SPOKANE -- Across the Washington State, guns are carefully stored in police department evidence rooms. Many firearms are taken during arrests, search warrants, and traffic stops.
The weapons could hold answers to unsolved crimes, but most agencies are not routinely performing a firearms forensic test that the State Patrol calls invaluable.
Most – but not all -- firearms in police evidence rooms are legally defined as “crime guns”. Even though they may not have been fired during a crime, the guns are generally taken off people who tend not to be law-abiding citizens. Their guns cold hold keys to violent crimes.
The Spokane Police Department is one of many Washington police agencies that does not know everything it could about the guns being stored in their evidence rooms, because they are not doing ballistics tests on the majority of those firearms.
Terry McAdam manages the Washington State Patrol Seattle crime lab. In both their Seattle and Tacoma crime labs, the State Patrol enters data from shell casings fired from crime guns into the Integrated Ballistics Identification System, or IBIS. The nationwide network compares shell casings to all others entered into the system.
McAdams explained when a cartridge goes through a gun, the gun puts unique markings onto it. The so called “tool marks” are unique to each gun, and could be critical evidence.
IBIS, for example, could identify if a cartridge case identified has the same markings as a cartridge case used in a drive by shooting.
"You've now got a linkage between cases, and that the same gun did [the cases].You would never have known that before," McAdams said.
In Central Washington, gun casings entered into IBIS matched other casings, linking a series of gang-related drive-by shootings.
But in order to make those links, you have to enter the data.
While Seattle tests virtually all of their crime guns, other large Washington cities leave theirs unchecked.
Over the past three years Everett police have entered 20 guns into IBIS. Spokane also tested 20 in three years; a fraction of the eligible guns. Spokane is followed only by Bellevue with 9. All of these agencies collected hundreds of weapons in the same three years.
An analysis by KREM 2 News found more than 2,800 crime guns collected by the 10 largest cities in Washington are not in IBIS.
Major Craig Meidl with Spokane Police said IBIS has been used on a case-by-case basis. If detectives feel evidence they gathered would potentially open up a case, that is when they use IBIS.
Meidl said years ago, Spokane Police were more consistent about inputting data into IBIS, but staffing cutbacks and a shuffle in the way data got to the lab lead the department to taper off. Now, though, Meidl said the department intends to start inputting its guns into IBIS. He said IBIS will not solve the majority of their cases, but the department’s newly hired police chief’s goal is to use every tool available.
“This is a tool we have available to us and we all realize the importance of it,” Meidl said.
Spokane Police plans to play catch-up, firing off all of the eligible guns in their property rooms. There are thousands of them in there.
The only cost to the departments is the time it takes for an officer to fire the weapons.
Spokane Police said their first priority will be testing weapons about to be relapsed from their facility. They plan to consult with the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab to come up with a plan to see how many guns they can handle at a time, and start running through the backlog.