Are police consistently testing crime guns to keep you safe?

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by JANE MCCARTHY & KREM.com

KREM.com

Posted on November 14, 2013 at 5:30 PM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 19 at 7:56 PM

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Last year, KREM 2 News revealed the Spokane Police Department was not conducting the kind of weapons tests that Washington State Patrol and the FBI think should be routine.

It is a test that can help tie criminals to crimes, and helps keep the community safe. 

One year later, KREM 2 News checked back to see how SPD had addressed the issue.

WATCH: Thousands of crime guns yet to be tested by Spokane Police

Police property rooms hold guns taken from robbers, drug dealers, and felons, among other people.  Because many of the weapons are taken from criminals, law enforcement wants to learn everything they can about those guns, particularly if they have ever been fired in an unsolved crime.

Spokane Police volunteer Bob Bro is a major part of that fact-finding process.  He documents guns transported from the police property room to their gun range.

That's where Lt. Matt Cowles test fires those weapons.  Each time, the gun leaves a unique mark -- like its own fingerprint -- on the shell case.  That makes it possible to tell which gun fired what bullet.

Then, SPD sends the shell casings to the State Patrol crime lab.  WSP technicians enter the data into the Integrated Ballistics Identification System, or IBIS.  The nationwide network compares shell casings to all others entered into the system.

It is a way to link crimes that may not have seemed related at first.

"Simply stated, that means shell casings in one location that were collected from a possible crime scene matched a pistol that was later collected by the police department," said Lt. Cowles.

That is why State Patrol wants all state police agencies to send them shell casings.  The more information is gathered, the stronger the network becomes.

Terry McAdam, manager at the WSP Crime lab says, "It gives you valuable investigative Intelligence."

A year after KREM 2 News’ initial report on SPD and weapons testing, Spokane Police had significantly increased the number of guns tested.

In November of 2012, Spokane Police had only tested 20 guns in three years - a fraction of the eligible weapons.  Now, one year later, they had submitted 371 sets of shell casings to the crime lab, essentially all the eligible guns from their property room.

Because they were not routinely doing the testing before, SPD had some catching up to do.

"Yeah, we did,” said Lt. Cowles.  “We devoted a lot more resources toward the process."

Terry McAdam commends Spokane Police for working through its backlog of property room guns.  In fact, SPD sent so much data this year that WSP was still working to input it all.

So far, there have been no "hits" or information linking a gun to a crime.

McAdam believes there is a reason for that.

"Spokane PD and the county and surrounding cities all need to start putting in cartridge cases from every scene of a crime," he said. 

In order for the system to work, Spokane needs to send, in addition to test fires, more cartridge cases actually found at crime scenes.  Otherwise, there is nothing to link.

"[We] need to have their cartridge cases from all crimes entered in there,” said McAdam.  “That's when they'll start getting what we term as ‘hits.’  In other words, this gun was used to do this incident.  It is also linked to this other incident."

McAdam says police agencies such as Seattle, Tacoma and Kent routinely send that evidence.

"They send hundreds to us every year and because of that, they get a lot of links between cases they didn't know about before,“ McAdam said.  “So a drive by shooting will be connected by the same gun."

Spokane detectives tell KREM 2 they had been sending some shell casings but only from the most serious crimes, generally when there was a victim.  In a case such as a drive by shooting where no one was hit, the shell casings would be collected, go to property and remain there.

Now that SPD worked through the gun backlog, however, they said they would begin tackling their backlog of shell casings too.

"In doing this, we're providing more information so that we can get bad people off the streets," said Lt. Cowles.

While getting those people off the streets still requires good police work, SPD leaders realize the IBIS database can help bring that major break.

Meanwhile, although SPD had improved WSP said Spokane County and other eastern Washington police agencies still needed to do a better job of sending in test fires and shell casings.

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