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Using Forensic Intelligence Analysts to Drive Gun Crime Investigations

Notes From the Field
Date Published
June 7, 2021

In 2017, the Miami-Dade Police Department expanded its use of the ShotSpotter system.

Through its vast network of sensors deployed throughout the county, the ShotSpotter system triangulates the location of gunfire and quickly relays this location back to law enforcement. With an expanded ShotSpotter operation, law enforcement officers are now dispatched to more scenes with reported gunfire than ever before.

As a result, this leads to more and more evidence collected, including shell casings for forensic evaluation and other pieces of information to aid in the investigation.

Prior to the implementation of ShotSpotter, law enforcement was unaware of many incidents involving gunfire. If there was no victim at a scene, the community may not have reported an isolated gunshot. With ShotSpotter, law enforcement no longer has to rely solely on public reporting.

As a forensic laboratory, we prepared for this significant inflow of new evidence by adding two firearms technicians who enter evidence casings and test fires into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), but we also recognized that there was more we could do to support detectives investigating gun crimes.

The expansion of ShotSpotter was the perfect opportunity for us to bring a forensic intelligence analyst on-board to translate all of the firearm-related testing results and create actionable intelligence reports for our detectives. We were not taking full advantage of the pieces of intelligence and the databases available. Forensic scientists and law enforcement officers working in today’s investigative environment face a paradigm shift in how they interact. Forensic disciplines have traditionally been incorporated into a case right before going to court. Now, forensic analysis is able to help drive an investigation and support law enforcement to direct their investigative resources more efficiently.

Investigative Work Behind a Computer

The difference between forensic intelligence and intelligence is the addition of forensic data to the information that can be found in databases, providing crime trend data or other investigative information that could potentially solve a crime. In other words, the data derived from the forensic analysis of physical evidence can inform investigations.

For example, a link made between two different crime gun events using NIBIN is a type of forensic information that can be leveraged to obtain actionable intelligence. When combined with the many additional sources of information available, forensic data can help detectives identify links, patterns, and trends across jurisdictions, providing actionable intelligence to solve existing cases and disrupt crime.

In Miami-Dade County, our forensic intelligence analyst researches gun crime incidents — searching for correlations between the types of firearm used, familiar names of victims or subjects, gang affiliations, known associates, criminal history, a suspect’s vehicle, and more.

By leveraging local forensic testing results with supporting details from local, state, and federal law enforcement databases, our analyst produces a three-part package of information that provides:

  • The timeline of cases involving the same firearm.
  • A spider web analysis linking the events through evidence and associated subjects.
  • A color-coded map identifying the location where each firearm was used.

The information presented in this report is in a format that is easier to digest than the traditional forensic laboratory narrative format. The reports are also written for a law enforcement audience, and leave out technical information regarding specific tests and scientific instrumentation.

These reports cross-reference other forensic disciplines as well, including cases that may be associated by DNA profile or fingerprints. We’ll also use open-source information, such as social media, Google searches, and obituaries, which can be utilized to make connections to known associates, including family members and friends. Results from these findings further develop the investigative leads.

All of this information is collected by our analyst after scientific testing is completed. There is no effect or delay on our laboratory processes. Our report is simply combining data located across 40-plus databases and presenting it to law enforcement in a single document. Lastly, we highlight that the results of forensic testing in these reports is for investigative leads only and NIBIN results alone are not intended to establish probable cause for arrest.

Once detectives receive this information, our analyst is available for follow-up discussions about the information presented.

Our end goal is to eliminate the silos of information that have been created and easily communicate the context of how all of the evidence in a specific case is connected.

Key Skills of a Forensic Intelligence Analyst

In starting our forensic intelligence initiative, we knew that we wanted someone who was already a crime analyst and knew how evidence fit together for law enforcement. We found the perfect match in someone who started as a police records specialist and worked their way up through the department to work as a crime analyst.

Finding someone who has this institutional knowledge of how evidence connects has been incredibly valuable and has made the transition to interpreting forensic analysis for law enforcement relatively smooth.

We’ve also embedded our forensic intelligence analyst within our Forensic Services Bureau, allowing them quick access to scientists for questions and clarifications regarding lab results.

Lastly, having a civilian employee in this position has been beneficial. In criminal justice, we’ve all participated in trainings and discussions on identifying bias in our line of work. This bias is lessened when the analyst is neither a scientist nor a sworn law enforcement officer.

This wasn’t an original motivator for us in hiring, but we’ve discovered that having dedicated staff who is independent of an investigation and not involved in the day-to-day work of law enforcement or forensic testing provides an internal screening process to mitigate bias in our analysis.

Using Data to Connect Gun Crime Cases

We entered this forensic intelligence initiative knowing that, as a lab, there was more that we could offer law enforcement. We knew that we could leverage the multitude of data points available in the databases we have access to and help detectives connect the dots early on in an investigation.

Instead of waiting for law enforcement to ask us for this type of analysis, we chose to show them what they were missing.

Thus far, we believe our success speaks for itself. We’ve been able to support numerous investigations with our homicide bureau and in major gun crime areas. Although many of the cases that we’ve supported have yet to be adjudicated, it’s safe to say we’ve been able to help link plenty of cases based on the firearms that were used.

We communicate regularly with our United States’ Attorney’s Office and other partners as they seek more information on our efforts.

Through self-evaluation, we’ve identified our aggressive approach with NIBIN as a key part of our success. Law enforcement will alert us if gun crime evidence is linked to a ShotSpotter case, and we commit to enter, search, and process the results within 24 hours.

This aggressive focus on NIBIN has been a foundational piece in order for our forensic analyst to be successful in making the necessary connections with gun crimes.

Moving Forward with Forensic Intelligence

We’re currently looking for opportunities to expand our forensic intelligence program and bring more analysts onboard, whether it be through the support of grant opportunities or through local resources.

Either way, we believe it’s just a matter of time for the tide to change in our field — for more and more forensics and law enforcement professionals to realize that objectively compiling evidence early on in an investigation can help law enforcement operate more efficiently.

As a forensic laboratory, it might not be our traditional role to step into this arena, but we have to help investigators understand the information we are providing. Having an intelligence analyst in the lab is our starting point — someone to have eyes on all of the information coming out of the lab.

By taking a step back and reassessing our traditional forensics workflow, we’ve found that there are more effective ways to utilize forensic testing results than traditional investigative practices currently allow.

About Notes From the Field

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ posts the Notes From the Field series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

Notes From the Field is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by on-the-ground criminal justice leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.

Date Published: June 7, 2021