Review of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosivesí
Violent Crime Impact Team Initiative

Evaluation and Inspections Report I-2006-005
May 2006
Office of the Inspector General


In June 2004, the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) established the Violent Crime Impact Team (VCIT) initiative as a 6-month pilot program designed to reduce violent crime in 15 cities. The goal of the VCIT initiative was to “decrease within six months, the number of homicides, number of firearms-related homicides, number of violent crimes and number of violent firearms crimes” in target areas in those 15 cities.7 In December 2004, ATF extended the program indefinitely and, in April 2005, expanded it to include a total of 20 cities.

There were two primary purposes of the VCIT initiative, as articulated by the Office of the Deputy Attorney General (ODAG) and ATF. The first was to reduce homicides and violent firearms crimes in cities where homicide and violent crime rates had not followed the national trend downward. The second was to test the effectiveness of the VCIT strategy in reducing, rather than displacing, the incidents of firearms-related violence in neighborhoods and communities by identifying, targeting, and arresting the “worst of the worst” violent offenders in specific targeted areas referred to as hot spots. The VCIT initiative was designed to build on regular law enforcement operations and the Department’s Project Safe Neighborhoods.8

To assist in implementing the VCIT program, ODAG and ATF sought the participation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the United States Marshals Service (USMS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA). The VCIT pilot program initially was funded by $499,000 in reimbursable funding from the Department’s Justice Management Division (JMD). In FY 2005, ATF operated 20 VCITs using $6.8 million reprogrammed from other ATF activities and general operating funds. In fiscal year (FY) 2006, ATF received its first appropriation of $20 million specifically to continue and expand the VCIT initiative.

The VCIT Strategy

In response to ODAG’s direction, ATF developed a 32-page document entitled Violent Crime Impact Teams:  A Comprehensive Strategy (VCIT Strategy) in which it described the mission, expectations, organization, and implementation of the initiative. According to the VCIT Strategy, the initiative’s mission is to “reduce armed violence in the locations that are not following the national trend, through the use of geographic targeting, aggressive investigation, and prosecution of those responsible.” According to the VCIT Strategy’s mission statement, “The ultimate goal of this strategy is to ensure that the incidents of firearms-related violence is [sic] thoroughly reduced, not displaced to adjacent neighborhoods.”

The VCIT Strategy incorporated strategies the National Institute of Justice reported to be effective or promising in the 1998 publication, Preventing Crime:  What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising. These strategies included incarcerating the “worst of the worst” offenders and identifying and targeting neighborhoods with high levels of violent crime referred to as hot spots. The VCIT Strategy also incorporated elements of other Department violent crime control initiatives such as Project Safe Neighborhoods and Operation Weed and Seed, as well as local programs such as Operation Ceasefire in Los Angeles and the Directed Patrol Project in Indianapolis.9 The concept underlying the VCIT program was to concentrate law enforcement in geographic target areas, arrest and prosecute the worst violent offenders in the target area, involve the community in the strategy, and coordinate law enforcement efforts across agencies. Consistent with these concepts, ATF’s VCIT Strategy included specific objectives that VCITs were expected to accomplish to reduce violent crime:

  • Target Specific Geographic Areas. According to ATF’s VCIT Strategy, VCITs were to target specific hot spots in which violent crime was regularly occurring. Examples of target areas were neighborhoods and police precincts that had high rates of violent crime. The VCIT Strategy stated that VCITs should identify these target areas using technology and human intelligence. The strategy also indicated that ATF intended to assign a small number of Special Agents – four Special Agents and a Supervisory Special Agent were recommended – to target the small geographic areas.

  • Target the Worst Violent Offenders. ATF’s VCIT Strategy recommended that VCITs develop lists of the “worst of the worst” violent offenders to target the most serious violent offenders in the target area. Targeting the most violent offenders is a key difference between VCIT operations and traditional ATF enforcement operations, which typically target firearm crimes. This objective was based on the theory that most violent crime in a small geographic area is committed by a small group of violent offenders.

  • Utilize ATF’s Investigative Practices. The VCIT Strategy stated that VCITs were to disrupt and dismantle criminal activities through the use of certain ATF investigative practices. To accomplish this objective, VCITs were to assist local officers by responding rapidly to firearms-related violent crime and utilizing ATF Industry Operations Investigators (Inspectors) as a resource. Inspectors verify that licensed firearms dealers comply with federal regulations and provide accurate information to ATF regarding firearms sales. This objective also included the use of undercover operations and confidential informants.

  • Prosecute Violent Offenders Aggressively. The VCIT Strategy stated that VCITs should arrest and ensure the prosecution of “a wide range of firearms offenders,” such as armed career criminals, armed violent offenders, narcotics traffickers, and individuals illegally possessing firearms. To accomplish this objective, VCITs were to work with federal and state prosecutors to determine the jurisdiction that offered the maximum possible penalty for these firearm offenders.

  • Work with Community Leaders. ATF’s VCIT Strategy called for VCITs to develop effective relationships with community leaders to facilitate a “free flow” of information that could help them identify and apprehend violent offenders. In a May 2005 request to Congress to reprogram funds, ATF stated that VCITs “will foster relationships with the affected communities through neighborhood watch programs and attendance at community meetings and social events.”

  • Evaluate the VCITs’ Impact. According to the VCIT Strategy, the following measures would be used to assess the impact of the VCITs:  reductions in the number of homicides, firearms-related homicides, violent crimes, and violent firearms crimes. Comparisons would be made between crime rates during the pilot period and crime rates for the same period during the previous year. ATF expected the VCITs to monitor their results and submit data to ATF Headquarters on a monthly basis using data submission forms ATF Headquarters provided. ATF initially required weekly data submissions. (See Appendix I for a copy of the current data submission form.) ATF also expected its Field Divisions to conduct local evaluations of VCIT operations.

At the conclusion of the pilot period, and concurrent with the OIG review, ATF initiated its own review of best practices across the 15 pilot cities. ATF identified the following VCIT best practices:  (1) set clear goals and measure performance; (2) develop collaborative partnerships with local police; (3) target the “worst of the worst” criminals; (4) use the full array of intelligence assets; (5) maintain a fluid and dynamic approach when targeting offenders and hot spots; (6) conduct proactive street enforcement with local police in targeted hot spots; (7) deploy resources during peak hours of criminal activity; (8) investigate the sources of firearms linked to violent crime; (9) prioritize prosecution of defendants linked to targeted hot spots; and (10) publicize success stories.

VCIT Technology Resources

The VCIT Strategy called for VCITs to expand the use of the National Tracing Center (NTC), the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN), and the Crime Gun Analysis Branch (CGAB) to analyze firearms evidence and help solve crimes. ATF, in its nomination of the VCIT development team for the Attorney General’s 2005 Award for Outstanding Contributions to Community Partnerships for Public Safety, described VCIT as a “technology-based firearms initiative.” In a briefing for the Office of Management and Budget in October 2004, ATF stated, “The utilization of these new technologies, in concert with local technology, is essential in order to suppress violent criminals in the community. These tools must be in place to accomplish the goals of this initiative.” The technological tools included the following resources.

National Tracing Center

The NTC traces serial numbers of firearms used in crimes and recovered at crime scenes to determine the original point of sale of a firearm and its original purchaser. In addition, the NTC frequently traces a firearm to the most recent purchaser. ATF encourages law enforcement agencies to submit all recovered firearms for tracing so that ATF can effectively identify potential sources of illegal firearms trafficking. To support the VCIT initiative, the NTC implemented a policy that classifies all firearms trace submissions from VCITs as “urgent” and gives these requests the center’s highest priority.

National Integrated Ballistics Information Network

The NIBIN is a networked database of fired cartridge casing and bullet images developed to assist firearms examiners with linking criminal activity to specific firearms. ATF encouraged VCITs to utilize the NIBIN to aid in the investigations of firearms-related violent crimes.

Crime Gun Analysis Branch

The CGAB analyzes data from successful firearms traces, reports of multiple handgun sales, and reports of firearms thefts to identify patterns that may not be apparent from information in a single trace. For example, the CGAB identifies “crime gun” patterns, crimes associated with firearms, source location, possessor information, and “time to crime” information.10 To support the VCIT initiative, the CGAB developed “crime gun” reports for the 15 original VCIT cities and provided these reports, many of which focus on VCIT target areas, to VCIT cities twice a year.

VCIT Personnel Resources

According to the VCIT Strategy, each VCIT “will be comprised of Federal special agents and support personnel working with State and local law enforcement... and will consist of the following” ATF personnel:

  • 1 ATF Resident Agent in Charge,
  • 4 ATF Special Agents,
  • 1 ATF Investigative Analyst, and
  • 1 ATF Intelligence Research Specialist.

The VCIT Strategy made the Resident Agent in Charge the supervisory Special Agent in Charge of each VCIT. ATF Special Agents were charged with “targeting the most egregious criminals and bringing them to justice.” The Investigative Analyst and Intelligence Research Specialist was to provide investigative and intelligence support to the VCIT. According to the VCIT Strategy, ATF intelligence units and Inspectors were also to provide support to the initiative.

The VCIT Strategy stated that VCITs would also consist of personnel from partner agencies, including:

  • State and local police officers,
  • FBI Special Agents,
  • DEA Special Agents,
  • USMS Deputy U.S. Marshals,
  • State and federal probation and parole officers,
  • An Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA), and
  • State prosecutors.

The VCIT Strategy described the roles and responsibilities for each of these partners and suggested additional resources that the components listed above could contribute to a VCIT as needed. In addition, the VCIT Strategy recommended the VCITs include personnel from the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Border Patrol, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and state and county jails.

ODAG officials stated that interagency partnerships were envisioned as a key component of the VCIT initiative and that the VCITs were to serve as an intelligence and information-sharing bridge for the participating Department agencies, as well as a mechanism to integrate agency-specific expertise. Prior to announcing the VCIT initiative, ODAG and ATF Headquarters officials met with officials at the DEA, USMS, and FBI to solicit these agencies’ participation. High-level officials at each of these agencies agreed to provide assistance as resources allowed. The Deputy Attorney General spoke with the United States Attorneys for the VCIT cities before the initiative began, and they also agreed to work on the initiative. In addition, ATF Headquarters officials urged Field Division managers in VCIT cities to solicit the participation of other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

VCIT Funding Resources

The VCIT pilot program initially was funded by reprogrammed and general operating funds from ATF. ATF secured $499,000 from JMD for reimbursable FY 2004 expenses related to the implementation and pilot period of the VCIT initiative. In June 2004, after the VCIT initiative was announced, ATF asked to reprogram funds from a gang resistance program to the VCIT initiative. JMD approved the reprogramming of $3.7 million. ATF then obtained approval for the $3.7 million reprogramming from the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees. The Senate subsequently approved the reprogramming of the “full, un-obligated” balance of ATF’s gang resistance program ($6.8 million) to the VCIT initiative.11 On June 30, 2005, the House of Representatives approved the total reprogramming of $6.8 million to fund the VCIT initiative.

In addition to the reprogrammed funds, during the initial year of VCIT operations ATF directed general funds toward expenditures such as Special Agent salaries, office space, equipment, and miscellaneous resources. ATF also received $20 million in 2006 specifically for VCIT. ATF reported that, as of March 30, 2006, it had spent a total of $35.8 million on VCIT activities.

For the FY 2006 budget cycle, ATF requested and the Office of Management and Budget approved $30 million for the VCIT initiative. The funding request included an additional 75 Special Agent positions, 25 Industry Operations Investigators, and 50 technical support positions. Congress ultimately provided $20 million for the VCIT program in the FY 2006 appropriation. In the FY 2007 budget request to Congress, the President recommended that ATF receive $16 million for the year and deploy VCITs to 15 additional cities.

VCIT Management

At ATF Headquarters, the responsibility for directing VCIT operations is assigned to the Assistant Director for Field Operations, while program development and evaluation activities are the responsibility of the VCIT Program Manager. Among the Program Manager’s responsibilities are the collection of performance data from the VCITs and compilation of the data into reports for ATF Headquarters officials. Figure 1 depicts ATF’s management structure for the VCIT initiative.

Figure 1:  ATF VCIT Management Structure

ATF VCIT Management Structure. Click on image for a text-only version.

Under ATF’s current organizational structure, the VCIT Program Manager reports to the Chief of the Firearms Programs Division, who reports to the Deputy Assistant Director and Assistant Director for Enforcement Programs and Services. That Assistant Director, supported by three Deputy Assistant Directors, oversees the Field Management Staff, which is responsible for ensuring that programs developed by the Enforcement Programs and Services staff, such as VCIT, are implemented. The Field Management Staff directs VCIT operations through the relevant Special Agents in Charge of the Field Divisions in the selected cities. The Special Agent in Charge, in turn, directs VCIT Coordinators (who typically are Supervisory Special Agents) through the Field Division’s management structure.

Participating Cities

ATF and ODAG officials told us that they selected cities to participate in the VCIT initiative based on an examination of crime statistics, including recent homicide and violent crime numbers. The 15 cities selected to participate in the initial phase of the VCIT initiative were Albuquerque, New Mexico; Baltimore, Maryland; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Columbus, Ohio; Greensboro, North Carolina; Las Vegas, Nevada; Los Angeles, California; Miami, Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; Tampa, Florida; Tucson, Arizona; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Washington, D.C./Northern Virginia. (See Figure 2.)

In April 2005, ATF expanded the VCIT initiative to include Camden, New Jersey; Fresno, California; Hartford, Connecticut; Houston, Texas; and New Orleans, Louisiana. In September 2005, as part of the Department’s response to Hurricane Katrina, the Attorney General directed ATF to establish a VCIT in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In October 2005, the Attorney General announced the initiation of a VCIT in Laredo, Texas, as part of the Department’s response to violence along the United States–Mexico border. In March 2006, the Attorney General announced a new VCIT in Atlanta, Georgia.

Figure 2:  Cities with VCITs as of March 2006

United States map indicating cities with VCITs as of March 2006. Click on image for a text-only version.

  1. “Justice Department Announces New Violent Crime Reduction Initiative,” press release, U.S. Department of Justice, June 24, 2004.

  2. The Department’s Office of Justice Programs initiated Project Safe Neighborhoods in 2001 to link federal, state, and local law enforcement, prosecutors, and community leaders together in a multifaceted approach to deterring and punishing gun crime.

  3. The Department initiated Operation Weed and Seed in 1992 to help prevent, control, and reduce violent crime, drug abuse, and gang activity in designated high-crime neighborhoods across the country. Operation Ceasefire was developed in response to gang-related gun violence in the Hollenback area of Los Angeles. Multiple law enforcement agencies used a coordinated strategy to increase police patrols and surveillance of gang members. The Indianapolis Police Department implemented the Directed Patrol Project in 1997 to reduce violent crime by proactively patrolling target areas with a special emphasis on locating and seizing illegally possessed firearms.

  4. “Time to crime” means the elapsed time between the purchase of a firearm and its use in the commission of a crime. A short “time to crime” is an indicator that the gun was purchased with the intent of using it in some form of illegal activity because most firearms purchased legally for legitimate purposes – such as hunting, sport shooting, or self or home defense – remain with the original purchaser for a long period of time. Firearms obtained through straw purchases or from licensed firearms dealers who sell firearms illegally are more likely to be used in criminal activity.

  5. Funds were reallocated from the Gang Resistance and Education Training program, which had been administratively transferred from ATF to the Office of Justice Programs earlier in 2004.

« Previous Table of Contents Next »