The latest weapon in Philadelphia’s fight to curb gun violence comes in the form of a van from federal authorities.
Since early April, the city’s forensic unit has been getting help from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, using its mobile crime lab to analyze ballistic evidence while dealing with a current staffing shortage and surge in shootings, Philadelphia Office of Forensic Science Director Michael Garvey said.
“When you’re talking about the level of violence that we’re seeing, we need to aid investigations as quickly as possible, so once again, like in 2012 and like in 2016, and like in every case we have when we’re tracing firearms and running this evidence, we reached out to the ATF for help, and like no better partner, they showed up again,” Garvey said.
The van – one of only three of its kind – is part of the ATF’s National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, the ATF’s national database of ballistic evidence, said Matthew Varisco, the special agent in charge of the ATF’s Philadelphia division.
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It comes with a trailer – which Varisco said has been given to the Philadelphia Police Department to keep – in which firearm examiners shoot guns to examine the ballistic evidence.
Despite being a lab on wheels, however, the van is not being deployed to shooting scenes. Instead, it’s parked outside the city’s forensics lab and acts as a “force multiplier,” allowing for additional ATF staff to help analyze evidence, Varisco said.
Garvey said it’s a much-needed tool because COVID-19, a loss of resources, people leaving the forensics unit and a rise in gun crimes had been slowing down investigations. Those factors caused the process of screening evidence to jump from 48 hours to about four to six weeks, he said.
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This year alone, authorities have recovered more than 2,100 guns used in crimes or carried illegally and are on pace to recover more than 6,200 such guns by the end of the year, Garvey noted. He added that crime guns recovered have increased substantially in recent years. “We are at a record pace of crime guns,” he said.
There has also been an uptick in “personally made firearms” – commonly known as “ghost guns” – which don’t have a serial number and are difficult to trace, Garvey said, adding that these type of guns make up about 10% of those recovered by law enforcement.
He noted that in a given year, the forensic lab’s firearms unit has to analyze some 100,000 pieces of evidence – including anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 spent shell casings – making for a mountain of evidence for the short-staffed team.
“With quicker turnaround on these cases, the hope is that we can continue to get dangerous individuals off of the street sooner,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said, while highlighting the cooperation between the PPD and federal authorities.
She said the forensic lab is looking to get back to its base level of staffing but is also in discussions about later expanding. Meanwhile, five forensic examiner trainees have begun the training program to become qualified firearm examiners, Garvey said.
In the meantime, there’s no timetable for ending the use of the NIBIN van.
“This is an absolute immediate need … They’re welcome to stay as long as they like,” Outlaw said.
There are additional resources for people or communities that have endured gun violence in Philadelphia. Further information can be found here.