ATF gun tracing van yields leads in city violence

Posted at 12:16 PM, Jul 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-13 23:29:17-04

If every crime gun does indeed have a story then for about three weeks in May, Baltimore had a mobile library.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms calls it their National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) van, a vehicle packed with gun tracing computers and technology.

The ATF along with city leaders made quite the news event out of its test run here in Baltimore complete with a red carpet, podium and a tour for local media.

But in reality, the van never went anywhere, it was parked at headquarters for weeks while detectives and officers came to it.

WMAR was the only station to have access to the van in action as the power of the ATF gun trace technology was applied in real time to shootings and homicides in the city.

May, being what it was here in Baltimore with 39 shootings and 38 murders, it didn't take long for shell casings and handguns to show up.

NIBIN techs catalogued 55 firearms seized by police over the three weeks and then analyzed the shell casings looking for a match.

It also works for shell casings recovered at scene and 156 of those were submitted to this van.

A group of four casings recovered from a homicide on the day we were granted access grabbed the attention of the ATF Special Agent in Charge Danny Board.

"That is absolutely amazing," Board said as he was watching his techs make a match.

The special agent in charge watched them link the unique imprint the gun made on those casings to at least three other recent shootings in the city.

They were crimes that before, seemed random and unconnected to police.

"This stops that,” Board said, “because we are able to link multiple shootings together with this technology with this type of response just like they are doing behind us and we are able to get it to the police department who can actually do something about it."

In all, Commissioner Kevin Davis' detectives received 22 actionable leads from the ATF van.

"It did work,” Davis said. “I am impressed. The speed of the hits is the thing that most impresses me."

Some of the leads were developed quickly enough to affect real time investigations.

"We can know within an hour or two and while we are still at the crime scene, while we still have a suspect or a witness or a person of interest in the box with detectives, in an interview room...we are now able to confront people with matters of evidence and facts that they have to explain to us," Davis said.

And that happened in at least one case.

A Northwest District homicide from earlier in the year had grown cold until, on a seemingly unrelated search warrant, officers recovered a gun that was tested and processed by the van in May.

Within hours, ATF determined that gun matched the early spring homicide, a case the new Baltimore homicide commander said had been a dead end.

"So instantly it gives us a direction,” said Major Chris Jones. “Guns move around a lot in this town, so by itself it doesn't convict someone but it gives you a definite focus."

Focus is now being used to develop a case where police had little but a body to go on but now, detectives say the gun revealed its story, and that story has legs.

"I would say that this particular NIBIN hit we are talking about identified who our players are in this circle of violence. So now we know who the players are, so now it is just a matter of putting the other pieces of the puzzle into their places."

Still it may take some time to flesh out these leads but Commissioner Davis says the NIBIN van already proved invaluable in Baltimore and is already angling for its return, hoping the speed of the technology can get police ahead of the violence.

"[I am] Probably gonna take the wheels off of it and put one of those parking boots on it so it doesn’t go anywhere, but we need that type of technology in Baltimore. We have to solve violent crimes faster," Davis said.

Since it left Baltimore, the NIBIN van has been in Chicago.

ATF says it is manufacturing another van and it too will debut here in Baltimore later this summer.

In total here in Baltimore, 41 handguns, 11 rifles and three shotguns were submitted along with 156 shell casings. Techs processed 66 different cases resulting in 22 leads for city police.

The cases came in from all over the city. 12 cases came in from the Western District, 11 Northern, 10 from Southern, 8 in each of the Northeastern, Northwestern and Southwestern Districts. Four cases were brought in from the Central, three from Eastern and two from the Southeastern District.

According to the ATF, 9 mm and .40 caliber weapons accounted for more than half the handguns seized and tested in the van. Those caliber casings also accounted for the majority of shell casings tested by ATF over the same time period.