Bullet Database: New Crimefighter

Last March, after searching for clues to a homicide in a Chinese restaurant in New Britain, Conn., police Lt. Michael Sullivan had no leads. The case, he recalls, "was destined for the cold-case shelf."

Then he sent the bullets and shell casings to Newark, N.J., where police use a special computer to analyze the evidence. The computer linked the ammunition to a gun used in a subsequent robbery and double homicide in Patterson, N.J., where an arrest had been made. Lieutenant Sullivan says the system gave him the most significant lead in the case and he expects an arrest.

This new computer system, which puts Sherlock Holmes to shame, is saving police departments across the United States hundreds, if not thousands of hours, in detective work - and providing new leads to cases that might otherwise never be solved.

Called the Integrated Ballistic Identification System (IBIS), the computer matches shell casings and bullets. IBIS and a similar system developed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (called DRUGFIRE) are now showing up in crime labs across the country.

Shift to databases

The systems are part of a shift towards fighting crime by building databanks. For example, 38 states now are taking DNA samples of felons, sex offenders, and sometimes even individuals who have committed misdemeanors. They are sending their data to the FBI, which is keeping a national registry. The company that makes the IBIS machine may add the ability to track tire treads and shoe prints as well

But the largest crimefighting potential involves guns, which leave a unique "fingerprint" on the bullets they fire. The FBI machines, now in 115 forensic labs, have made more than 3,000 matches. Meanwhile, the 27 IBIS computers across the country have made matches on 872 bullets and casings, providing leads on at least 1,600 shooting incidents. These numbers are likely to expand greatly as more computers are added and the databank grows.

"IBIS is the biggest change in ballistics since the 1920s," says Gary Mayer, senior firearms examiner for the Essex County (N.J.) sheriff's office. "It used to be that we were often looking for a needle in haystack. Now, the haystack is gone."

The early results are positive:

* In New Orleans, police had no clues in the drive-by killing of a 12-year-old boy. However, after obtaining a search warrant for an individual known for shooting off his guns, they found the gun used in the shooting, thanks to the computer system.

*In Mobile, Ala., a detective picked up a felon carrying a handgun. After testing, the police found the gun was used in a murder a year earlier. Now, the state can't keep up with the volume of weapons submitted for testing. "We're looking at putting on two shifts," says Carlos Rabren, director of the Alabama Department of Forensic Services.

*In New York City, the crime lab has made a match of 202 bullets and shell casings from 37,400 samples in the computer. In one case there were 10 different weapons used and two of the 9-mm guns were linked to four other homicides over a 19-month period. Without the system, "these cases would never have been linked to one another," says Lt. Gary Gomula, chief of the ballistics squad at the New York Police Department.

The key to making the machines work is increasing the database. The New York ballistics squad, in a new laboratory in Jamaica, N.Y., is working around the clock to add bullets and shell casings. In the past, the department examined such evidence only if it was involved in major crime, such as homicide. Now, all guns, bullets, and shells go into the system, Lieutenant Gomula says.

The bullets and shell casings are important evidence. When a bullet is fired down the barrel of a gun, it picks up fine lines from the grooves inside the barrel. The casings also pick up markings from the firing pin on the gun's hammer. Each fired bullet and casing is like a fingerprint: It's unique to a specific gun.

The IBIS system first takes extremely detailed photographs of the bullets and casings, breaking the markings down to something resembling a bar code. Then it compares the ammunition with other examples of the same caliber in its databank, giving each potential match a mathematical score.

"IBIS can do in 2-1/2 hours what I couldn't do in three weeks," says Gomula.

The new machines are modifying behavior. For example, in Newark, police walking the beat are taking part. "Instead of sweeping shell casings into the storm drains, they are bringing them in," says Mr. Mayer. Criminals are also catching on and police chiefs will only talk off-the-record about those changes. To avoid giving future criminals ideas, the New Orleans crime lab has stopped giving tours to high school students.

Overseas uses

IBIS is made by Montreal-based Forensic Technology, which has sold units to police in 11 countries, including a new South African unit, which has made 300 matches after only seven months of operation.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) at its own labs is using the system to analyze bullets used in the Bosnian massacres. "They are trying to identify whether it was a murder squad going around or just random acts of war," says Donna McClean, a company spokeswoman.

BATF is also beginning a pilot project to connect the entire East Coast to see if it makes sense to begin a nationwide system. Currently, law-enforcement officials believe crime mainly takes place on a regional basis. The government is now trying to link the BATF and FBI systems, which use different computer platforms. Mnemonics Systems, based in Washington, makes the FBI product. "It shows great promise," says Dawn Herkenham, unit chief at the FBI's Forensic Science Systems Unit in Washington. "It's very achievable."

In the meantime, police are busy adding to their database. Recently, the Essex County sheriff''s office examined bullet fragments pulled from the pavement of an Interstate after someone started shooting at cars. "Every week we have another example that we can point to and say how good this piece of equipment is," says Sheriff Armando Fontoura.

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