An interview with Forensics Services Chief Pam Hofsass
"There is no quick fix to the increased demand for testing and connectivity, however, if you work collaboratively and with an open mind, great things can happen."
~~ Chief Pam Hofsass
It’s great when your organization is in demand: when people see the importance and value your organization brings to the table. But what do you do when you can’t keep up with the demand? It’s both a challenge and a balancing act Forensics Divisions around the country know all too well. We spoke with Pam Hofsass, Chief of the Forensic Services Division of the Contra Cost County Sheriff’s Office to learn about her organization's success in creating efficiency in the face of ever increasing demand for their analysis expertise.
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Your webinar is specifically about building a crime gun intelligence program. Tell us about the program you are involved with or have previously been involved with.
Pam Hofsass: The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Crime Lab provides forensic services to over 24 Law Enforcement agencies within an 804 square mile region and a population of about 1 million. Our Firearms Unit has received, on average, 500 cases /year from 2012- 2015 and these requests include ballistic imaging, comparison/IDs, make & model, function testing, and serial number restoration. Due to limited staff and CSI call-outs, our turnaround times and backlog situation was less than desirable.
In 2012, the NIBIN Heritage System was removed and eventually replaced with Evofinder. The Evofinder System was limited to cases within the County as there is no connection to NIBIN/ATF. The Evofinder System of ballistic imaging provided information for linking cases but even after 1 year of entries, the FA Unit reported only 3-4 Leads/month. In 2015, the FSD acquired the IBISTRAXHD3D System. The HD3D offers speed, accuracy, and reliability, not to mention the connect to the NIBIN/ATF database. The FSD has increased its Leads/month from 3-4 (with Evofinder) to anywhere from 23 to 112/month with HD3D. We connect shooting-related incidents about 30% of the time with cases from outside our County. April of 2016, we became a beta-test site for the NNCTC (ATF NIBIN National Correlation and Training Center) which increased our ability to provide real– time investigative leads and allowed our Firearms Examiners to concentrate on the Comparison/ID requests. 2016, the number of requests increased by 139% while our backlog decreased by 50%. To mitigate personnel shortages, we trained our CSI staff to be NIBIN entry proficient which has also help decrease our backlog. We also incorporated iPads for image documentation and case notes in an electronic format in order to save time and effort for staff.
JCH: What are the biggest or most significant challenges in managing a crime gun intelligence program? How have you overcome these challenges (or how have you seen these challenges overcome?)
Pam: One of the biggest challenges to success includes the timely delivery of evidence and crime-guns to the Lab for testing and NIBIN entry. Although we have published Bulletins and Flyers, Newsletters and Monthly Reports, it seems as if there remains a delay in delivery. We are currently looking into a drop-box procedure for Cartridge Casings (only) at our County jail which is open 24/7. The one-stop envelope would provide a Chain of Custody as well as the Lab Request for testing
JCH: How do you engage other agencies to ensure successful prosecution of gun crime cases?
Pam: We work with our DA’s Office very closely in order to assure that any evidence that may require additional testing is requested in advance of the trial dates. Finally, our system is far from perfect – we continually seek ideas and solutions from other Labs and Agencies. There is no quick fix to the increased demand for testing and connectivity, however, if you work collaboratively and with an open mind, great things can happen. We continue to make improvements in order to provide the real-time investigative leads that are crucial to the successful outcome of any criminal investigation.