The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’
National Integrated Ballistic Information Network Program
Audit Report 05-30
Office of the Inspector General
We determined that the ATF completed deployment of the IBIS equipment during FY 2003 to all 231 sites contained in its deployment plan. However, some of the equipment was not sent to agencies that could best utilize it. Our analyses found that 37 agencies that did not receive IBIS equipment had submitted more firearms data for entry into NIBIN than some agencies that received the IBIS equipment. This analysis indicates a need for the ATF to determine whether additional IBIS equipment should be purchased and deployed to these high-usage agencies, or whether IBIS equipment should be redistributed from low- to high-usage agencies. We also determined that NIBIN is capable of comparing ballistic images on a national level and that most NIBIN users are aware of this capability. We identified seven agencies that could benefit when performing nationwide searches with additional guidance, training, or assistance from the ATF.
To evaluate the ATF’s deployment of IBIS equipment to participating law enforcement agencies, we: (1) interviewed NIBIN program officials at the ATF, (2) obtained and reviewed the ATF’s deployment plan for NIBIN, (3) reviewed the methodology used by the ATF to select participants for the program, (4) compared the current status of deployment to the deployment schedule, and (5) obtained and analyzed firearms data entered into NIBIN for both partner agencies and non-partner agencies.
In a June 7, 2000, memorandum, the NIBIN Executive Board established a deployment plan with a tentative 24-month schedule for delivering the IBIS equipment during FYs 2001 and 2002. NIBIN sites were selected to receive equipment based on such factors as population, rate of violent crime, and demonstration of commitment to ballistic technology through the past use of IBIS or DRUGFIRE equipment. Through this preliminary deployment plan, site surveys were conducted at each agency scheduled to receive equipment to ensure that the type of equipment sent matched the needs and capabilities of the receiving agency. The ATF’s NIBIN contractor conducted site visits and met with upper management from the partner agencies. The contractor used a site survey to obtain information to deliver and install the IBIS equipment. The contractor also discussed the responsibilities of each agency and provided a copy of the MOU that was to be executed between the ATF and each partner agency. The contractor also provided each partner agency with the technical requirements that the facility needed to meet before the IBIS equipment could be provided. The contractor coordinated with local ATF personnel and each partner agency’s staff on the details of deploying the equipment and coordinating the necessary training. Finally, NIBIN officials told us that they committed to placing at least one site in each state to ensure nationwide coverage.
We determined that much of the equipment was delivered before the deployment plan, methodology, and budget were established. Specifically, according to the ATF, the IBIS equipment was sent to 65 of the 231 NIBIN sites before FY 2001.30 Candidates were evaluated on a case-by-case basis and, as funding became available, the equipment was delivered.
In addition, the IBIS equipment was sent to 19 of the 231 NIBIN sites after FY 2002. An ATF official explained that most of the equipment was sent prior to development of the deployment plan because the ATF’s focus was on moving the equipment as quickly as possible. The official attributed the delay in completing full deployment by the end of FY 2002 to: (1) delays in receiving the congressional appropriation for FY 2002, (2) problems during equipment installation, and (3) the transition of the FBI’s responsibilities for the network to the ATF. Despite the delays, to date the ATF has deployed the IBIS equipment to all agencies for which delivery was planned.
While the IBIS equipment has been fully deployed, we determined that it was not sent to agencies that could best utilize it. We obtained a copy of the NIBIN database as of October 22, 2004, and found that 196 partner agencies had entered 888,447 pieces of firearms data into the system.31 We also determined that at least 7,653 law enforcement agencies that had received Originating Agency Reporting Identifier (ORI) numbers from the FBI contributed the 888,447 data items.32 We analyzed the entries and found that many of the partner agencies that received the IBIS equipment had entered only minimal firearms data into NIBIN, whereas some non-partner agencies that did not receive the IBIS equipment had submitted much more firearms data for entry into the system. Our analysis showed that:
As the data indicates, some partner agencies that received IBIS equipment contributed very little evidence to NIBIN. Conversely, some non-partner agencies that did not have the IBIS equipment submitted considerable evidence through a partner agency. Accordingly, the ATF needs to determine whether additional IBIS equipment should be purchased and deployed to these high-usage agencies, or whether IBIS equipment should be redistributed from low-usage agencies to high-usage agencies. The NIBIN Program Director told us that the ATF’s initial focus was to deploy the equipment as quickly as possible and that not enough attention was directed towards ensuring the equipment was sent to sites that could best utilize it. Around 1999, the ATF began monitoring the partner agencies, but it was a simplistic measurement of the monthly usage of each partner. The NIBIN Program Director told us that no in-depth analyses or studies were done to compare participation of partner agencies to non-partner agencies. The official also stated that the ATF is considering redistributing equipment from low-usage agencies to high-usage agencies because they can better utilize the equipment.
We interviewed ATF officials to see if IBIS was capable of performing nationwide comparisons of ballistic images associated with crime firearms. Nationwide comparisons can help law enforcement officials link crimes across jurisdictions when the same firearm is used to commit crimes in multiple jurisdictions. We also visited 22 of the 196 NIBIN partner agencies that contributed evidence to NIBIN as of October 22, 2004, and sent survey questionnaires to the remaining 174 partner agencies that contributed evidence to NIBIN to understand how each uses the nationwide comparison.
We determined that prior to November 2003, NIBIN tracked and compared ballistic images either locally or regionally. The NIBIN system is made up of servers located in Ammendale, MD; Atlanta, GA; and Walnut Creek, CA, connected to the 12 NIBIN regions as shown in Appendix VI. Most of the regions are further divided into sub-regions covering NIBIN partner agencies within the same region as shown in Appendix VII . For example, the Walnut Creek, CA, server is connected to four regions, one of which is Region 1a for Southern California . The Southern California region is partitioned into 3 sections covering the southern, central, and northern sections of Region 1a. The southern partition serves 2 partner agencies; the northern partition serves 3 partner agencies; and the central partition serves 10 partner agencies.
NIBIN automatically performs a local search as data is entered into the system. A local search is one where the data is compared against other data in the same partition within the region. For example, in Region 1a when a partner agency in the southern partition enters evidence into NIBIN, the evidence is automatically compared against other evidence entered by that partner agency as well as evidence entered by the other partner agency within the southern region partition of Region 1a.
Before November 2003, a regional search could also be performed by the agency entering the data, but the search was not automatic and had to be manually selected. The agency performing the search could select the entire region, or could select which agencies within the region to include and not include in the search. Nationwide searches were not possible.
In November 2003, NIBIN was enhanced to allow nationwide searches against all data in the system. The nationwide search is similar to the regional search, except that the search must be made against one server at a time, and the searching agency must first select which server to search against. The server then can choose to search against either all regions and agencies, or specific regions or agencies within the server.
According to NIBIN officials, the ATF delegates to users the authority and control over how to search the database to compare nationwide firearms evidence. Officials believe that the users are the best judges in conducting searches within the system because they know best whether the crime evidence collected might be linked to other crimes. Further, the users are more familiar with the cases and crimes in their respective areas. Officials added that, with a handful of exceptions, almost all firearms crimes occur in the vicinity where the firearms are found. Generally, users make nationwide database searches only on high-profile cases that are either national in nature or where the user has specific leads in the case.
Through site visits to 22 NIBIN partner agencies and survey questionnaires sent to the remaining 174 NIBIN partners that received RDAS equipment, we asked each agency how it performs searches. We found that the nationwide search capability was rarely used because the participating agencies rarely had a need to perform such searches or rarely received requests for such searches from agencies that submitted evidence to them for entry into NIBIN. Examples of typical responses we received from the 22 NIBIN partner agencies we visited related to how they use the search capabilities are included in Appendix XII.
We received responses from 160 of the 174 NIBIN partner agencies that were mailed surveys. For the 160 surveys we received back, 153 answered our question related to regional searches and 152 answered our question related to national searches. As shown in the following table, the survey results showed that national and regional searches are not used often by some partner agencies.
Responses from Surveyed Partner Agencies
The explanations regarding the regional searches for the agencies that responded “rarely” or “never” are contained in Appendix XIII. The explanations regarding the national searches for the agencies that responded “rarely” or “never” are contained in Appendix XIV.
The site visit and survey results showed that most of the agencies were aware of the regional and nationwide search capabilities but did not perform them, because the agencies either did not see a need for searching beyond their local area or had received no requests from the submitting non-partner agencies. However, we identified seven partner agencies that indicated they did not perform the regional or national searches because of:
As a result, if a situation arises where a regional or national search might be warranted, these agencies may not be able to perform the searches and may have to seek assistance from the ATF, which could delay the results and affect the agencies’ investigations. The ATF needs to ensure that these agencies receive the training, guidance or assistance to perform regional or national searches from one of the ATF laboratories or the NIBIN contractor.
The ATF did not fully deploy the NIBIN program equipment as planned within the two-year schedule. While the ATF planned to complete deployment by the end of FY 2002, eight percent of the NIBIN partner agencies received their equipment in FY 2003. Although the system was not deployed on schedule, it was fully deployed by the time of our audit. However, the ATF was more concerned with distributing the equipment as quickly as possible instead of ensuring that it was sent to sites that could best utilize it. As a result, we found that many non-partner agencies that did not receive IBIS equipment submitted more evidence into NIBIN than partner agencies that received the IBIS equipment. Consequently, the ATF needs to determine whether additional equipment should be purchased and sent to the high-usage non-partner agencies, or whether it should be redistributed from the low- to the high-usage non-partner agencies.
We also determined that: (1) NIBIN does have the capability to perform comparisons on a nationwide basis, and (2) most of the NIBIN partner agencies were aware of the nationwide search capabilities of NIBIN. However, the nationwide search feature of NIBIN is rarely used because most participating partner agencies rarely need to perform such searches. Also, those agencies rarely receive requests for nationwide searches from non-partner agencies submitting evidence to them. We did identify a small number of partner agencies that might benefit when performing nationwide searches with additional guidance, training, or assistance from the ATF.
We recommend that the ATF:
The ATF needs to take steps to increase the number of ballistic images entered into NIBIN. Only about 20 percent of the law enforcement agencies with potential to participate in NIBIN actually contributed evidence into the system. Participation in NIBIN could be improved if the ATF: (1) better promotes the use and benefits of NIBIN to law enforcement agencies, and (2) involves the partner agencies more in promoting the NIBIN program to other law enforcement agencies in their area. We also found that participating agencies were submitting a much smaller proportion of bullets into NIBIN than cartridge casings because NIBIN did not produce good quality images of bullets. Most of the agencies stated that it was not worth the resources needed to enter bullets in the system because the poor quality images resulted in few hits. In addition, we found potential matches in NIBIN had not been reviewed by one high-volume partner agency since January 2002, and therefore potential matches were not identified and pursued. The ATF also needs to provide guidance to NIBIN partners by stressing the importance of viewing potential matches (correlations) in a timely manner and by ensuring that NIBIN accurately reflects the status of the viewed correlations.
We requested from the ATF a copy of its NIBIN database showing all the records entered regarding discharged bullets, cartridge casings, related information records, associated case-information records, and firearms information records. The ATF provided the requested data as of October 22, 2004, through its contractor (Forensic Technology, Inc.) located in Montreal, Canada . The data was presented in multiple tables in a relational database. For more details about the tables in the NIBIN database, see the Data Analysis section of Appendix I. The database contained the following records for 196 NIBIN partner agencies:
The law enforcement agency that entered the evidence, or submitted the evidence for entry, is identified in the database cases table by its Originating Agency Reporting Identifier (ORI) number. To determine the agencies (based on ORI number) that submitted evidence into NIBIN, we linked the NIBIN cases table to the NIBIN evidence table. However, we were unable to link the ORI numbers in the cases table for 55,193 of the 514,731 cases to evidence in the evidence table because of the following omissions or errors in the cases table.
As a result of these omissions and errors, we were unable to link the ORI numbers from the 55,193 cases in the cases table to 115,092 evidence items in the evidence table. Consequently, we were only able to link the remaining 459,538 cases in the cases table to 773,355 records of evidence in the evidence table from 194 NIBIN partner agencies. Thus, our analyses of the NIBIN data in this report are limited to the 773,355 records of evidence contributed by 194 NIBIN partner agencies.
One factor essential to the success of the NIBIN program is the wide participation of law enforcement agencies. The ATF identified 38,717 law enforcement agencies or divisions of law enforcement agencies that received an ORI number from the FBI and that were potential candidates for participating in NIBIN. We analyzed the 773,355 evidence records that were entered into, or submitted for entry into, NIBIN as of October 22, 2004 . Of that total, we determined that only 7,653 (20 percent) of the 38,717 law enforcement agencies that had received ORI numbers had actually contributed evidence to NIBIN. These 7,653 agencies included partner and non-partner agencies. A closer examination of the evidence records revealed that the top 20 percent of law enforcement agencies (1,520) submitted 96 percent (739,959) of the 773,355 evidence records in NIBIN. The remaining agencies submitted only 4 percent (33,396) of the evidence records in NIBIN. Since the non-partner agencies submit their evidence to partner agencies for entry into NIBIN, we further analyzed the 773,355 evidence records to determine if a similar trend existed based on the partner agencies that contributed the evidence data. This analysis identified a similar trend as shown in the following table.
Contributed Records Into NIBIN
The distribution of data contributed by the partner agencies is found to be highly skewed. More descriptive results of our analyses, including the number of cases, evidence, and firearms contributed, are presented in the following charts, which show columns for the amount of data entered into NIBIN by each group of partner agencies, and also show a line above the columns to represent the cumulative amount of data entered.
We sought to evaluate the extent of evidence contributed to NIBIN in comparison to the extent of potential evidence based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR).35 Through the UCR, law enforcement agencies report to the FBI data regarding a variety of crimes, including firearms-related crimes of robbery and aggravated assault. Other reported crimes may involve firearms but are not reported as a firearms-specific crime. We obtained the FBI’s UCR data for 2000 through 2003, the most recent data available as of our audit. From the data, we extracted the number of firearms crimes reported each year and compared this data to the amount of evidence entered into NIBIN during the same time period.
We originally attempted to compare, for NIBIN participating agencies, the crime rate according to the UCR to the level of evidence contributed to NIBIN. However, meaningful comparisons were not possible based on the available data because of variables such as population size, population density, geographic location, and other demographic factors. Instead, to construct a rough estimate of the extent to which NIBIN contains a reasonable proportion of potential firearms evidence, we compared the nationally reported number of reported firearms crimes to the amount of evidence entered into NIBIN for calendar years 2000 through 2003. The results of our comparison are illustrated in the following chart.
The chart shows that the gap between the firearms crimes reported and the evidence entered into NIBIN has narrowed from about 169,000 in 2000 to about 118,000 in 2003. This result was to be expected since the ATF was deploying much of the IBIS equipment during this time period. However, the chart also shows that there is potential for significant amounts of additional evidence to be entered into NIBIN each year.
As also would be expected, we found that the number of hits identified for a partner agency is closely tied to the number of cases and evidence contributed by that partner agency, as shown in the following chart.
Distribution of Hits Compared to
The data indicates that as more available data is entered into NIBIN, the greater the chance of getting hits. Since a hit can provide a link to another crime, the hit could result in additional leads to investigators in solving a crime involving the use of a firearm. Therefore, to maximize the success of the NIBIN program, it is essential that the ATF and the partner agencies fully promote participation by more law enforcement agencies. The ATF’s efforts to promote the program are discussed in the next section of this finding.
While the aggregate of the NIBIN data shows that more hits result as more data is entered, we found that some partner agencies had very high hit rates even though the data they entered was comparatively low as illustrated in the following table.
Analysis of Hits Compared to Cases Entered
We contacted the 12 agencies and asked what they did to get such a high hit rate. Eight of the 11 agencies that responded told us the primary reason for the high hit rate was because they enter almost all of the recovered bullet and cartridge casing evidence into NIBIN. The remaining three agencies did not believe their hit rates were as high as the ATF’s NIBIN data indicated, but provided no documentation to dispute the ATF’s NIBIN data. The ATF should further research why these agencies are so successful and should apply the results of such research to the majority of partner agencies that are not as successful.
Given the low participation by most law enforcement agencies, we discussed with ATF officials the process of promoting the NIBIN program. ATF officials recognized that for the program to be most effective, state and local law enforcement agencies must be well informed of the existence of the NIBIN program and how it can benefit them. We found that while the ATF has taken steps to promote the program, its promotion has been mostly effective for the partner agencies, and less effective for the other agencies that submit data through the partner agencies.
We found that the ATF took the following steps to promote the program.
We asked both participating and non-participating law enforcement agencies to evaluate the ATF’s promotion of the NIBIN program and its effectiveness. Specifically, we asked 16 NIBIN partner agencies we visited about the ATF’s promotion efforts. We also sent survey questionnaires to: (1) 174 partner agencies and 411 participating non-partner agencies that had contributed evidence to NIBIN, and (2) 85 non-participating non-partner agencies.
Of the 16 partner agencies we visited, we found that 11 had mostly positive comments about the ATF’s promotion of the program while 5 had mostly negative comments. Positive comments include the following.
Negative comments include the following.
Of the 174 partner agencies we surveyed, we obtained responses from 148 regarding the ATF’s promotion of NIBIN. While 70 percent (103) of the responding agencies indicated that the ATF had provided assistance or guidance in promoting the NIBIN program, the remaining 30 percent (45) indicated that the ATF did not provide such assistance or guidance.
Of the 411 participating non-partner agencies we surveyed, we obtained responses from 228 agencies. From the responses, it appears that the ATF’s promotion of the NIBIN program has not been effective. The following table illustrates that the majority of these agencies were not aware of the following ATF initiatives to promote the NIBIN program.
Analysis of Participating Non-Partner Agency Responses
We also asked the participating non-partner agencies about their level of understanding of the NIBIN program as another way to measure the ATF’s effectiveness in promoting it. We found that about half the agencies had a high or medium level of understanding of certain aspects of the NIBIN program, while the other half had a low or no understanding, or did not answer the question, as shown in the following table.
Analysis of Participating Non-Partner Agencies’
For the 85 non-participating non-partner agencies surveyed, we obtained responses from 28 agencies. From the responses, it appears that the ATF’s promotion of the NIBIN program has been even less effective. The table below shows that the majority of these agencies were not aware of the following ATF initiatives to promote the NIBIN program.
Analysis of Non-Participating Agency Responses
We also asked the non-participating non-partner agencies about their level of understanding of the NIBIN program as another way to measure the ATF’s effectiveness of promoting the program. We found that few agencies had a high or medium level of understanding of certain aspects of the NIBIN program, while most had a low or no understanding of the program, or did not answer the question, as shown in the table below.
Analysis of Non-Participating Non-Partner
In addition to the ATF’s promotion of the NIBIN program, the partner agencies also promote the program to law enforcement agencies within their area to increase participation by non-partner agencies. During our visits to the NIBIN partner agencies, we determined that while some of them encourage other law enforcement agencies to participate, many do not encourage such participation. Examples of responses from the partner agencies that encourage participation included:
Examples of responses from the partner agencies that did not encourage participation included:
We also sent survey questionnaires to the remaining 174 partner agencies that contributed evidence to NIBIN to determine whether they solicit other law enforcement agencies to participate in the NIBIN program. Of the 160 partner agencies that returned the questionnaires, we determined that:
We assessed the level of outreach of the NIBIN partner agencies from the data in the NIBIN database by analyzing the number of law enforcement agencies that had submitted evidence to each partner agency. The analysis showed that while some partner agencies received evidence from other law enforcement agencies for entry into NIBIN, many partner agencies received very little evidence from other law enforcement agencies. For the 196 partner agencies that had contributed data to NIBIN, the average number of law enforcement agencies that submitted data to a partner agency was 48 and the median was 32. One partner agency (Pennsylvania State Police – Harrisburg) contributed data to NIBIN that was submitted by 478 other law enforcement agencies, while 13 partner agencies only contributed their own data. We found that 26 percent (51) of the 196 partner agencies either had not received evidence from any other law enforcement agencies or had received evidence from 10 or fewer other law enforcement agencies.
Our analyses of data in the NIBIN database; interviews of partner agency officials during site visits; and analyses of responses obtained from partner agencies, participating non-partner agencies, and non-participating non-partner agencies led us to conclude that the NIBIN program has not been fully promoted to law enforcement agencies by the ATF or by the NIBIN partner agencies. In our judgment, this lack of promotion contributes significantly to the low participation in the program by many partner and non-partner agencies. The effectiveness of the NIBIN program could be improved if the ATF more aggressively promotes NIBIN’s benefits in helping to solve crimes, and encourages the partner agencies to promote the NIBIN program to other law enforcement agencies in their area.
Another factor essential to the success of the NIBIN program is for the participating agencies to enter the maximum amount of evidence into the system. As shown earlier, the more evidence entered into the system, the greater the chance that hits will be identified. ATF officials told us it is not only important to enter as much evidence as possible, but also to enter both bullets and cartridge casings to take full advantage of the system’s capabilities. To determine if the participating partners and non-partners were entering the maximum evidence into the system, we determined the type of data being entered by: (1) analyzing the evidence data entered into NIBIN for each partner agency, (2) visiting 22 partner agencies and discussing with agency officials the type of evidence entered into the system, (3) sending survey questionnaires to the remaining 174 partners that contributed evidence to NIBIN and to a sample of 411 participating non-partner agencies asking similar questions, and (4) contacting via telephone all the agencies that received the RBI units for imaging cartridge casings.
Our analysis of the evidence entered into NIBIN showed that 72 percent (640,652) of the evidence entered was cartridge casings and only 28 percent (247,702) of the evidence was bullets. We analyzed this data further and found that the top 10 percent of partner agencies that contributed the most balanced mix of bullets and cartridge casings contributed from 55 percent bullets/45 percent cartridge casings to 42 percent bullets/58 percent cartridge casings as shown in the following table.
Analysis of Evidence Entered into NIBIN by Partner Agencies
By comparison, the bottom 12 percent of partner agencies that entered the fewest bullets as compared to cartridge casings contributed from 0 (zero) percent bullets/100 percent cartridge casings to 1 percent bullets/99 percent cartridge casings as shown in the following table.
Analysis of Evidence Entered into NIBIN by Partner Agencies
In our survey questionnaires and during our site visits to the partner agencies, we asked officials to explain why they were not entering bullets into NIBIN. Examples of responses from the partner agencies included:
We obtained similar responses from the participating non-partner agencies that responded to our survey, 25 percent of whom indicated that they submit few to no bullets for entry into NIBIN.
As the responses show, the consistent theme from both the partner agencies and the participating non-partner agencies is that the: (1) process of entering bullets is difficult and time consuming, and (2) quality of bullet images produced by the IBIS equipment is not adequate to produce enough hits for the agencies to spend the time and resources necessary to enter bullet evidence into NIBIN. The NIBIN Program Director agreed that some partner agencies are not entering bullets into NIBIN. Consequently, the ATF needs to determine whether new technology exists that will improve the image quality of bullets enough to make it worthwhile for the participating agencies to spend resources to enter the bullet data into NIBIN.
In our interviews with the agencies that received RBI units for imaging cartridge casings, we determined that most of the agencies were not satisfied with the operation of the RBI units. Consequently, some of the agencies returned the RBI units to the ATF and others were no longer using them to enter cartridge casing evidence into NIBIN. We contacted 28 agencies that had received the RBI units to inquire about their use of the RBI units. We obtained responses from 25 of the 28 agencies regarding their satisfaction and use of the RBI units. The discussions we had with 20 of the 25 agencies indicated they were not satisfied with the operation of the RBI units. A sample of the comments we received from these agencies included:
From our discussions, we determined that 6 of the 25 agencies had returned the RBI units to the ATF. In addition, 4 of the remaining 19 agencies indicated that they had either stopped using the RBI units to enter cartridge casing evidence into NIBIN or used the units sparingly. The NIBIN Program Director told us that the equipment manufacturer had developed a new unit that is much better at imaging cartridge casings than the RBI units, but the new unit is much more costly. We later were told by the NIBIN program staff that the RBI unit is considered to be obsolete and is no longer in production by the manufacturer. Given the dissatisfaction among users of the RBI units, the ATF needs to perform an analysis of the current RBI users, and any other potential users, to determine if they would use the new unit enough to warrant the additional cost.
Another key factor that contributes to the success of the NIBIN program is measuring similarities between ammunition components by comparing their images entered into NIBIN using the IBIS equipment. This process is referred to as the “correlation” process and resulting measurements are called “correlations.” The process works as follows:
After the correlation process is completed, the IBIS technician at the submitting agency reviews the correlation results, selecting the top matches and identifying these matches in the IBIS system as high-confidence candidates. The high-confidence candidates must then be reviewed and examined by a licensed firearms examiner who determines whether they are actual matches resulting in a hit. To make this determination, the firearms examiner obtains the original evidence to compare with the high-confidence candidates. If the comparison results in a hit, the firearms examiner notifies the IBIS technician, who then identifies the hit in the system.
During our initial visits to NIBIN partner agencies, we found a very high-volume NIBIN partner (Georgia Bureau of Investigation – Decatur) that did not perform reviews of high-confidence candidates. At the time of our audit, the Georgia agency had not reviewed and examined high-confidence candidates since January 2002 – about 3,350 high-confidence candidates. An official from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stated that high-confidence candidates were not being reviewed because: (1) funding for overtime for firearms examiners was not available, 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.
When partner agencies do not review the hits on high-confidence candidates, it is a serious failure in utilizing the program’s capability. Further, if high-confidence candidates are not reviewed, hits from the data entered into NIBIN cannot be identified and leads that might help find and convict a person involved in a firearms-related crime may not be pursued. In addition, the significant amount of resources used to collect, transport, store, protect, and enter the evidence into IBIS could be wasted. This situation was magnified because the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was a state crime laboratory that participating non-partner agencies relied on by submitting evidence for entry into IBIS. However, because the state crime laboratory did not review high-confidence candidates, the submitting non-partner agencies did not receive any benefits from the submitted data.
After identifying this problem, we asked the ATF if it had a routine report showing the non-viewed correlations for each NIBIN partner agency to determine whether other partner agencies were not reviewing the correlations. The ATF responded that it did not have a standard NIBIN report that showed this data, but stated that it was able to query NIBIN and produce a report (NIBIN Non-Viewed Correlation Requests Report) showing the non-viewed correlations as of September 30, 2004. The report identified 100 partner agencies that had a total of 4,024 bullet evidence correlations recorded in NIBIN as non-viewed and 155 partner agencies that had a total of 18,379 cartridge case evidence correlations recorded in NIBIN as non-viewed.
During our subsequent visits, we asked 15 NIBIN partner agencies to verify the non-viewed correlation numbers shown on the NIBIN Non-Viewed Correlation Requests Report. The partner agencies confirmed that the report numbers agreed with the data in NIBIN. However, the partner agencies told us that while the correlations were shown in NIBIN as non-viewed, they actually had been reviewed, but NIBIN had not been updated to show this. The partner agencies gave the following reasons for why the correlations had not been updated in NIBIN:
Given the problems associated with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the inaccurate data contained in the NIBIN Non-Viewed Correlation Requests Report, the ATF needs to: (1) provide guidance to partner agencies on the necessity to view correlations in a timely manner and to ensure that they are properly marked as viewed in NIBIN, and (2) monitor the non-viewed correlations by partner agencies, and take corrective actions when a backlog of correlations is identified.
The success of NIBIN depends on firearms evidence being entered into the system as soon as possible. Otherwise, leads generated from the system and from subsequent firearm examiners’ analyses of the evidence may not be identified and followed-up on quickly enough to prevent additional crimes from occurring. To determine whether participating agencies were timely entering firearms evidence into NIBIN, we visited 22 NIBIN partner agencies and sent survey questionnaires to the remaining 174 partner agencies that had contributed evidence to NIBIN and to 411 participating non-partner agencies.
During our visits to the 22 partner agencies, we found that many of the agencies had significant backlogs of firearms evidence that had not been entered into NIBIN. Below are some of the results:
For the 174 partner agencies surveyed, 160 returned the survey questionnaires to us. From the questionnaires returned, we determined that many of the partner agencies had significant backlogs of firearms evidence that had not been entered into NIBIN as shown in the following table.
Summary of Partner Agency Survey Responses Indicating
The primary reasons that the partner agencies provided for backlogged evidence were staffing shortages, other priorities, and the large volume of evidence submitted.
For the 411 participating non-partner agencies surveyed, 228 returned the survey questionnaires to us. From the questionnaires returned, we determined that the participating non-partner agencies did not have a significant amount of firearms evidence that had not been entered into NIBIN.
Any delays in entering firearms evidence into NIBIN prevents matching the evidence to other evidence in the system, which could lengthen the time it takes to identify and apprehend a criminal, or could result in additional crimes being committed before the criminal is caught. Therefore, the ATF needs to develop strategies to help the partner agencies eliminate the current backlog of firearms evidence awaiting entry into NIBIN. The research should consider whether: (1) the partner agencies can send their backlogged evidence to the ATF laboratories or to other partner agencies for entry into NIBIN, and (2) improvements to the efficiency of NIBIN would facilitate more rapid and easy entry of evidence.
In January 2001, the Secretary of 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 (See Appendix X).
To determine whether the Department of Justice agencies were complying with the January 2001 directive, 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 that participate 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 reviewed the firearms evidence data in NIBIN as of October 22, 2004, and found that while the ATF and FBI had many offices contributing data to NIBIN, the DEA and USMS had much lower participation as shown below.
Participation in NIBIN by Department
To ensure the ATF and other federal agencies adhere to the directive established by the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Treasury, the ATF developed a pilot program in August 2003 that placed IBIS equipment for at least one year in the ATF’s newly formed Southern California Regional Crime Gun Center, known as the Los Angeles Gun Center (Gun Center). The pilot project required the ATF to hire an IBIS technician on a contract basis to work at the Gun Center and enter images of the ATF’s recovered firearms evidence, as well as images of all firearms evidence recovered by other federal agencies in Southern California .
One of the purposes of the pilot program was to determine the feasibility and resources for imaging 100 percent of the recovered firearms by federal agencies. Before the pilot program ended, the ATF and its NIBIN contractor (Forensic Technology, Inc.) 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. Given the funding situation, the ATF needs to coordinate with the other Department of Justice law enforcement agencies that seize firearms and firearms evidence to help them establish a process for entering the seized evidence into NIBIN.
We found that only about 20 percent of the law enforcement agencies nationwide participate in NIBIN. We believe the ATF could improve participation by: (1) better promoting the use and benefits of NIBIN to law enforcement agencies, and (2) involving the partner agencies more in promoting the NIBIN program to other law enforcement agencies in their area. We also found that many participating agencies: (1) were not satisfied with the quality of images produced by NIBIN from bullet evidence, and (2) believed that it was not cost-effective to enter bullet evidence into NIBIN because very few hits result from the poor-quality bullet images.
The ATF needs to determine if new technology exists that will improve the image quality of bullets enough to make it worthwhile for the participating agencies to spend limited resources to enter the bullet data into NIBIN. In addition, we found the potential matches in NIBIN had not been reviewed by one high-volume partner agency since January 2002. Consequently, potential leads that might result from reviewing potential matches were not identified and pursued. Finally, the ATF needs to provide guidance to NIBIN partners stressing the importance of viewing correlations in a timely manner and for ensuring that NIBIN accurately reflects the status of those viewed correlations.
We recommend that the ATF:
Federal law prohibits the entry of ballistic images from newly manufactured, imported, or sold firearms into NIBIN. To ensure that this prohibition is followed, the ATF established a control that consists of NIBIN users signing an MOU agreeing not to enter such data. We tested the effectiveness of this control system and found no evidence that prohibited data had been entered into NIBIN.
The Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 (the Act) 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 (which would constitute a firearms registry), and the identities of the private citizens who possess image firearms (which would constitute a firearms owners’ registry). The Act states that:
No such rule or regulation prescribed after the date of the enactment of the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act may require that records required to be maintained under this chapter or any portion of the contents of such records, be recorded at or transferred to a facility owned, managed, or controlled by the United States or any state or any political subdivision thereof, nor that any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions be established.
Language included in the ATF’s annual appropriations bill also requires that ballistic images of bullets and cartridge casings from newly manufactured, imported, or sold firearms are not to be available in or connected to NIBIN. Therefore, the IBIS equipment deployed to law enforcement agencies participating in the NIBIN program should not be used to capture or store such ballistic images.
We interviewed ATF officials, observed the entry of data into NIBIN by users, and obtained and reviewed documentation provided by ATF officials. The ATF officials explained that it requires NIBIN users to sign an MOU that forbids them from entering the prohibited data. The MOU states:
Ballistic imaging systems provided and deployed by ATF to other federal, state, or local law authorities may be used only for imaging operations associated with criminal law enforcement functions. Systems deployed to other federal, state, or local authorities shall not be used to capture, directly search, or store ballistic images acquired at the point of manufacture, importation, or sale.
Since NIBIN does not contain controls to prevent the entry of prohibited data, we asked an ATF official how such entry can be prevented. She told us that the ATF does not monitor the data entered by NIBIN users, but that it is unlikely that they are entering prohibited ballistic images into the system because they are fully aware of the MOU prohibition.
To evaluate whether NIBIN users were aware of and complying with the MOU prohibition, we visited 22 NIBIN partner agencies during the audit and sent survey questionnaires to the other 174 NIBIN partner agencies that operated NIBIN RDAS units. We determined that all the NIBIN partner agencies were aware of the MOU prohibition and we found no indication of non-compliance. We also sent survey questionnaires to 411 participating non-partner agencies in which we asked if the agencies submitted prohibited data for entry into NIBIN. None of the participating non-partner agencies that returned the questionnaires indicated that they submitted such data.
An ATF official told us that two NIBIN partner agencies, the Maryland State Police (MSP) Forensic Sciences Division and the New York State Police (NYSP), also maintain state databases with ballistic images from newly manufactured firearms. The ATF official said that it is unlikely these NIBIN users are entering prohibited ballistic images into NIBIN because the agencies are also fully aware of the MOU prohibition. We confirmed the ATF official’s statement that the States of Maryland and New York had established database systems for entering ballistic images from new firearms.38 Since these two agencies operate both NIBIN and a separate state system for new firearms images, we evaluated their compliance with the MOU prohibition by performing a comparison between the firearms data in NIBIN and the firearms data in each agency’s system.
Maryland State Forensic Sciences Division: The MSP system that contains new firearms data is the Maryland-Integrated Ballistic Identification System (MD- IBIS). MSP officials informed us that the State of Maryland purchased its own IBIS equipment in September 2000 under the assumption that they eventually would be able to connect it to the ATF's NIBIN and share data. However, the MSP was told by the ATF that the data could not be shared between the two systems because it was illegal to do so. We observed that at the sole location where they co-exist, the NIBIN and MD- IBIS systems were kept in separate rooms and each was accessible to authorized staff only. In addition, according to MSP officials, the two systems were not connected.
The MSP officials also told us that they are aware of the federal law prohibiting entry of new firearms information into NIBIN. Further, officials believe their controls are strong enough to prevent any new firearms entry into NIBIN, because the systems are kept separate and require checks and double-checks before entry. We reviewed the MSP’s controls and did not identify any weaknesses.
To determine the MSP’s compliance with the prohibition against entering firearms data from newly manufactured, imported, or sold firearms, we obtained an electronic copy of the firearms data contained in the MSP’s MD- IBIS system and the firearms data contained in the ATF’s NIBIN. The MSP’s MD- IBIS system contained 47,798 firearms records and NIBIN contained 254,187 firearms records. We performed a computerized comparison between the data in both systems. The comparison identified only 42 firearms entries from new firearms in the MD- IBIS system where the same firearms were also entered in NIBIN. Of the 42 matching entries in NIBIN, 32 were entered into NIBIN by the MSP, 8 were entered by the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department, 1 was entered by the Colorado Division of Investigation – Pueblo, and 1 was entered by the Los Angeles, California, Police Department. However, all four agencies provided documentation to show that the firearms were each entered into NIBIN as a result of a crime and not as new firearms. Therefore, we concluded that the MSP was complying with the prohibition against entering firearms data from newly manufactured, imported, or sold firearms into NIBIN.
New York State Police: The NYSP officials explained that they have two state systems for entering firearms data. One system is used for the entry of new firearms information and the other system is used for the entry of crime-related firearms information. The two systems together are known as the Combined Ballistic Identification System (COBIS). We will refer to the COBIS system for new firearms data as COBIS 1 and the COBIS system for crime-related firearms data as COBIS 2. The NIBIN and both the COBIS systems were located only at the NYSP headquarters in Albany, New York. The NIBIN and the COBIS 2 system were located together in one room and the COBIS 1 system was located in a separate room across the hall.
The NYSP officials told us they were aware that the MOU with the ATF prohibits the entry of newly manufactured, imported, or sold firearms into NIBIN. Officials also said that they have not violated this MOU condition and that since the State of New York requires the tracking of newly manufactured, imported, or sold firearms, the state set up the separate system (COBIS 1) with controls to identify and track such firearms. We reviewed the NYSP’s controls and did not identify any weaknesses.
To determine the NYSP’s compliance with the prohibition against entering firearms data from newly manufactured, imported, or sold firearms, we obtained an electronic copy of the firearms data contained in the NYSP’s COBIS 1 system and the firearms data contained in the ATF’s NIBIN.39 The NYSP’s COBIS 1 system contained 90,063 firearms records and the NIBIN contained 254,187 firearms records. We performed a computerized comparison between the data in both systems. The comparison identified only 14 firearms entries from new firearms in the COBIS 1 system where the same firearms were also entered into NIBIN. Of the 14 matching entries in NIBIN, 5 were entered into NIBIN by the NYSP; 3 were entered by the Erie County, New York, Forensic Laboratory; 2 were entered by the Monroe County, New York, Public Safety Laboratory; 2 were entered by the Westchester County, New York, Police Department; 1 was entered by the Massachusetts State Police; and 1 was entered by the Alabama Division of Forensic Sciences laboratory. However, all six agencies provided explanations to show that the firearms were each entered into NIBIN as a result of a crime and not as new firearms. Therefore, we concluded that the NYSP was complying with the prohibition against entering firearms data from newly manufactured, imported, or sold firearms into NIBIN.