JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – What if a bullet casing could talk and solve some of Jacksonville’s most horrific crimes? What if a shell could be the clue to catching killers and saving lives? That's what Jacksonville leaders are banking on.
Jacksonville’s mayor, sheriff and state attorney think they’ve found a way to help catch criminals quicker and cut down on crime. It’s called IBIS, the Integrated Ballistics Identification System. It’s a high-resolution camera and computer system that works by scanning and identifying bullets, much like a fingerprint, which is then fed into a national database to link shootings.
NIBIN, the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, is run by federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF. It’s a nationwide database started in 1999 to track bullets and guns used in crimes, comparing them to evidence found at other shootings.
Jacksonville Sheriff’s detectives have been using the database for years, but they’ve had to send evidence to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime lab, which can sometimes take 12 to 18 months to process. Officials said the lab services several counties and is overloaded with evidence.
To solve crimes faster, Jacksonville police are investing in its own IBIS system, which can turn results in just one or two days.
Last week, leaders with JSO and the State Attorney’s Office went to Denver to see how it works and learn about the success stories. News4Jax made the trip as well.
Jacksonville law enforcement got an inside look at the Denver Police Department’s crime lab, showing the cutting-edge technology in action. It’s technology that federal agents say is nearly 100 percent accurate. Forensic detectives test bullet casings, and in some cases guns, from crime scenes.
“It really helps us in those instances where we have no information, like a drive-by of a house,” said Denver Police Department Sgt. Todd Bonfante, a leader of the gang unit and NIBIN task force.
Every firearm has a unique fingerprint; a marking it leaves behind on each bullet fired.
“And there is only one,” ATF Supervisory Special Agent Christopher Amon explained. “You can have the same make, model that was manufactured the same day at the factory and it will leave a different marking which is identified by NIBIN.”
NIBIN uses high-resolution pictures of bullet casings and looks for links to other crimes. If the same gun was used in another shooting there’s a hit. Investigators can also use guns that were seized or found, test firing them to see if they match bullet casings.
“In 2016 we had 440 hits,” Bonfante said. “So we are talking at least two incidents connected to each hit, so we are well over 1000 incidents that are associated.”
The database has been successful across the country, but especially for Denver police and ATF agents from the Denver-area field office, who’ve teamed up to crack down on crime in the area.
“We have seen what we call serial shooters,” Amon said. “This is an individual who is not afraid to pull the trigger and continue to do so. We've had people that of been involved in three shooting incidents in four days’ time. What we are seeing with NIBIN is we are able to link those incidents in real time.”
Before there was this one national database to share information, investigators said it took months, potentially years to solve violent crimes, meaning dangerous people were still on the streets and able to kill again.
“It is one piece of the puzzle,” said JSO Director of Investigations and Homeland Security Ron Lendvay, who also made the trip to Denver to learn first-hand how Denver-area authorities use it.
In February, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, Sheriff Mike Williams and State Attorney Melissa Nelson announced they were teaming up to install the IBIS Trax system that scans bullet casings – and guns found or seized. They said the cost to get it in place would be about $250,000, which has already been approved by Jacksonville’s City Council.
“How do you put a price on someone's life?” asked Lendvay.
State Attorney Nelson spoke to News4Jax in Denver after she met with the NIBIN task force, and said it will help local police make arrests and help prosecutors secure convictions.
“Coming out here and doing the analysis and the research that we have all been doing,” Nelson said. “I think we feel very comfortable that the linkages and successes that they are having here are absolutely worthwhile because they are preventing crime.”
Right now, authorities in Denver are analyzing their crime statistics to see the impact on crime.
“We've seen a reduction in gang homicides, aggravated assaults, shooting incidents here in Denver,” said Amon.
“It is just a piece to the puzzle,” Bonfante said. “It is an additional investigative lead.”
While Jacksonville and Denver have similar populations, there were 56 homicides reported 2016 in Denver, compared to 120 in Jacksonville.
According to an article in the Denver Post, Denver saw a reduction in gang-related shootings and an increase in the number crimes solved in 2016. However, domestic-related shootings increased.
News4Jax has requested crime trends in Jacksonville and will share those when we receive them.
Jacksonville leaders said they hope they’d see a drop in crime once the system is in place in North Florida. While leaders said the system would be up and running soon, they did not have an exact date when it would be operational.
Sheriff Williams said he hopes to roll out the program around the same time as ShotSpotter, which is technology that detects gunshots and dispatches police to an area within seconds.