Solving violent crime can be difficult, especially when it comes to gun violence.
When no one’s talking to investigators, it can be even harder to solve those crimes. But technology is helping.
NIBIN, short for National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, is being used across the country. There are some limitations, but the evidence shows it’s working.
“Danville [Virginia] is your typical city. We have young children, fifth, sixth grade walking around with guns and they don’t find them in their homes. They go on the street, some older person gives it to them or sells it to them,” said Curtis Gore, a former educator as a principal in the Danville and Rockingham County school systems.
His son, Brandon Gore, was 29 years old when he lost his life to gun violence in Danville.
“Now that I’m retired, it is my mission to try to help other kids, to keep them from either killing someone or being killed,” Curtis Gore said. “My son turned out to be a better father than me.”
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Curtis Gore spends time with his two young grandchildren.
“I put her to bed other night, and I looked at her and I saw my son,” he said, fighting back tears.
Danville Police Chief Scott Booth said NIBIN gives investigators a starting point.
“Say you have a shooting incident over the weekend. You’ve got nothing. [It] occurred at 3 in the morning -- no video. Nobody’s talking to you. Maybe you don’t even have anybody struck by a car or a house that shot up, but you have casings,” Booth said. “Then you have another incident a few days later with a house or a car, or maybe even a person shot up -- you can connect those incidents through NIBIN and through ballistics imaging, so we have one person or two people that are out here shooting up areas of our community. Hopefully NIBIN will link not only those incidents, but will link you back to that person. So that gives you a big leg up in the investigation.”
We went into the Danville crime scene unit to see how they process shell casings on a daily basis. They are able to test fire guns inside the police department to get shell casings.
Steven Cannaday, a corporal with the Danville Police Department, processes casings and said, “It’s a night and day difference, the investigative leads that you’re able to use.”
Cannaday said recently they were able to link one case to four other incidents where a gun was fired. Without witnesses or a victim to talk with, this gives them leads.
He said this saves lives because they are able to connect cases in hours with this technology instead of months and use that information to help solve a case.
“We’re able to take action quickly and get violent criminals off the street faster with intelligence we might not have,” Cannaday said. “I’d say we’re cutting edge for the region, for sure. That’s huge when it comes to solving crime and in doing so in a timely manner. We’re just able to get results much quicker than just relying on other agencies or outside sources to get our information back to us.”
NIBIN can also make it easier for attorneys to prosecute gun violence.
Michael Newman, Commonwealths Attorney for the city of Danville, said it can be difficult to know what suspects were there during a shooting.
“It helps in reference to first, knowing how many guns and or individuals may be involved. For example, you may have 27 different 9 mm casings, but once you use NIBIN that helps in reference to telling you, well, it’s three different guns were used in the shooting,” Newman said. “Also, it brings some level to witnesses, maybe a little more comfort in actually cooperating with the police and telling them what they know. That it’s not just on their eyewitness testimony, it’s also some science behind the prosecution in reference to holding that person accountable.”
Danville has had about 400 hits in the NIBIN system since they started using it in 2018, and it’s leading to investigators being able to solve crimes faster. Overall, the ATF said there were more than 189,000 leads in fiscal year 2022.
“You’re holding people accountable, who have committed violent crimes or used those firearms to commit violent crimes,” said Chris Kavanaugh, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia. “It can also be the difference between having a case that doesn’t have enough evidence to be charged into one that can be charged and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. So NIBIN is such an important tool because it is an opportunity for state, local and federal law enforcement to try to be able to solve a violent crime that occurred in individual community. If it’s not being used, then there isn’t valuable lead or valuable evidence that’s being left on the table.”
There are about 280 agencies around the country using NIBIN who have the systems and that number is growing, according to Walter Dandridge, Chief of the Integrated Ballistics Identification Section at the ATF National Laboratory.
Dandridge showed us the NIBIN van when it came to Roanoke. The van travels to high crime areas around the country and has all the technology inside to process shell casings on scene.
“We have found that a small number of shooters are doing a relatively high number of shootings. That’s huge when it comes to an investigative lead,” said Dandridge, who added with the van they’re able to potentially show the same the same gun is being used in multiple shootings in a very specific area. “We are also seeing up the [I-95] corridor from Florida to New York firearms being used in crimes along the way. So with the NIBIN van, we can search a certain region or we can search the whole country.”
There are limitations to NIBIN and the intelligence gathered.
“It’s not perfect. I think any technology is imperfect. Sometimes you might not have a good hit. Sometimes you’re not able to gather those casings that can be used for submission,” Booth said. “At the end of the day, nothing beats community cooperation. Nothing beats a community that trusts their police department enough that they will come forward and provide valuable information early on an investigation, so we can bring that offender to justice.”
“It’s not the end-all. It won’t solve the case by itself. It’s a tool. It’s a piece of the puzzle. But it’s a very important piece of the puzzle that can really bring a case to his conclusion,” Newman said.
“NIBIN is as good as its input. There’s millions of pieces of evidence that are a part of the database. But if it’s not being used in the communities, if it’s not being used in the Western District of Virginia, then law enforcement agencies are not able to draw lines and make connections between violent crimes that are occurring in an individual community or across communities,” said Kavanaugh, who adds law enforcement agencies also don’t believe they have access to NIBIN, but they are working on getting them access.
The U.S. attorney also said some departments have also said it takes additional time and effort to find shell casings and to collect the evidence. Kavanaugh believes it’s worth the time and staff.
“I’m very passionate about reducing violence. I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years now in a couple of different places,” Booth said. “To me, for law enforcement not to put an all hands on deck approach to reducing gun violence, then we’re really not doing our job. We should be doing everything we can to save lives and our community. Part of that is quickly identifying those suspects that have caused harm and finding justice for those families and limiting that retaliation.”
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