The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’
National Integrated Ballistic Information Network Program
Audit Report 05-30
Office of the Inspector General
Our audit assessed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) management and implementation of the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) program. Through the NIBIN program, the ATF deploys Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS) equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies for their use in imaging and comparing crime firearms evidence. The equipment allows firearms examiners and technicians to acquire analog images of the markings made by a firearm on bullets and cartridge casings.1 The images are then electronically compared to other images in the system and a list of potential matches is generated. A firearms examiner can then look at the original evidence for potential matches to identify “hits,” which are successful matches between ballistics images entered into NIBIN.2 Hits result in a linkage of two different criminal cases.3 By minimizing the amount of non-matching evidence that firearms examiners must inspect to identify a hit, the NIBIN program enables law enforcement agencies to discover links between crimes more quickly, and also to discover links that would not have been possible to find without the technology. Linking one crime to another can provide law enforcement agencies new leads to help solve the crimes.4
We performed the audit to evaluate whether: (1) the NIBIN program has been fully deployed with the capability to compare ballistic images on a national level; (2) controls are adequate to ensure that all bullets and cartridge casings collected at crime scenes and from test-fires of crime firearms are entered into NIBIN; and (3) ballistic images of bullets and cartridge casings from newly manufactured, imported, or sold firearms are entered into NIBIN, in violation of the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1996.
Summary of Audit Results
As of January 2005, the NIBIN program had been deployed to 231 of the 38,717 law enforcement agencies or divisions of law enforcement agencies that had received an Originating Agency Reporting Identifier (ORI) number from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).5 Through the 231 agencies with IBIS equipment, a total of 7,653 agencies with ORI numbers had contributed evidence into NIBIN.
Since fiscal year (FY) 2000, $96.3 million was made available to support the NIBIN program, of which $95.1 million was expended as of the end of FY 2004. As of October 22, 2004, the deployed equipment had been used to enter approximately 888,000 records of firearms evidence into NIBIN. However, we found that the program equipment was not deployed to state and local law enforcement agencies that could best utilize it. For example, 71 state and local law enforcement agencies that received the program equipment were entering little evidence into the system. On the other hand, 37 state and local law enforcement agencies that did not receive the program equipment were submitting substantial amounts of evidence for entry into NIBIN to those agencies that received the equipment.
The NIBIN program also is capable of comparing ballistic images on a national level, but users rarely perform national searches because their investigations rarely identify a need. However, we identified seven NIBIN partner agencies that could benefit from additional guidance or training from the ATF when performing national searches.6 For example, the Idaho State Police indicated that it had not performed national searches because of a lack of training.
We also found that the ATF had not maximized the entry of bullets and shell casings from crime scenes into NIBIN. For example:
Finally, we found that the ATF had established minimal controls to ensure that ballistic images of bullets and cartridge casings from newly manufactured, imported, or sold firearms are not entered into NIBIN in violation of the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1996. However, we found no evidence that NIBIN users were entering prohibited data into the system.
A more extensive discussion of each finding and its associated recommendations is contained in the Findings and Recommendations section of this report. The full details of our audit scope and methodology are contained in Appendix I.
NIBIN Program Overview
Every firearm has unique individual characteristics associated with its barrel and firing mechanism. When a firearm is discharged, it transfers these characteristics – in the form of microscopic scratches and dents – to the bullets and cartridge casings fired within it. As the bullet travels through the barrel of the firearm, the barrel leaves marks on the bullet. The firearm’s breech mechanism also leaves marks on the ammunition’s cartridge casing.
Until the early 1990s, comparisons of bullet and cartridge casing marks were manually performed by firearms examiners using comparison microscopes that could compare two bullets or casings at the same time. This process was very tedious and slow. After the comparison, the firearms examiner made photographs of the images using the comparison microscopes.
With the development of digital cameras, the ballistic imaging process was computerized in the early 1990s. Digital photographs of bullets and cartridge casings were scanned into a computer, stored in a database, and analyzed using a software program. All firearms examiners with access to the computerized system could compare the marks on a large number of bullets or cartridge casings. The computerized system was interconnected across many law enforcement agencies through a telecommunications system that permitted the rapid comparison of bullets and cartridge casings used in crimes in one jurisdiction with those used in crimes in another. Linking one crime to another can provide law enforcement agencies with new leads that can help solve these crimes.
Firearms technicians continue to use IBIS equipment to enter digital images of the markings made by a firearm on bullets and cartridge casings and perform comparisons to other bullets and cartridge casings entered into the system. If a “high-confidence” candidate emerges as a possible match, firearms examiners compare the original evidence to confirm a match. In funding and supporting the NIBIN program, the ATF provides state and local law enforcement agencies with an intelligence tool that many could not afford otherwise.
In the early 1990s, both the ATF and the FBI had ballistic imaging systems. The ATF’s system was initially called CEASEFIRE, but was later renamed the Integrated Ballistics Imaging System (IBIS). Initially, IBIS compared only markings on bullets. The FBI’s system was called DRUGFIRE and initially compared only markings on cartridge cases, but was later expanded to compare markings on bullets. Because the ATF’s IBIS system and the FBI’s DRUGFIRE system contained different firearms records, some federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies used both systems. However, the two systems were duplicative and inefficient. Ultimately, in 1999 the ATF and the FBI agreed to establish a unified system known as NIBIN by using the: (1) IBIS equipment used by the ATF; and (2) secure, high-speed telecommunications network used by the FBI. In December 1999, the ATF and the FBI entered into a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for joint agency implementation of the NIBIN program.
Deploying NIBIN with Nationwide Search Capabilities
Although the NIBIN program has been fully deployed with the capability to compare ballistic images on a national level, we found that the IBIS equipment has not been deployed to sites that could best utilize it, and the nationwide search capability of NIBIN is rarely used.
Deployment: In June 2000, the ATF established a plan to deploy the IBIS equipment over a 24-month period during FYs 2001 and 2002. We analyzed the data provided by the ATF for the 231 law enforcement agencies that had received the IBIS equipment and found that the ATF deployed it to 92 percent of the agencies by the end of FY 2002. The IBIS equipment sent to the remaining agencies was completed after FY 2002. According to an ATF official, delay in receiving the appropriation from Congress for FY 2002 was a contributing factor for not completing full deployment. Despite the delays, however, the ATF deployed the IBIS equipment to all agencies for which deployment was planned.
While the IBIS equipment has been fully deployed, we determined that it was not deployed effectively. We analyzed the 888,447 records of firearms evidence entered into NIBIN as of October 22, 2004. We found that 71 partner agencies that received IBIS equipment through the NIBIN program contributed very little evidence to NIBIN. We also found that 37 non-partner agencies that did not receive the IBIS equipment submitted considerable evidence to NIBIN through a partner agency. Our analysis showed that:
The data indicates that the ATF needs to determine whether additional IBIS equipment should be purchased and deployed to high-usage agencies, or whether IBIS equipment should be redistributed from low- to high-usage agencies. According to the former NIBIN Program Director who oversaw deployment of the equipment, the initial focus of the ATF was to deploy the equipment as quickly as possible. The ATF began monitoring the participating partner agencies, but it used a simplistic measurement of the monthly usage of each partner. No in-depth analyses or studies were done to compare participation of partner agencies to non-partner agencies. The current NIBIN Program Director told us that the ATF is considering redistributing equipment to agencies who can better utilize it.
Search Capability: We found that prior to November 2003, NIBIN could only track and compare ballistic images locally or regionally, not nationally. In November 2003, NIBIN was enhanced to allow nationwide comparisons against all data within the system. According to NIBIN officials, there is no authority or control over how the users elect to search the database to compare nationwide evidence. ATF officials believe that the users are the best judges in conducting searches within the system, because they know best whether the crime evidence collected may be linked to other crimes.
We visited 22 of the 196 partner agencies (11 percent) that contributed evidence into NIBIN and sent survey questionnaires to the remaining 174 partner agencies (89 percent). We asked them how they utilized the NIBIN search features. We found that NIBIN’s nationwide search capability was rarely used because the participating agencies believed they rarely needed to perform such searches. Also, the agencies rarely received requests for searches from those agencies that submitted evidence for entry into NIBIN. However, we did identify seven partner agencies (Prince George’s County, Maryland Police Department; Omaha, Nebraska Police Department Crime Laboratory; Idaho State Police; Massachusetts State Police – Sturbridge; West Virginia State Police – Charleston; Kansas Bureau of Investigation – Topeka; and the Lake County, Indiana Crime Laboratory) that might benefit in performing nationwide searches with additional guidance, training, or assistance from the ATF. These agencies indicated that they did not perform national searches because of: (1) unfamiliarity with, or lack of training on, how to use the system to perform the searches; or (2) the time, manpower, or difficulty to perform the searches. Therefore, additional guidance, training, or assistance from the ATF could enable these agencies to perform national searches when the need arises.
Entering Ballistic Images into NIBIN
We found that the ATF had not taken steps to maximize the entry of firearms evidence into NIBIN. We determined that: (1) many law enforcement agencies were not participating in the program; (2) the ATF was promoting the program to law enforcement agencies, but not enough to maximize participation; (3) many law enforcement agencies were not maximizing the amount of firearms evidence collected and submitted for entry into NIBIN; (4) a high-volume law enforcement agency was not reviewing high-confidence matches in NIBIN; (5) many law enforcement agencies were not adequately managing backlogged evidence; and (6) other federal agencies were not maximizing their use of NIBIN. Each of these problem areas are discussed below.
Participating Law Enforcement Agencies: Only 7,653 of 38,717 U.S. law enforcement agencies participated in NIBIN as of October 22, 2004. Further, 96 percent of the evidence entered into NIBIN was contributed by only 1,520 of the 7,653 agencies. Data in NIBIN is either collected and entered by a NIBIN partner agency or collected by a non-partner agency and submitted to a partner agency for entry. We reviewed the NIBIN data and determined that participation among partner agencies varied widely. The top 20 percent of partner agencies contributed 75 percent of the evidence to NIBIN. The bottom 55 percent of partner agencies contributed only 9 percent of the evidence to NIBIN. We also compared the amount of data entered into NIBIN to the amount of firearms crimes reported to the FBI. We determined that while the gap between the reported firearms crimes and the evidence entered into NIBIN has narrowed, the potential exists for significant amounts of additional evidence to be entered into NIBIN each year. We also found that some agencies had very high hit rates even though the data they entered was comparatively low. The primary reason given by these agencies for achieving high hit rates was that almost all firearms evidence received was entered into NIBIN.
Promoting the Program: The ATF has taken important steps to promote the NIBIN program among law enforcement agencies by publishing program information on the Internet, addressing law enforcement groups at conferences, and conducting regional conferences for NIBIN partner agencies. To evaluate ATF’s effectiveness, we asked officials at 16 partner agencies we visited about the ATF’s promotion efforts. We also sent survey questionnaires to 174 partner agencies and 411 participating non-partner agencies that contributed evidence to NIBIN, and 85 non-participating non-partner agencies. We found that:
Collecting and Submitting Evidence: Our analysis of the data showed that the more evidence was entered into NIBIN, the greater chance that hits were identified. We found that for the 20 percent of partner agencies that contributed 75 percent of the evidence to NIBIN, these partners also identified 72 percent of the hits. For the bottom 55 percent of partner agencies that contributed only 9 percent of the evidence, these agencies identified only 9 percent of the hits. Consequently, our analysis indicated that agencies are not entering the maximum amount of data into NIBIN to produce favorable results. For example, we found that 72 percent of the evidence in NIBIN was related to cartridge casings and only 28 percent was related to bullets. NIBIN participants told us that the quality of the bullet images produced by NIBIN was not adequate enough to generate hits. As a result, many agencies were not entering bullet evidence or were entering only a small proportion of bullet evidence, compared with cartridge casing evidence.
We also found that most of the agencies that received RBI units to capture cartridge casing images were dissatisfied with the operation of those units. Some of the agencies returned the RBI units to the ATF and other agencies were no longer using them.
Comparing Images: Partner agencies who do not review the high-confidence candidates within NIBIN to identify “hits” fail to fully utilize the program’s capability.9 We found that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation – Decatur, a very high-volume NIBIN partner agency, did not examine potential matches identified by NIBIN. At the time of our review, the Georgia agency had not examined any potential matches since January 2002 and had about 3,350 high-confidence candidates that had not been reviewed. An official from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stated that high-confidence candidates were not being reviewed because: (1) funding for overtime was not available for firearms examiners, and (2) firearms examiners had not had the opportunity to work with the IBIS equipment. The agency official also told us that using the IBIS equipment was considered a duty outside of the firearm examiner’s daily laboratory activities.
Backlog of Evidence Awaiting Entry: Delays in entering firearms evidence into NIBIN prevent linking the evidence to other crimes that could help authorities identify new leads and apprehend a criminal. Such apprehensions could prevent additional crimes from being committed. To determine whether participating agencies were entering firearms evidence into NIBIN in a timely manner, we visited 22 NIBIN partner agencies and sent survey questionnaires to the remaining 174 partner agencies that had contributed evidence to the system. We also sent survey questionnaires to 411 participating non-partner agencies. We found that many of the partner agencies we visited had significant backlogs of firearms evidence that had not been entered into NIBIN. For example, one partner agency (the Prince George’s County, Maryland, Police Department) had 1,000 or more bullets and cartridge casings, and 269 test-fired bullets, cartridge casings, and firearms that had not been entered into NIBIN.10 We also found that many of the partner agencies we surveyed had significant backlogs of firearms evidence that had not been entered into NIBIN. The following shows a summary of those partner agencies surveyed that had backlogged evidence.
Summary of Partner Agency Survey Responses Indicating
The participating non-partner agencies that were surveyed did not have a significant amount of backlogged firearms evidence.
Federal Agencies Using NIBIN: In January 2001, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Attorney General issued memoranda requiring that all law enforcement agencies within those two departments should trace every recovered crime firearm through the ATF’s National Tracing Center and enter bullets and cartridge casings found at crime scenes into NIBIN. During our audit, we sent survey questionnaires to the ATF, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), and United States Marshals Service (USMS) to ask whether or not they collect firearms evidence. We found that all of the agencies except the BOP collect such evidence. The BOP indicated that it does not collect firearms evidence because this type of enforcement falls within the jurisdiction of the FBI. Four agencies – the ATF, FBI, DEA, and USMS – also indicated that they submit firearms evidence for entry into NIBIN. The DEA said that the only locations it has for participation in the NIBIN program are the Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York division offices. The DEA also explained that it is currently working to revise the guidance given to division offices on the ballistic testing of seized firearms, and that it will be working with the ATF on specific requirements for firearms submissions to the NIBIN program.
We also found that the ATF had established a pilot project in the Los Angeles Gun Center to determine the feasibility and resources for imaging 100 percent of the recovered firearms by federal agencies. During the pilot project, the ATF developed protocols and procedures for test-firing and imaging all firearms recovered in the Southern California area. Protocols were also developed for maintaining and archiving test-fired evidence and associated documentation, so that the firearms evidence could be destroyed. The NIBIN Program Director told us, however, that funding was not available for the ATF to test-fire all federally seized firearms and enter all firearms evidence collected by federal agencies into NIBIN.
Preventing Unauthorized Data from Being Entered into NIBIN
The Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 prohibits the establishment of any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions. This provision prohibits directly linking ballistic images through a centralized computer database to both the firearms themselves (a firearms registry) and the identities of the private citizens who possess imaged firearms (firearms owners’ registry). Therefore, the IBIS equipment deployed to law enforcement agencies participating in the NIBIN program should not be used to capture or store ballistic images from newly manufactured, imported, or sold firearms, and can not be linked to any systems that contain such ballistic images.
Two states, Maryland and New York, have adopted laws for establishing systems that directly link images of newly manufactured or sold handguns to handgun owners. The Maryland law, enacted in April 2000, required that:
The New York law was enacted in August 2000 and required the ballistic imaging of all handguns shipped into the state after March 1, 2001. The theory behind the entry of newly manufactured or sold handguns is that the markings on a fired bullet or an empty cartridge case found at a crime scene could be compared to markings in the database, thus identifying the handgun used by the criminal.
Both Maryland and New York established database systems to track firearms data on new handguns. The Maryland database is called the Maryland – Integrated Ballistic Identification System (MD-IBIS) and is operated by the Maryland State Police. The New York database is called the Combined Ballistic Identification System (COBIS) and is operated by the New York State Police.
The ATF required NIBIN users to sign an MOU that prohibits them from entering ballistic images of bullets and cartridge casings from newly manufactured, imported, or sold firearms into NIBIN. During our site visits to 22 NIBIN partner agencies and through our survey questionnaires to the remaining 174 partner agencies that had contributed evidence into NIBIN, we inquired as to whether the agencies entered data from new firearms into NIBIN. None of the partner agencies indicated they did so. Using data from the MD-IBIS and the COBIS databases, we also performed comparisons of the firearms data in the NIBIN database to determine whether any new handguns entered into the two state databases had also been entered into NIBIN. While the comparisons identified a few matches, we determined that the data was entered into NIBIN as a result of a crime and, therefore, did not violate the prohibition against entering new firearms data into NIBIN. We found no evidence that NIBIN users were entering prohibited data into the system.
To improve the operation and success of the NIBIN program, we made 12 recommendations to the ATF. These include recommendations to: