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Criminal Justice Update

A New Stage in Ballistic Testing

Law enforcement agencies across the state can look forward to the addition of crucial technology to help them track down and capture criminals responsible for deadly shootings and other gun violence.  
As part of a new initiative to expand ballistic testing statewide, Gov. Mike DeWine and Attorney General Dave Yost announced plans in March to increase the number of state-of-the-art imaging devices that Ohio’s crime labs use to determine whether firearm evidence from one case might be linked to evidence from another.
“Every bad guy’s gun tells a story — and that story leads back to the bad guy,” AG Yost said. “But it takes science and data and technology to be able to read that story.”
The imaging devices — powered by the most advanced ballistic identification software available — are used to digitally scan spent cartridge cases and upload those images into a national database for comparison.
Because all guns etch unique microscopic marks into the cartridge cases they eject, the images in the database — the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) — amount to a vast library of ballistic “fingerprints.” Through NIBIN, law enforcement agencies across the nation can connect gun crimes by comparing their firearm evidence against the millions of images already in the database.
The Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), which currently operates one NIBIN station, at its Richfield lab, will add an additional imaging unit there, and establish NIBIN stations at its labs in London and Bowling Green.
The Highway Patrol will buy two NIBIN stations — one each for its Cleveland District Headquarters in Brook Park and for the Ohio Department of Public Safety headquarters in Columbus.
Besides Richfield, Ohio’s NIBIN stations are currently located at police departments and crime labs in Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Toledo. Each NIBIN station serves local law enforcement.
The timeline to buy and set up the NIBIN equipment is “as soon as possible,” Yost said. Money for the hardware, software, training and related expenses — $10.5 million in all — was awarded to the Attorney General’s Office and the Highway Patrol in late April using funds provided by the American Rescue Plan Act.
Established in 1997 by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), NIBIN has become essential to any gun crime-reduction strategy and is especially useful in cases in which a shooter operates across a broad area, leaving bits of firearm evidence from city to city. There are 264 NIBIN sites nationwide — including seven in Ohio, a number that will increase to 11 when the new units are in place. The additional NIBIN locations will give local law enforcement agencies easier access to the system and provide leads that should result in more arrests.
The NIBIN process essentially consists of two parts: acquisition and correlation. It works like this:
  • A technician puts a spent cartridge case into a BrassTrax unit, which automatically scans the evidence, uploads the digital images to the NIBIN database, and generates a ranked list of possible matches.
  • Next, a correlation specialist uses software called MatchPoint to compare the image of each possible match against the image of the newly scanned cartridge case. The review is done onscreen as side-by-side comparisons. If a likely match is confirmed, the lead is passed on to the law enforcement agencies involved.
In mid-June, BCI announced a partnership with the ATF to connect the BCI crime lab in Richfield to the

NIBIN National Correlation and Training Center (NNCTC) in Huntsville, Ala., which maintains a large team of highly trained specialists to conduct correlation reviews. Eventually, when the new NIBIN stations are established at the London and Bowling Green crime labs, BCI will link those sites to the ATF’s national correlation center as well.
Besides saving time and freeing up staff at the BCI labs, linking to the correlation center provides another benefit.
“ATF can open up the borders to us,” BCI Lab Director Karen Kwek said. “Let’s say they trace a gun, and the gun was found to have been bought in Michigan, used in Illinois and then came to Ohio. Then the ATF has the ability to search the NIBIN database in each of those states to see where it was used.”
The NIBIN database grows only if agencies submit firearm evidence — and the larger the database, the better the chances of linking gun crimes. Consequently, NIBIN’s effectiveness hinges on legwork by law enforcement agencies, both on the front end and back end: They must first submit evidence for testing, then follow up on any leads generated.
“Right now, NIBIN has some amazing successes,” Yost said. “But I’ll be candid with you — there are too many shell casings and weapons recovered that have never been tested and, therefore, never been entered into the database.”
The governor and attorney general want to see the day when Ohio law enforcement agencies make it standard practice to submit all ballistic evidence for NIBIN testing, including backlogged evidence.
“We know that, statistically, if you run everything, you’re going to have more matches,” Gov. DeWine said. “And that’s what the goal is.”