Northern Virginia's top prosecutor says he'll push local police agencies to make better use of a nationwide crime-fighting tool that matches shell casings from different locations to help solve violent crimes.
Last week, the News4 I-Team showed how some departments in Northern Virginia fail to make full use of the technology even though it could help solve crimes in neighboring cities.
"We really do have to change our thinking," said Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, which includes Northern Virginia.
The director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recently appointed Terwilliger to a three-year term on the National Crime Gun Intelligence Board, which includes police chiefs, forensic lab directors, and federal and state prosecutors.
Part of his role is to encourage full participation in the effort to reduce gun violence in communities across the nation. The model includes urging all law enforcement agencies to utilize a comprehensive way of collecting evidence and rapid entry into a nationwide system of shell casing images.
"Gathering every one of the shell casings is really important," Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham told the I-Team.
Newsham calls gun violence the number one problem in the city, with 160 murders in 2018 and already twice as many murders in 2019 as this time last year.
His officers are required to collect every single casing they see, even if there is no victim injured, no property damage and no major crime.
The outside of those casings can read like fingerprints for the gun that fired them; every gun leaves unique markings.
When a gun is found on a suspect, it's test fired, and those casings get entered into the system, too.
The National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, or NIBIN, can compare the 3-D images side by side with other casings already in the system and connect cases together.
"To the extent that other jurisdictions on our border are involved in this, it would be helpful," said Newsham.
The I-Team surveyed departments across the capital region and found neighboring police departments in Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland utilize the same policy as Washington, D.C., and each of the departments has their own NIBIN machines.
But the I-Team found that is not the case in Northern Virginia, which doesn't have as much violent crime. The only machine available to local detectives is at the state lab in Manassas.
"Getting [another] one of those machines in Northern Virginia is absolutely a priority," Terwilliger told the I-Team.
It currently takes the Virginia Department of Forensic Science labs about four months to get NIBIN results back to detectives. Departments with their own machines can typically do it in days.
"If I take the extra time to collect, bag the shell casings, put it into evidence and submit it, and then it's coming back after it's not really as useful anymore, you're going to stop doing it," said Terwilliger.
He's exploring how to better utilize the Manassas machine in off hours as well, perhaps with grant money or a sharing agreement. He'll work to make sure Northern Virginia departments get feedback when their casings help solve cases in neighboring cities.
"I think it's incredibly important,” he said. “I mean, the whole idea is that you will have guns that routinely show up in shooting after shooting and it tells the story.”
Most D.C. residents cannot legally own a gun, and ATF data shows of the crime guns recovered in the District, more come from Virginia than any other state.
The ATF operates a local crime gun intelligence center, which is currently a partnership between D.C. and Prince George's County, where they share information in real time to help link related cases to solve violent crimes faster.
ATF Special Agent Christie Weidner supervises the center and says Northern Virginia is a natural fit to join the partnership.
"I think the timing is right now for us to do that expansion," said Weidner. "Because not only do the criminals go between D.C. and Maryland, but they also come into Virginia."
Terwilliger couldn't give a specific time frame, but he does think all of the Northern Virginia law enforcement agencies will eventually adopt a comprehensive collection strategy for shell casing evidence.
He said it will require a shift in mindset for officers to collect and enter every shell casing and gun they find, but he said that will come with time — as they see how it helps solve violent crimes across the region.