How Weld law enforcement is working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to combat gun crime | MyWindsorNow.com
Tommy Simmons
tsimmons@greeleytribune.com

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How Weld law enforcement is working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to combat gun crime

The Greeley Tribune looks at how the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is partnering with police agencies around Colorado, including the Greeley Police Department, to create a gun database that will be able to match shell casings to crimes.

In 2016, the new year opened with five shootings in Colorado Springs.

Those shootings were spread across the city, but as police collected evidence from each crime scene, detectives began to suspect they were linked.

Police found similarities on the spent shell casings they gathered. Every shell bears a specific "fingerprint" from the gun from which it was fired, a set of distinctive markings on the shell casing left by the gun. Each gun leaves different markings, making shell casings an effective way to trace suspect guns.

Forensic firearm examination, as this process is known, is nothing new. But southern Colorado law enforcement were able to use new access to a national database, set up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to track the suspected guns across multiple shootings. This collection, known as the crime gun intelligence center, gives smaller police departments access to the ATF's computer system, which tracks guns the way DNA databases track people. It's a new collaboration, and police have used it in Denver and Colorado Springs for a few years.

The system will soon become available to police in northern Colorado as well, and the Greeley Police Department is the first local agency to begin work with the ATF on the project.

On June 6, the Greeley City Council voted to allow the Greeley Police Department to partner with the ATF, so officers can use the database to combat gun crime in the city. Greeley police already use forensic firearm investigation to match shell casings to suspect guns, but, Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner said, the new program will give them access to the ATF's nationwide database.

The partnership is still in its infancy, so officers aren't using the program yet. But they expect to be able to do so soon, Garner said.

Once the program is up and running, Greeley officers will be able to collect shell casings from a crime scene and send them to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's laboratory in Arvada, much the same as officers would submit DNA samples for testing. There, investigators will enter the casings' information into a database, which is available to police across the state including, eventually, in Greeley. This means all departments will have access to the same library of information.

"The idea is to not let criminals just jump willy-nilly between jurisdictions," Garner said.

Using information from the system, police will be able to tell if a gun has been used in multiple shootings.

The database is nationwide, said Lisa Meiman, spokeswoman for the ATF, but she said it is rare to see gun crime cross state lines. The crime gun intelligence center will most likely be used to trace guns between Colorado cities.

This is important because often a small number of criminals are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime, she said. If police have evidence those few criminals used the same gun in multiple crimes, prosecutors can charge them for each offense. This is especially useful in gang crime, she said.

Police in the Colorado Springs investigation, for example, learned the 2016 shootings were the result of gang vendettas. Using evidence from the crime gun intelligence center, they arrested four people, all of whom were convicted of crimes.

A few months ago, the ATF sent an agent to work with the Greeley Police Department's gang unit, Garner said, to help coordinate Greeley's use of the information center.

Garner said although the Greeley Police Department is the first agency in northern Colorado to begin implementing the crime gun intelligence center, other law enforcement organizations — such as the Weld County Sheriff's office and the Larimer County Sheriff's office — will soon be involved.

"We just started using the (database) in northern Colorado," Meiman said. "The logistics need to be figured out; we're really at the very beginning."

Origins

The crime gun intelligence center allows local police departments access to the nationwide database managed by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The partnership between the federal bureau and smaller police departments in Colorado began with the Denver Police Department in 2012, said Lisa Meiman, spokeswoman for the ATF. The program spread to the Colorado Springs area not long after. The northern Colorado crime gun intelligence center will be the state’s third.