NIBIN: National Integrated Ballistic Information Network
Written by Aric W. Dutelle   

Developed in 1999, the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN) is a nationally interconnected, computer-assisted ballistics imaging system operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and used by firearms examiners to obtain computerized images of bullets and cartridge cases. It is “the only national network that allows for the capture and comparison of ballistic evidence to aid in solving and preventing violent crimes involving firearms”. NIBIN is composed of several computer-connected networks, and the goal is for NIBIN data to be shared nationally. To meet that goal, the ATF has more than 80 offices around the country that serve as repositories for the deposit and retrieval of ballistic images, assisted by 172 sites and 3,500 agencies nationwide.


Figure 1—An IBIS analysis station, the primary component of the NIBIN integrated system.

Prior to the creation of NIBIN, comparisons of bullet and cartridge case marks were historically accomplished by firearms examiners using comparison microscopes. This process was accurate but slow and labor intensive. In the early 1990s, the ballistics imaging and matching process was computerized. Digital cameras were used to photograph bullets and cartridge cases and scan them into a computer. These images were then analyzed by a software program and stored in a database, making ballistics matching faster. When the computerized system was connected across numerous law enforcement agencies through a telecommunications system, it allowed the rapid comparison of bullets and cartridge cases used in crimes from different jurisdictions. The use of computerized images of bullets and cartridge cases streamlines chains of custody for those bullets and cartridge cases that are to be used in court.

Presently, the participation of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies using NIBIN is restricted by law to the ballistics imaging of data associated with only those guns used in crimes. “NIBIN acquisitions are expressly limited to ballistic information from recovered firearms and fired ammunition components pursuant to a criminal investigation. Therefore, NIBIN cannot capture or store ballistic information acquired at the point of manufacture, importation, or sale; nor purchaser or date of manufacture or sale information” (atf.gov). Recent bills introduced in Congress (but not yet enacted as law) would require all manufacturers to supply a spent cartridge and bullet for inclusion in the system before being allowed to sell or import the firearm. This would significantly increase the ability to trace firearms used in crimes.

Integrated Ballistic Identification System

The heart of NIBIN is the Integrated Ballistic Identification System, comprised of a comparison microscope (paired with a digital camera) and a computer unit that enables an image to be captured digitally for subsequent analysis (Figure 1). These images can then be compared with images already entered within the system. The system is maintained by the ATF and the IBIS sites are electronically joined to multistate regions, thus making up the integrated federal network.

NIBIN was originally introduced in all 50 U.S. states, although it was later cut back or redistributed due to a lack of use in some areas. There are currently IBIS sites within 40 of the U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. The states that do not currently have an IBIS site within them include: Arkansas, Idaho, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. However, although these states do not have IBIS sites within them, they are able to have their firearms-related evidence documented through other sites within their various regions, as a result of agreements with bordering states and the ATF.

The technology that comprises IBIS was developed by a Canadian company in 1991. Forensic Technology created IBIS and partnered with public safety agencies around the globe to provide ballistics and firearms identification solutions. In 2011, Forensic Technology acquired Projectina Ltd, a Swiss company specializing in computation and the development and manufacture of optical and opto-electronic components, which enabled for robust growth and maturation of the IBIS systems. In 2014, Forensic Technology was acquired by Ultra Electronics, an internationally successful defense, security, and transport company.

Mobile NIBIN

At the end of March 2017, the ATF rolled out a mobile forensic lab that was introduced as being a mobile addition to the NIBIN network. This technology is essentially a portable cartridge casing system that allows on-site digital capture of fired cartridge cases and bullets for transmission to a central IBIS for processing, comparison, and storage. The van is intended to deploy to locations where law enforcement may not currently have resources that are dedicated to the analysis of firearms-related evidence. The large van, replete with large digital flat screens, numerous computers, and a comparison microscope paired with a digital camera, is also equipped with an attachable trailer. The trailer will give investigators and forensic personnel the ability to test-fire associated firearms, enter the collected firearms evidence into the IBIS terminal located within the van, and subsequently upload all of the information into NIBIN (Figure 3).


Figure 3—A test-fired bullet

The IBIS consists of two separate work stations:

  • Digital Acquisition Station (DAS)—Used to collect image data. This station does not retrieve and compare images. The DAS is composed of a microscope and a computer unit that allows image acquisition or evaluation. These systems are linked to a regional server, where the images are stored and bullet cartridge case comparison or correlation requests are sent. There are presently two primary types of DAS that are used by the IBIS sites:

1) BrassTRAX—A fully automated cartridge case imaging station. For centerfire cartridge cases, this includes the breech face and firing pin impressions on the primer, and the ejector mark. For rimfire cartridge cases, this includes the firing pin impression.

2) BulletTRAX—A bullet imaging station, available in either 2D or 3D technology. Captures topographic information of a bullet’s lands and grooves. It produces an image strip representing a bullet’s 360-degree circumference, or a combination of regions from a bullet’s fragments (Figure 2).


Figure 2—The BulletTRAX 3D imaging station.

  • Image Analysis Station—Used by the trained firearms examiner to examine entered images and compare them to others on file and determine whether a match or hit exists.

1) Match Point Plus—This is the primary comparative analysis station for examining 2D and 3D images of potential matches obtained from IBIS correlation algorithms (Figure 4).


Figure 4—A firearms examiner analyzes digitally captured images of firearms-related evidence on an image analysis station.

NIBIN Hit Process

 

  • Fired ammunition components are recovered from a shooting scene.
  • Fired ammunition components are Imaged onto the network.
  • Firearm is recovered from a suspect and test-fired.
  • NIBIN identifies possible hit and microscopic comparison confirms hit.
  • NIBIN partner notifies law enforcement agencies of hit.

IBIS technology is designed to be used without extensive computer training or sophistication. Once entered, a sample that results in a hit (a possible match with a database record) provides demographic information about the crime; images of the correlated cartridge case, which includes the breech face, firing pin, and ejector marks; and images of the correlated bullet, including lands and accidentals.

If the image is captured at a DAS remote, the data is sent to the regional server for comparison. A hit results in the correlation data being returned to the DAS remote. The images are transmitted to the regional server for comparison to the region’s database. Again, a hit results in the correlation data being returned to the cooperating DAS, and the RBI user is notified either by email or telephone. Ejected cartridge cases found at a crime scene can be digitized at the scene. The information can be transmitted to a laboratory, where a technician can use the system to conduct a search. If a hit is found, results can be returned to the personnel at the scene while the investigation is still in progress. The IBIS analysis system does not provide matches; as with AFIS, it provides correlations—a short list of possible matches. The final analysis for a match is conducted by a firearms examiner through a comparison microscope.

Improved Technology

Technology has enhanced analytical possibilities of firearms examination through the use of three-dimensional (3D) imaging technology. Two-dimensional images are limited in detail and depth. IBIS TRAX-HD3D is a 3D IBIS system that allows for documentation and examination of the entire surface of a cartridge, cartridge case, or projectile. Three-dimensional software makes a mathematical model of the item viewed and stores the digital model in a database. The technician or examiner can subsequently view a 3D rendering of the item upon a high-definition flat-screen computer monitor. According to firearms examiners, the IBIS technology upgrades have led to stronger correlations to possible matching fired evidence already logged within the system. The movement to 3D analysis also allows system users to view additional areas on the discharged cartridge cases for comparison, which allows the user to further compare images on screen before requesting the fired evidence for comparison on the comparison microscope.

Defining a “Hit”

A “hit” is defined as “the linkage of two different crime investigations by a user of the NIBIN technology, where previously there had been no known connection between the investigations.” It is a linkage of cases, not of individual pieces of evidence. However, in the case of multiple bullet or casing entries, each entered as part of the same case record, each discovered linkage to an additional case constitutes a hit (atf.gov).

A hit must subsequently be confirmed by a trained firearms examiner. Hunches, investigative leads, or previously identified laboratory examinations do not classify as hits for NIBIN purposes. The agency responsible for initiating and confirming the microscopic comparison of the case evidence is credited for the hit.

NIBIN Statistics

As of March, 2017:

  • The ATF has certified more than 1,000 NIBIN users.
  • Nationwide, approximately 25,000 items are entered into NIBIN each month.
  • There are currently 172 sites and 3,500 agencies contributing to NIBIN.
  • NIBIN partners have captured approximately 2.8 million images of firearms-related evidence.
  • NIBIN partners have confirmed over 74,000 NIBIN hits.

Success of NIBIN

Some would say that success is subjective, but the statistics are certainly encouraging. NIBIN has seen an increase from approximately 10,000 entries to 25,000 entries a month within the past two years. As a result of the increase in the numbers of exhibits being entered, there has been an increase in associated hits as well.

Much of the success of NIBIN is attributed to the training and operational policies of its users. According to the ATF, NIBIN success requires adherence to four critical steps:

1. Comprehensive Collection and Entry: Partner agencies must collect and submit all evidence suitable for entry into NIBIN, regardless of crime. Evidence includes both cartridge cases recovered from crime scenes and test-fires from recovered crime guns.

2. Timely Turnaround: Violent crime investigations can go cold very quickly, so the goal is to enter the evidence into the network as quickly as possible in order to identify potential NIBIN leads, and subsequently provide the relevant and actionable intelligence to investigators.

3. Investigative Follow-up and Prosecution: Linking otherwise unassociated crimes gives investigators a better chance to identify and arrest shooters before they reoffend.

4. Feedback Loop: Without feedback, NIBIN partners cannot know how their efforts are making the community safer, which is necessary for sustained success.

Investigative Tool or Evidence Analysis

Some view NIBIN as an intelligence gathering tool. Many of the agencies that are responsible for the analysis of firearms-related evidence are not responsible for investigating crime. Rather, they are responsible for processing and analyzing evidence. Since NIBIN is essentially comparing digital pictures, rather than evidence, it is not necessarily “evidence analysis.” Anytime a “match” or “hit” is made on NIBIN, it is considered an investigative lead only. The actual case evidence then must be put under a digital comparison microscope and analyzed by a firearms examiner to make an identification for court purposes. Therefore, NIBIN is essentially a technological filter.

For instance, firearms evidence associated with a shots-fired incident may be uploaded (and possibly even analyzed), even if there are no witnesses and no leads or possibility of criminal prosecution. The same would occur in the instance of a case where a firearm was used in the commission of a homicide, with a plethora of witness and other evidence, and a high likelihood of successful criminal prosecution. In either case, the same workload would be present from an IBIS/NIBIN standpoint. However, in the first case, this would rarely be an example of evidence sent to a crime lab for analysis—whereas the second example would nearly always go to a crime lab for analysis. And yet, both examples would be cases where agencies would want to enter related information into NIBIN for the inherent possibility of connecting the events to other firearm-related incidents.

As a result of the aforementioned, some of the IBIS units that comprise NIBIN have moved within police intelligence centers. This has been credited with speeding up the process of entry, and making best use of the derived information. Within its proper context, NIBIN is a tool to generate investigative leads, but it is not necessarily an evidence identification tool. In some instances, this has also helped to reduce case backlog within the crime laboratories.

In the end, as with most tools in the investigative toolbox, NIBIN (and its associated information) is only as good as the information that is loaded into it, and as good as the examiner who is examining and analyzing it. Firearms-related evidence analysis remains an area of forensics that is accentuated by technology, but which continues to have as its foundation the properly trained and educated humans, who ultimately are responsible for making the “match”.


About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it has been involved in law enforcement for more than 17 years. He has a Master of Forensic Sciences (MFS) degree, with a specialty in impression evidence and is the author of 22 articles and 10 texts, to include An Introduction to Crime Scene Investigation (now in its 3rd edition), Criminal Investigation (now in its 5th edition), Basic Crime Scene Photography 1e and 2e, and Ethics for the Public Service Professional. The author currently lives in the Pacific Northwest where he continues to be actively involved in forensic and crime scene training and education, in addition to consulting and assisting law enforcement agencies with criminal investigations.

 
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