in the past few years in the number of ballistics “hits” that IBIS has detected in Seattle-area gun cases.
IBIS stores and analyzes images of shell casings – the brass casing that is left behind when a bullet is fired from a gun. Each gun makes unique tool marks on the casing. IBIS can find matches among millions of shell casings from crime guns across the country – and link together cases where there was no known connection.
When cases are linked, investigators gain a wealth of new information that can lead to a break.
Dawson says there used to be 25 or 30 IBIS hits a year in Seattle.
“Last year we were up to about 180 – I think 179 was the official record,” said Dawson.
Dawson said one reason police departments don’t use IBIS is because it can often be time consuming for them to test fire all the guns they seize, and then hand deliver the shell casings to the crime lab.
Dawson urges departments to test all guns and casings they come across, because investigators never know when one was used in another crime. The ATF now offers its personnel to help with firearms testing.
The State Patrol crime lab in Seattle addressed another complaint that detectives have had about IBIS. Lab techs are trying to give detectives speedier results so that they get useful information from ballistics tests in days – not weeks or months.
“Ideally, within 72 hours or less is when we have that prime window,” said IBIS technician Jennifer Tardiff of WSP’s Seattle crime lab.
By streamlining the process and producing results, Dawson hopes that police agencies submit more shell casings – and solve more cases big and small.
Last year, Byron Vierling spied a handgun stashed in the seat in the back of the Metro bus he was riding.
“The gun was pointed towards me with the stock up in the air,” Vierling told KING 5. “I was very nervous,” he said.
Vierling called Seattle police to report the firearm.
IBIS determined that shell cases retrieved when the gun was test-fired matched shell casings from a “shots fired” call in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood.
Police had questioned a woman who boarded the bus two days before Vierling rode it. The woman was seen walking away from a man who had fired shots in the air.
However, when police questioned her on the bus they could not find and gun – or any evidence that she was connected to the shots fired call.
When IBIS linked the two cases, police reviewed Metro bus video that appeared to show the woman reaching down behind a seat to hide something.
“It looks like she’s putting the gun right where I found it,” Vierling said when KING 5 showed him the video.
When confronted with the video a month after Vierling found the gun, the woman confessed to police that she’s stashed it on the bus to help out the friend who fired it.
After the woman’s confession, that friend — Sean Summers, a felon who was not allowed to have a gun — pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm.
Dawson credited Seattle police officers who submitted the shell casings from the shots fired call and the casings from the gun on the bus.
“Had that gun been taken into custody two years ago it may have sat in an evidence vault on a shelf and never been tested,” said Dawson.
Of course, IBIS can solve the most serious crimes as well.
When one-year-old Malajha Grant was killed in a drive by shooting in Kent last year, police and the ATF submitted shell casings they found at the scene to the WSP crime lab in Seattle.
In 24 hours, IBIS spit out a lead that led to the arrest of a suspect.
The shell casings matched those found at a shooting 24 hours earlier in Seattle that was recorded on video.
“We were able to obtain a video that had two people in it that had weapons and at least one of those weapons was used in our murder less than 24 hours later,” said Kent Police Chief Ken Thomas.
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