A team of researchers from four universities has evaluated the operations of the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), a program through which firearms examiners at state and local crime laboratories compare tool marks on fired bullets or cartridges found at a crime scene to digitized images of ballistic evidence in a nationwide database.
Funded by the National Institute of Justice, scientists from Sam Houston State University, Arizona State University, American University and the University of Cincinnati looked at the value of NIBIN database "hits" in solving crimes in which firearms are used. Tactically, law enforcement can use a NIBIN hit to link crimes that were not previously known to be related and, in turn, potentially identify suspects. Strategically, NIBIN can help law enforcement understand larger patterns of gun crime, including criminal activities of street gangs and drug cartels.
The researchers found that implementation of NIBIN, which is operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), varied greatly across sites with respect to staffing, data input, and the timeliness of processing evidence and identifying hits. For example, some NIBIN sites identified hits within a few days of the crime, and others produced hit reports so slowly that they had no investigative value.
It is important to note that the evaluation deals only with programmatic and organizational aspects of NIBIN. It does not address the scientific integrity of ballistics imagining, which the National Academy of Sciences in 2008 said merits additional research. In that regard, NIJ is continuing to conduct research aimed at improving the reliability (including the speed and cost) of gun-evidence processing.
Among their extensive recommendations to fully realize the tactical and strategic value of NIBIN, the researchers recommend:
• Adding "force-multipliers," such as geocodes and criminal records data, to hit reports.
• Creating standardized measures (beyond the number of inputs and hits) for evaluating the performance of local NIBIN sites.
• Establishing an ATF research and development program to determine innovative practices among NIBIN sites, particularly those that would remove impediments to the timely identification of hits.
Finally, in their executive summary, the researchers note that they briefed ATF officials on their findings at the conclusion of the study, at which time ATF outlined steps it was undertaking to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of NIBIN. The researchers added that, although they were impressed with progress that the ATF had achieved in recent months, they questioned "the sustainability of these changes, however, given the severe fiscal restraints facing ATF."
Read the Executive Summary