SANTA ANA – After a 24-year-old security guard was shot and killed in an apartment complex parking lot, Santa Ana police were left with few leads. They didn’t have a description of the shooter. The motivation and events that led to the shooting were unclear.
But they did have a 10 mm cartridge.
It’s a success that Santa Ana firearms examiner Rocky Edwards attributes to prioritizing, efficiency and getting creative with technology. He hopes the department’s approach can serve as a model for other cities, and he’s confident it is making a difference in gang and gun crime.
The turning point for the department came in 2005 as Edwards, a former forensic firearms investigator in the U.S. Army, and Sgt. Jon Centanni, now retired, were looking at analyzing shootings in the area. As they tracked incidents on a map, they began to look for a better way. With the help of an outside software developer, physical pins were traded for virtual ones and the GunOps program was born.
“It just gives you a complete picture of what’s happening in the city right now,” Edwards said.
In the program, a map of Santa Ana is covered with pins of various colors signifying firearms evidence that is being processed, has been linked to a previous shooting or that doesn’t have a link. Homicides show up as blinking icons. With a click, investigators can compare photos of evidence from different shootings, overlay the territory of major gangs and search for keywords, such as all shootings committed by someone on a bicycle or those where the victim was wounded in the head.
After the death of the security guard, Edwards went to GunOps in search of new leads.
“It’s almost like a bloodhound unit, in a technical sense,” he said.
Under all shootings that had used a 10 mm gun, he found a case from six months before. The recovered cartridges were a match, and in the report for the earlier shooting, there was a description of the shooter.
Officers stopped a juvenile matching the description soon after. As he attempted to flee, he dropped a pistol. Analysis showed the cartridges from both shootings could only have come from that gun, so detectives were able to walk into the interview with confidence.
“Before they even interviewed him, they knew that was the gun used in that shooting,” Edwards said.
Centanni and Edwards created a company to help spread the program, which costs a city the size of Santa Ana about $10,000 each year to run. Edwards said its value is clear.
“I believe this can really make a difference in our country in terms of gang and gun crime,” he said.
Gang crimes might be the most difficult cases for detectives to investigate, said Cpl. Dave Rondou of the Santa Ana department’s gang and homicide unit. Often, the only evidence is a cartridge and a body, and fear of gang retribution makes witnesses unlikely to talk. Ballistics can confirm detectives’ leads, and the extra layer of corroboration makes cases stronger when they go to trial, he said.
“It helps eliminate doubt,” he said. “No one ever wants to get it wrong.”
Detectives use the same techniques in the field, said Sgt. Lorenzo Carrillo, a supervisor in the gang and homicide unit. The ballistics technology, and GunOps in particular, have cut down on weeks of combing paperwork.
“You still have to build up a case,” he said. “You get there a lot quicker.”
Being able to instantly visualize recent gun crimes is a major advancement from the stacks of binders detectives would previously work with.
“It allows me to make better decisions for case assignments,” he said. “I’ll pull up GunOps, and I’ll start seeing the links.”
Criminals have caught on and have been forced to slow down, he added. Most sell or destroy their guns after committing a crime or two, knowing the risk they run in getting tied to a number of crime scenes. Before, one gun might be used in up to 15 crimes.
“Some of the cold cases would never have been solved without this technology,” he added.
In the department’s first four years of analyzing firearms evidence against the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, 170 hits were found. Since GunOps went into place, the department has found 1,200 hits linking crime-scene cartridges.
“We take an extremely innovative approach to our problem,” Edwards said.
It’s an approach Edwards is taking to the National Rifle Association with hopes the group will offer support to spread it nationally. As politicians debate gun-control proposals, Edwards said the program’s focus on fighting gun crime should be appealing to Second Amendment advocates.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with law-abiding citizens,” he said. “It has to do with tracking bad guys.”
The Web-based program lets Edwards navigate quickly through what would in the past have been stacks of paper reports. Detectives can log into the system themselves or sign up to receive text or email alerts when cases are linked.
“Time is of the essence for us,” Edwards said.
In addition to helping police move quickly, the program allows investigators and city leaders to more easily see trends and analyze local crime by plotting out where gun crimes take place.
“A picture’s worth a thousand words,” he said.
LET EVIDENCE TALK
After a shooting, a part-time GunOps operator inputs evidence within 24 hours, and cartridges are also scanned digitally using the Integrated Ballistic Identification Systems, which may then compare the images against the national network. If a match is found, Edwards uses a microscope to verify unique characteristics formed under the pressure that fires a bullet. Recovered guns might be test fired to compare their bullets and cartridges with existing evidence.
Creating a report for a match might take anywhere from a few days to nine months, so Edwards focuses on evidence that is most likely to become part of a trial. He takes his objectivity seriously, and prefers not to know the circumstances behind the evidence he analyzes.
“I let the evidence talk to me,” he said.
Technology will continue to aid police departments in fighting gun crime, Edwards said.
For GunOps, Edwards hopes to one day have the program pick up an automated feed from the department’s report management system.
In Israel, examiners are experimenting with using electron microscopes. Edwards has made strides in bringing 3D imaging into the field. He first turned to 3D imaging in 2009 to prove a bullet came from the partially damaged gun of a murder suspect, leading to a conviction in a 15-year-old cold case. Technology has improved even since then, and Edwards says he’s now more easily able to walk juries through the investigation process on difficult cases that in the past might not have gone to trial.
“It gets better and better,” he said.
By CLAUDIA KOERNER/ ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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