NIBIN Policies and Procedures for the Property Room
Written by Doreen Jokerst & Maria Pettolina   

THE DECEMBER 2018 UPDATE of the International Association of Property and Evidence (IAPE) Professional Standards discusses the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) and the importance of addressing NIBIN recommendations when writing retention policies in your property room. If you are tasked with the management and upkeep of a property room, there are several questions you should ask yourself before considering NIBIN:

1) Do you have evidence or found-property firearms in your property room?

2) Do you have fired cartridge cases in your property room that have been submitted as evidence or found property?

3) Are any of these items collecting dust on your shelves?

4) Are you destroying firearms without test-firing them?


Image courtesy ATF

Note: This article previously appeared in Vol. 2019, No. 2 of The Evidence Log, the official publication of the International Association for Property and Evidence, Inc.

If the answer to any of these four questions are Yes, we highly suggest you consider a NIBIN policy for your agency and develop NIBIN procedures for your property room.

NIBIN is a national database managed and overseen by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. There are 175 nationwide NIBIN sites where trained personnel process firearms evidence. As of May 2018, the ATF reported that NIBIN partners have processed 99,000 NIBIN leads and 110,000 NIBIN hits, with over 3.3 million cartridge cases in the system (ATF 2018). NIBIN is the only national network that acts as a screening tool for firearms and ballistic evidence to assist detectives with investigative leads in criminal investigations and assist with strategic crime analysis (ATF Fact Sheet 2018).

NIBIN is an investigative tool that allows agencies to share and search firearms evidence in their jurisdiction, in neighboring jurisdictions, and nationwide (ibid.). Entering NIBIN evidence into the system in a timely fashion may allow investigators to arrest a suspect before they re-offend. In addition, NIBIN entry and adherence to agency policies also prevent a violent crime from going cold by providing timely, relevant, and actionable intelligence to investigators (ibid.). Across the country, police agencies are reporting great results in using NIBIN to solve criminal cases (Givens 2018).

In our personal experience, and in speaking with many highly qualified property and evidence technicians across the county, property-room personnel may not have heard of NIBIN or may not be familiar with policies and procedures that can assist their own agencies with meeting standards for NIBIN. Many police agencies across the county are either not using NIBIN, or not using it consistently (ibid.). In fact, New Jersey and Delaware are the only two states that require that all cartridge cases get entered into the NIBIN system (ibid.).

Consider this: your property room impounds a found property firearm. A kind citizen brings the firearm into your lobby and lets you know they found it in the restroom of a local fast-food restaurant. An NCIC query shows that the weapon is clear, with no record. After the specified retention time to hold found property for your agency passes, and no one comes to claim the firearm, the firearm is then staged for destruction and destroyed by your department-authorized vendor. But what if this firearm was used in a homicide in an outside jurisdiction? How would you ever know? Is it even feasible to consider that you just did the unthinkable and destroyed homicide evidence?

What can be entered into NIBIN?

To use NIBIN, technicians enter fired cartridge cases that have been found on a crime scene or fired cartridge cases from test fires of recovered firearms. Unique toolmarks on the fired cartridge case act as a fingerprint. When a firearm is discharged, the firearm leaves unique markings on the fired cartridge case, and—just like a fingerprint—no two firearms leave the same marks (ATF 2018). According to the ATF, only firearm evidence and fired cartridge cases related to a criminal investigation can be entered into NIBIN (ATF Fact Sheet 2018). Most semi-automatic weapons are NIBIN-eligible, some rifles and shotguns are eligible, but most if any revolvers are not. For guidance or clarification, agencies should reach out to their state laboratory for submission guidelines and best practices for packaging and submitting firearm evidence.

How does it work?

Explaining how NIBIN works can be described with a simple example. A crime scene investigator responds to a homicide scene in a major metropolitan city. A victim has one penetrating gunshot wound to the chest and there is one .45 caliber fired cartridge case on the scene with no suspect in custody. The crime scene investigator collects the fired cartridge case and submits it to the state lab to be entered into NIBIN.

The state laboratory enters the fired cartridge case into the NIBIN system. The system compares individual markings on the fired cartridge case to other previously submitted fired cartridge cases. The NIBIN system generates an “unconfirmed hit”. A trained technician requests the physical evidence and manually verifies the match with a comparison microspore to “confirm” the hit. A report is generated, and the fired cartridge case matches another fired cartridge case from a shooting the previous year, in the same major metropolitan city. There was no suspect arrested. Investigators now know that the same firearm was used on both shooting scenes.

Several weeks later, investigators in a neighboring agency arrest a suspect in an armed robbery. The investigators find a .45 caliber, semi-automatic pistol in the suspect’s waistband. The firearm is collected, and since this agency’s property and evidence room has a NIBIN policy in place, the evidence firearm is sent to the state laboratory for test-firing. The state laboratory test-fires the weapon and enters the fired cartridge case into the NIBIN system. There is a “match” to the fired cartridge cases submitted from the two shootings in the major metropolitan city. Detectives now have an investigative lead, a homicide weapon, and a possible suspect! But what if the neighboring agency did not have a NIBIN policy and the firearm was left sitting on a shelf for months, years, or decades? What if the firearm was melted down during their annual firearm destruction? How can your agency and property room ensure they are never faced with this liability?

The authors suggest following these nine simple steps to start the discussion on developing a NIBIN policy for your agency and property room:

1. Speak with your state lab or the agency that will be processing NIBIN evidence. Ask them what firearms are eligible, what calendar years apply, what submission guidelines are. Then, devise a plan on the best way to streamline the evidence backlog.

2. Meet with your chain of command to discuss the need for changes.

3. Develop a spreadsheet of all firearms in your property room to track action steps that need to be taken.

4. Decide who will forensically process the firearm and who will make the decision for forensic processing, if it is needed. Does the police department have the capabilities to process the firearm for latent prints and DNA prior to sending it to the lab? If so, this will save the time of the lab professionals and streamline the NIBIN entry.

5. Ensure the serial numbers have been cleared and speak with the investigator to inquire if an ATF trace is needed.

6. Decide who will make the decision on what firearms get sent. Do all fired cartridge cases, found property and evidence firearms, and all staged-for-destruction firearms automatically get sent? Or is it the decision of the investigator? Also, check with your state laboratory so you do not inundate them with backlogged evidence.

7. Who will complete all the required paperwork—property staff or the investigators?

8. Implement a reasonable timeframe for transporting the firearms and firearm-related evidence to the state lab. The goal is to have the evidence delivered and entered as quickly as possible.

9. Ensure reports received from the state laboratory are forwarded to investigations in a timely fashion so that follow-up can be initiated.

As we have seen over the past decade, technology—as it pertains to evidence—is becoming more innovative and changing at a rapid pace. As property and evidence technicians, it is our responsibility to make sure we are impounding and processing the evidence to reflect the change in modern times. If you do not have a NIBIN policy in your agency, start the research and generate the conversation with your chain of command. After all, you could be unintentionally destroying valuable evidence in a criminal case.


About the Authors

Doreen Jokerst has over 20 years of law enforcement experience and currently serves as the Chief of Police for the University of Colorado-Boulder. She holds a master’s degree in psychology and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. She has successfully completed the Northwestern University School of Police Staff and Command, the Senior Management Institute for Police course, and the FBI National Academy.

Maria C. Pettolina has over a decade of forensic experience and has worked for agencies in the states of North Carolina and Colorado as a crime scene investigator and as a supervisor for both crime scene and property and evidence. She is currently employed as a forensic consultant and owner of Future Focus Forensics. Pettolina is a doctoral candidate working towards her D.M. in Management and is published in the field of forensics. Her educational background includes a B.A. in Criminal Justice from LaSalle University and a M.S. in Forensic Medicine from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. For the past seven years, Pettolina has been the lead instructor for a forensics program at a university in Colorado. She has over 1,200 hours of specialized forensic training and has been introduced as an expert in numerous criminal trials. She is a Certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst though the International Association of Identification. She is also a national speaker on emotional wellness for forensic professionals.


References

ATF 2018. National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN). Retrieved from https://www.atf. gov/infographics/national-integrated-ballistic-information-network-nibin

ATF Fact Sheet. 2018. Retrieved from https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/fact-sheet/fact-sheet-national-integrated-ballistic-information-network

Givens, A. 2018. A powerful database helps solve gun crimes. Only two states require police to use it. The Trace. Retrieved from https://www.thetrace.org/2018/09/nibin-ballistics-database-solves-gun-crimes-state-police/

This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
Click here to read the full issue.

 
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