Faced with greatly increased wait times for RCMP analysis, police services across Canada are hiking their own capacity to conduct ballistics imaging as they contend with rising gun violence.
British Columbia’s Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, the province’s anti-gang police agency, was set to start conducting ballistics imaging at a new lab this summer, taking some pressure off the RCMP. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed their timeline, planning for the lab’s opening continues, spokesperson Sergeant Brenda Winpenny said.
Police services in Canada waited an average of 351 days for the RCMP to return routine ballistics requests in 2018-19. That was up from 59 days in 2013-14, before the RCMP closed two of four labs that conducted the analysis owing to federal budget cuts.
The RCMP is working on initiatives to reduce turnaround times amid a 54-per-cent increase in firearms-related service requests last year, spokesperson Corporal Caroline Duval said in an e-mail.
Using evidence left behind at crime scenes, ballistics imaging helps police determine if one gun was used in multiple shootings. When a gun is fired, the bullet and cartridge case pick up tiny markings unique to that weapon. By entering high-resolution images of the fired ammunition into a national database, scientists can link different cases to a single gun.
With gun violence sharply on the rise in some Canadian cities, so is the demand for imaging. But it’s a time-sensitive process – the faster police receive intelligence, the more useful it is.
In Edmonton and Winnipeg, the RCMP is working with the municipal police services as they plan to take over the initial steps of ballistics imaging. The local services will collect images of shooting evidence, allowing the RCMP to complete the rest of the analysis more quickly.
The changes are a shift toward the model in the United States, where it’s become increasingly common for local police services to conduct the initial imaging of evidence to speed up the analysis process.
In Edmonton, police identified the need for better firearms intelligence after seeing a 78-per-cent increase in firearms-related injuries between 2012 and 2017, according to the service’s 2019 annual policing plan. In Winnipeg, police noted a 114-per-cent increase in shootings between 2014 and 2018, with Toronto police seeing a similar rise in gun violence in that time.
The RCMP currently performs ballistics imaging for police services in Canada outside of Ontario and Quebec, which maintain provincial labs. The Calgary Police Service performs its own firearms testing.
But conducting analysis doesn’t come cheap. B.C.’s special enforcement unit will spend about $1-million building its forensic ballistics lab, said Wayne Rideout, the former associate director of police services for B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor-General, who led the province’s Illegal Firearms Task Force. (He has since left the ministry and is working as a consultant.)
In a 2017 report, the task force recommended the province open its own firearms lab, while also calling for enhanced capacity and improved response times within RCMP labs.
The problem with relying totally on the RCMP, Mr. Rideout said, is that the agency’s funding “ebbs and flows” from the federal government and can’t necessarily take into account local spikes in gun violence.
“The RCMP labs are still not in a position to service the demand, so what we’ve done – like others have done – is we’ve built additional capacity to deal with that overflow,” said Mr. Rideout, adding that the RCMP has been very supportive of B.C.’s strategy.
What makes that possible is the Canadian Integrated Ballistics Identification Network (CIBIN), a national database maintained by the RCMP. Possible links between evidence, identified by the technology and reviewed digitally, are referred to as “leads.” They can be produced quickly, as cases and memories are fresh. Definitively confirming a link between cases, known as a “hit," often takes longer, as a forensic scientist must physically examine the pieces of evidence.
Firearms experts say leads should be disseminated to investigators within several days. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the agency that maintains the American equivalent of CIBIN (known as NIBIN), has mandated that leads be distributed in less than one week by the end of 2020. Since 2017, the RCMP has been working to turn around leads in 45 days.
Currently, the RCMP maintains CIBIN sites in Surrey and Ottawa. Unless police services image their own evidence, they must physically get their evidence to those locations.
While uploading images to CIBIN requires training, it is much less involved than confirming potential matches after the technology identifies them.
“You don’t need to be an expert to feed the machine, but you need to be an expert to read the results,” said Pete Gagliardi, a former special agent with the ATF and one of the early developers of NIBIN, who now consults about solving gun crime.
The RCMP aims to encourage more police services to acquire the technology to collect images of evidence, Cpl. Duval said. After services upload the images, RCMP experts in Ottawa would review them; they are piloting a five-day turnaround for this approach.
In 2011, the Calgary Police Service built its own firearms lab, becoming the first municipal police service in Canada to conduct ballistics imaging in-house. Before opening the lab, the service was averaging about 3½ CIBIN hits a year. Now they’re averaging about 30 to 50 hits in relation to the city’s less than 100 shootings per year, said Darryl Barr, the manager of the lab, who previously worked in the firearms section of the RCMP.
All shooting evidence recovered by police in Calgary is entered into CIBIN, not just that from the service’s most serious cases. If the process is not automatic, as in Calgary, “innocuous” shootings, such as a person shooting into a vehicle or a house with no injuries, might get missed, Mr. Barr said.
“What we found was it was these shootings in-between the homicides that were really key to connecting the dots. There’s often an attempted murder or two before somebody actually gets killed with a gun,” he said.
Mr. Barr would also like to see more police services trained to enter their own evidence into CIBIN.
“You’re going to see it happening, slowly but surely, more agencies are going to opt to take things into their own hands, when it comes to some stuff,” Mr. Barr said.
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