Tucked away in a small room in the Davenport Police Department is one of the agency’s most valuable tools for solving shootings in the city and the Quad-Cities.
The Integrated Ballistic Identification System, installed in late June, allows trained crime scene technicians to take cartridge cases and cartridges test fired from seized guns and try to connect them to other crime scenes locally, regionally or nationally.
The database, the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN, is a forensic ballistics evidence tracker managed by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Davenport has on average 160 to 180 shooting incidents each year. On average, they seize about 280 firearms.
Davenport Police Maj. Jeff Bladel said the system is a long time coming.
“This technology not only connects us here, it strengthens those partnerships that we have as far as in information intelligence and then working with the prosecutors for prosecution,” he said. "Every effort we're putting forward is to curb gun violence and make our community safe, and NIBIN is huge."
Late last year, city officials set aside $400,000 to invest in the technology, a decision that received unanimous approval in City Hall.
Davenport and Des Moines are the only police departments in Iowa to have it.
What is it?
NIBIN, operating since the 1990s, provides ballistics image correlation relation services to more than 45 sites nationwide, according to the ATF’s website.
By connecting to the center, officers and technicians can spend time on other aspects of the investigation, which, ATF says, improves the leads investigators get when working on violent gun crime.
In the past, Davenport sent cartridge cases to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Criminalistic Laboratory. The lab analyzed the evidence and entered it into NIBIN to see if it generated any investigative leads. But as the only lab in the state, the turnaround time for non-homicide cases was six to eight months.
“Our shots-fired calls kept getting pushed back and pushed back,” Jessica Heising, Davenport’s identification bureau manager, said. “Then all of a sudden, nine months later, we get the information. I mean, it’s cool to know, but it’s not exactly useful nine months later.”
With its own technology, Davenport technicians can get information into the network much quicker, she said.
“We're able to have a really impressive turnaround time and get that valuable information into the hands of investigators sooner,” she said.
Two civilian crime scene unit technicians were trained at the National Correlation and Training Center in Huntsville, Alabama in June. Two more trained in August.
They started entering evidence into the system in June, and the department was connected to the correlation center in August.
Two of the four technicians are also trained to run the analysis that the correlation center does, Heising said.
How does it work?
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The first step is the “acquisition process,” when a technician examines a cartridge case under a microscope. They look at the head stamp of the casing and specific identifying features, such as firing pin impression.
The case is place in the IBIS machine, which takes a series of photographs and creates a digital 3D image.
“They’re able to actually turn it, rotate it and move it around and pick what kind of lighting they want to view it with,” Heising said. “There’s all different kinds of ways to view it so that they can make certain features pop out more or whatever's more agreeable to their own eye. Every individual is different.”
The technician will mark identifying features before sending it to the correlation center for comparison.
The whole process takes 20 to 30 minutes, which frees up the technicians to get back on the street or in the lab processing evidence.
“It's really very time effective for us where we can really use our resources and maximize them,” Heising said.
Some weapons are test fired by the department’s gun unit before a technician enters it into NIBIN.
“We’re linking shots fired incidents with shots fired incidents,” Bladel said. “We’re also linking shots fired incidents with guns. And, if we have the opportunity to apprehend someone with a firearm on them, we will have the ability to kind of track that firearm.”
The National Correlation and Training Center is usually able to complete a review within 48 hours.
Bladel said results have been returned in as little as one hour.
Heising estimated that technicians so far have submitted about 50 cases so far.
The department plans to work through the back log of cases returned from the state crime lab, Heising said, but the priority is recent cases.
Bladel said the department is already seeing results. In one instance, one cartridge was tied to four of five different shots fired incidents.
“In some of the shootings and in shots fired cases, it’s very retaliatory and it’s back and forth and back and forth, and the sooner we can catch those patterns, the sooner we can potentially identify the groups that are in the feud and then jump on that a lot quicker,” he said.
“It just creates this spider's web of information,” Heising said. “Guns are transient things. It’ll travel in the same group of people, so you’re able to link these scenes, and doing that in real time is much more beneficial doing that in backlog time."
She hopes the shorter turnaround time will, in the long run, curb the number of cases the department handles.
Later this month, Rock Island police will send two people to the Alabama training center. Once back, they'll have an in-house training with Davenport Police, Bladel said.
The goal will then be to “trickle” in the other police agencies in Scott and Rock Island counties, he said.
"We very much want this to be a collaborative effort because that's the only way we're ever really going to get anything accomplished with so much traffic that goes back and forth across the river,” Heising said. “Hitting this as a team and being on a unified front is the best way to get a handle on it.”