Ballistic technology gives police quick leads on gun crimes
September 18, 2015
On a Wednesday night in January, Milwaukee police officers were dispatched to a report of gunfire on the city's north side.
As they navigated toward the 600 block of N. 29th St., two passing drivers waved them down to report hearing a single gunshot. They soon got details from a man who said his two daughters had been threatened at gunpoint by a friend's boyfriend.
One of his daughters enraged the boyfriend when she told him to shut up, the man said. The boyfriend put a gun to her head, and when the woman's sister tried to help, he turned the gun on her. As the women ran down the hall to the front door, a bullet whizzed by.
Detectives got a warrant and searched the house, finding Timothy Cunningham, 19, hiding in the basement and a .40-caliber gun in a hastily cut hole in the kitchen drywall.
Cunningham was arrested and charged with three counts of second-degree recklessly endangering safety, being a felon in possession of a firearm and resisting an officer. The gun was linked to four other crimes, including an attempted homicide.
The case demonstrates how Milwaukee police and federal agents are using ballistic technology to develop real-time leads during a year of rising gun violence in the city.
Nearly two years ago, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives embedded a machine with the Police Department's Intelligence Fusion Center so shell casings could be photographed and entered into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN, in hours or days instead of weeks or months.
Once new casings are entered, computer software combs through the network and pulls up probable matches to casings recovered at other crime scenes.
"We equate it to our fingerprint system," ATF Resident Agent-in-Charge Alex Kopeck said. "Each gun leaves unique, identifiable markings on the casing."
Milwaukee, Denver, New Orleans and Chicago have all created Crime Gun Intelligence Centers, part of a growing national trend to provide real-time ballistic analysis to detectives on the ground.
Investigators here have become evangelists for the concept and regularly give presentations in other cities about how Milwaukee uses the technology.
After Milwaukee police or federal agents recover a crime gun, they test-fire it and enter the casings into the database. If those casings match others in the system, investigators know they've likely got the gun used in those other crimes and can use that information to develop suspects and other leads.
The national database includes only ballistic evidence from crime scenes or crime guns. Under federal law, casings from newly manufactured guns cannot be entered before they are sold.
The machines have been used since 1999, usually operated in state or regional crime labs. In the past, local agencies would not submit casings for analysis to often-overworked labs until the information was needed for trial.
"When you have the machine embedded here, it's so much faster for us to the get the evidence out of our own property division, bring it here, enter it, make the correlation and then get those investigative leads out," Milwaukee police Lt. Chris Moews said.
Focus on serial shooters
Their focus is on serial shooters.
After officers fished a gun out of a wall in the house where they arrested Cunningham, they quickly sent it downtown for analysis.
"It's always easier when you get a fresh gun," said Patrick Fuhrman, a 16-year-department veteran assigned to follow up leads generated by NIBIN cases.
"Shoot the gun right away and let's get it compared," he said.
The Glock was test-fired and the casing matched four firearm-related incidents. Fuhrman and his partner, Detective Britt Kohnert, began reviewing all police reports related to those earlier incidents.
One of those cases was from August 2014 when a man was shot — suffering severe damage to his kidney and liver — during a hail of gunfire. Officers collected 23 casings for an AK-47 assault rifle and 15 .40-caliber casings in the gangway across the street from the victim's home where the shooters had been standing.
The man told police he had argued with another man earlier in the day, and that man returned to the area with others who opened fire. The man knew one of the shooters by a street name, "Bam."
After the casings were linked to the gun, detectives went back to the victim and showed him a photo lineup. He identified Cunningham's picture as "Bam."
Cunningham — who has a 2013 felony conviction for operating a vehicle without the owner's consent — was charged in February with first-degree reckless injury and endangering safety, as well as being a felon in possession of a firearm.
A month later he was charged with taking part in an armed robbery from the previous December. The victim had been robbed of his phone, jewelry, shoes and gold teeth during a dice game — and then shot twice. Police suspect one of Cunningham's friends pulled the trigger.
Cunningham is scheduled to go to trial on all three gun cases in October.
Milwaukee partners its ballistic analysis with ShotSpotter technology, a system of sensors in parts of the city that captures the sound of gunfire and pinpoints its location. It can get officers to the scene within minutes and is accurate to a radius of 85 feet, which increases officers' odds of recovering casings or weapons.
"In prior studies, we found only 14% of gunfire in Milwaukee is called in," Kopeck said. "Those are casings we would normally miss."
Linked to ShotSpotter
When the two systems are overlaid, clear patterns emerge.
One of the first cases investigated by the Crime Gun Intelligence Center was a robbery crew operating in the area of W. Cherry St., N. 20th St., W. Juneau Ave. and N. 27th St.
"We were able to look at ShotSpotter data and determine the shooter from these cases was likely located in that area and had a friend or relative in that area, so we surveilled it for probably two weeks," Detective James Campbell said.
A fresh armed robbery came up in the area and detectives responded. They didn't get the suspect, but they did get a shell casing that matched casings found at prior robberies. A week later, another robbery was reported. Detectives swooped in and arrested a 21-year-old man and two teens, one of whom was carrying a gun.
The gun matched casings at all the prior robberies. The adult who was arrested, Bryant Harmon, lived in the area and had a prior armed robbery conviction. He was charged with being a felon in possession of firearm and contributing to the delinquency of a minor for providing the gun to the teens. He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.
"This was a series of robberies, one of them being a carjacking, that occurred over a month and a half, and within two weeks, we had the gun and suspects taken into custody," Kopeck said.
"I don't think you can quantify what we prevented, what homicides, what shootings," he said.