Updated: 06/24/2014 6:51 PM
Created: 06/24/2014 4:04 PM KSTP.com
By: Stephen Tellier
Investigators are opening a new front in the fight against gun crime in the Twin Cities, and 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS has an exclusive first look at the initiative and how it could cut down on violent crime.
It's a cooperative effort involving the St. Paul Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the police departments in Minneapolis and St. Paul, among other agencies. It's part public awareness campaign and part aggressive investigative effort - a mix of teamwork and technology.
Shell casings are essentially evidence left behind by a firearm after someone pulls the trigger. They're collected at the scenes of countless gun crimes. And, they hold crucial clues about who's responsible.
"This tool develops leads for investigators that they would have no idea existed without it," said Sgt. Joe Adams with the Minneapolis Police Department.
Minneapolis Police Department investigators agreed to take us inside their National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) lab where thousands of casings are analyzed. Each casing has distinctive, one-of-a-kind markings, which - once they're entered into NIBIN - can be compared to other casings discovered by police across the country, and potentially matched up with other crimes committed with the same gun.
Think of it as fingerprinting for firearms.
"It is an absolute game-changer for us," said Scott Sweetow, Special Agent In Charge of the ATF's St. Paul Field Division.
Currently, crime scene casings in Minneapolis are entered into NIBIN in about seven to 10 days. Sweetow said ATF is working with Minneapolis and St. Paul police to get casings entered almost immediately.
"By attacking these shell casings quickly, we can then retroactively go backwards and see where that weapon has been used," Sweetow said.
The system enables investigators to connect two separate shootings that might not have been linked otherwise.
"Last year, this team developed a match involving five firearms to 27 different cases," Adams said.
MPD investigators matched 185 casings just last year, and have matched more than 1,000 since the department began using the system.
"So that's 1,000 leads for investigators that they wouldn't have had otherwise," Adams said.
The initiative also includes a new hotline - 1-800-ATF-GUNS - and an appeal to the public: If you hear gunfire, report it, because the more firearm incidents police respond to, the more likely they are to track down those pulling the trigger.
"We want to put the squeeze play on these shooters. We want to press them from both sides of the river," Sweetow said.
ATF is also pushing local departments to install even more "shot spotters," devices that capture the sound of gunfire and alert police within seconds, in high-crime areas. The City of Minneapolis just recently committed to spending another $300,000 on them over the next three years.
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS is expecting a formal announcement of the entire anti-gun crime initiative in the near future.