This article is about firearm related crime and what we as a community – no, as a society – should be doing about it.
It is NOT about guns and what we should or should not be doing about them.
It’s really about stopping criminals armed with guns and the cyclical and repetitive violent acts they commit.
In New Jersey the thorough and systematic investigation of crimes involving the use of firearms is a public policy priority driven top down by legislators and administrators across the state to police officers, forensic experts, and prosecuting attorneys.
I think that it helps to better serve the public in three important ways.
- Justice for Victims: The first relates to the victims of gun violence and is the very object of the pledge we make every day in schools, at meetings and all types of events “. . . with liberty and justice for all.”
- Resolution for Loved Ones: The second relates to the survivors – the loved ones of the victims who, while they may never attain complete closure, they certainly deserve final resolution of the criminal act.
- Restore Peace in Neighborhoods: The third relates to larger groups of people shaken by the gun crimes in their communities and the personal sufferings of their friends and neighbors. Entire communities soon become victims themselves to the economic costs associated with gun crime as the businesses flee & jobs disappear, the property values plummet and the tax base dries up.
From what I have observed, when crimes involving firearms go unsolved, victims are denied liberty and justice, their loved ones robbed of resolution and closure, and their neighborhoods foresaken peace and stability. The community’s trust in the criminal justice system decreases while the demand for police and emergency services increases thereby impacting the cost and quality of these services.
So just what do I mean by thorough and systematic investigation?
Vern Geberth points out in his book entitled: Practical Homicide Investigation, that the answer to the question “What has occurred?” can be determined only after a careful and intelligent examination of the crime scene and after the professional evaluation of the various bits and pieces of the evidence gathered by the investigators.
When guns are involved there are certain bits and pieces of evidence that investigators must always look for which originate from inside and outside the gun itself. Many of them require a series of well-coordinated handoffs which must be managed in a timely manner in order for the information generated to be of most value to investigators.
- From the inside of the gun comes data in the form of unique markings left on fired ammunition components by the internal working parts of the gun during the discharge process - this is commonly referred to as “ballistics data”.
- From the outside - comes identifying data in the form of make, model, and serial number that can be used to track the transactional history of the gun. In addition, other valuable forensic data, such as DNA, latent fingerprints, and trace evidence (e.g. blood, hairs, fibers, etc.), which can help police identify a person associated with the gun, can be found on the surface bearing areas of the firearm and ammunition components.
I refer to this as the inside-out approach in my book entitled: The 13 Critical Tasks: An Inside-out Approach to Solving ore Gun Crime
I am often asked why I use the phrase "thoroughly and systematically investigate ALL crimes involving the use of firearms".
Experience has shown over and over again that even the seemingly insignificant shootings, like those without injury or the common “Stop Sign” shooting , can often provide the missing link – one of those key bits and pieces of evidence – to complete the puzzle and answer the basic questions of: “What happened and who done it?”
Furthermore, by collecting the inside-out bits and pieces of data from all crime related guns taken into police custody there is also considerable strategic value in helping law enforcement identify patterns and trends in illegal gun markets and in identifying the traffickers responsible for unlawfully supplying guns to criminals.
Lastly, criminals move and evidence of their crimes becomes scattered across city, state and even national borders – today the crime solving success of a murder investigation in one city may well hinge upon what a police officer in a small town 20 miles away does or does not do with the gun he or she takes into custody as part of a felony car stop.
Therefore, I believe that in order to thoroughly and systematically investigate the most serious of gun crimes involving firearms we must investigate them all region by region.
If you view this as I do – then we are in good company alongside the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
In October of 2011, the IACP with support from the Joyce Foundation published a report entitled: Reducing Gun Violence in Our Communities: A Leadership Guide for Law Enforcement on Effective Strategies and Programs. The first Chapter called upon agencies to designate reduction of gun violence as a priority mission of the agency.
In 2012, the IACP membership adopted a resolution number FC.028.a12 entitled: Regional Crime Gun Processing Protocols at its 119th Annual Conference in San Diego, CA. The resolution expressed the IACP’s belief that regionally applied crime gun and evidence processing protocols are a best practice for the investigation of firearm related crimes and encouraged law enforcement officials, prosecuting attorneys and forensic experts to collaborate on the design of mutually agreeable protocols best suited for their region.
The resolution called upon agencies to address each of the following critical areas:
- The thorough investigation of each gun crime & the safe and proper collection of all crime guns & related evidence.
- The performance of appropriate NCIC transactions (e.g. stolen, recovered).
- The timely and comprehensive tracing of all crime guns through ATF & eTrace.
- The timely processing of crime gun test fires and ballistics evidence through NIBIN.
- The timely lab submission and analysis of other forensic data from crime guns and related evidence (e.g. DNA, latent fingerprints, trace evidence).
- The generation, dissemination and investigative follow-up of the intelligence derived from the protocols.
Timeliness, as noted in the bullets above, is critical to these processes as the longer an armed criminal remains free the more opportunities there are to do more harm and create more victims.
Outside of New Jersey, I haven’t heard many community voices insisting upon this public policy approach – although there is some discussion building in a couple of neighboring states.
There are however, many voices involved on both sides of a “more guns - less guns” debate in this country – it is too bad that most of those voices remain silent on this issue.
Perhaps it’s because they think that the thorough and systematic investigation of all gun related crimes is already being done as a matter of consistent policy across our high-tech “CSI”-influenced America.
Well it’s not – plain and simple. It's not.
New Jersey however, has stepped out front and apart from other states in this public policy area and it got there through evolving process.
In 2008, the New Jersey Attorney General issued Law Enforcement Directive 2008-1 - establishing a partnership with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to take full advantage of certain Federal data systems such as: The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) which can ascertain whether a recovered firearm was reported stolen, the National Integrated Ballistics [Information] Network (NIBIN), which can reveal whether a recovered firearm is related to any other criminal episode or person and the ATF eTrace System, which discloses the identity of the recovered firearm’s first purchaser, when it was purchased and the retailer from whom it was purchased.
In 2013, the New Jersey State Legislature and the Governor saw fit to raise the policy level of the 2008 AG Directive and essentially codify it as State Law: P.L.2013, CHAPTER 162, (C.52:17B-9.18 &
The wording of the new law is clearly focused on stopping criminals who use guns to harm others and on protecting the public from the dangers of the resulting violence:
The Legislature finds and declares that to further provide for the public safety and the well-being of the citizens of this State, and to respond to growing dangers and threats of gun violence, it is altogether fitting and proper for the law enforcement departments and agencies of this State to fully participate, through the utilization of electronic technology, in interjurisdictional information and analysis sharing programs and systems to deter and solve gun crimes.
To effectuate this objective, it shall be the policy of this State for its various law enforcement agencies to utilize fully the federal Criminal Justice Information System to transmit and receive information relating to the seizure and recovery of firearms by law enforcement, in particular the National Crime Information Center System to determine whether a firearm has been reported stolen; the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives E-Trace System to establish the identity of a firearm’s first purchaser, where that firearm was purchased and when it was purchased; and the National Integrated Ballistics Identification Network to ascertain whether a particular firearm is related to any other criminal event or person.
In a letter to the assembly indicating his support for the major portion of the new law and his non-support of a subsequently removed section, New Jersey's Governor wrote: Codifying our existing law enforcement regulations is sensible, and ensures that all State and local officials follow a single set of practices. I am pleased to be able to add this valuable resource to our ongoing fight against the criminal use of firearms, and the dangers to our families and communities by those who scornfully abuse our right to bear arms.
The 2008, AG's Directive directed the New Jersey law enforcement community to do certain things – five years later the major points of that directive were codified into law as the Policy of the State.
During its lifecycle, the AG directive resulted in some significant albeit patchy improvements. However, today it is the force of the new law and the commitment of those who have been held accountable that rapidly drives the improvements in New Jersey's firearm crime enforcement operations.
Today the New Jersey State Police can process a suspected crime gun and tag all the bases of the IACP Crime Gun Processing Protocol - in 24 hours - faster than it takes you to get a rush order back from the dry cleaner.
I believe, like New Jersey believes that - policy leads the way - and that the thorough and systematic investigation of crimes involving the use of firearms should be a public policy priority driven from the top down by law enforcement administrators; or at the request of the people and their elected representatives.