3D imaging helps Ga. lab solve firearm crimes

The resulting images and information are uploaded to a database which connects national law-enforcement agencies

By Adam Floyd
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA, Ga. — The Valdosta-Lowndes County Regional Crime Lab recently made a high-tech upgrade to its ballistic imaging system to increase the ability to discover links between firearms cases.

The new Integrated Ballistics Imaging System (IBIS) shoots high-definition photos and creates 3D digital images of firearm evidence taken from crime scenes. 

The system compares the photos to others entered into regional and national databases to determine if evidence analyzed by the crime lab matches evidence gathered elsewhere, said crime lab criminalist Shannon Floyd.

The system is not designed to match evidence to a firearm, however. 

Actually matching a gun to a bullet or shell casing still requires human analysis from criminalists like Floyd who conduct microscopic examinations of evidence.

“If a crime happened today, and the investigators think this was the gun, they are going to submit the gun, submit the bullets and say, ‘Is this the gun?’ We don’t even have to have this system to do that. We do a comparison and do a result on our own,” Floyd said. “(IBIS) is an additional tool to not only say that this was the gun but to also say we put it in the database, and now it has hit on something from two years ago that we didn’t even realize was related.”

The process begins when an agency submits a firearm and evidence to the crime lab for analysis. Criminalists at the lab test fire the gun, collect and analyze the evidence and use the IBIS for digital imaging.

For imaging a bullet casing, it is secured in a specially designed cradle which is placed inside the imaging system. An array of automated cameras photograph the evidence at multiple angles and take digital measurements. 

The resulting images and information are uploaded to a database which connects law-enforcement agencies across the country.

The lab’s previous imaging system had similar capabilities, but the high-quality imaging of the IBIS allows the lab to inspect evidence in ways it could not before, said Steven Chammoun, crime lab criminalist.

“The newest thing is the high-definition 3D,” Chammoun said.

In-depth inspection of a piece of evidence, especially a shell casing, could not be done in the past, without destroying it, he said. With IBIS, Chammoun can manipulate a digital 3D image of the evidence on a computer screen. He can zoom in, rotate and peer inside the tiniest grooves and imperfections of a casing, the very markings the lab needs to be able to identify to make a comparison.

IBIS uses an algorithm to determine if the evidence processed by the crime lab might be connected to other cases, but “hits” on other pieces of evidence are not definitive proof cases are related, Floyd said. 

IBIS simply identifies possible connections, and it is up to the criminalists at the lab to take the next step.

For example, if the IBIS system analyzes a shell casing from a Valdosta shooting incident and finds a possible match to evidence submitted by an agency in North Georgia, the crime lab submits a request to obtain the physical evidence from that agency to do its analysis. 

It is only then a determination can be made of whether the cases are connected.

Crime Lab Director Becky Parker-Hall does not consider the IBIS a time-saving device for her staff. The instrument often increases workloads, but that is what it was designed to do. Parker-Hall said the real benefit of having the system is it helps find connections to crimes investigators would have had no idea existed otherwise.

“This doesn’t do our work for us. I think people see this and get confused, thinking this is what makes our comparisons. This is an additional tool that links crimes together,” Parker-Hall said. “This is an additional service we can provide investigators to help solve crimes.”

Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress has pointed to Hall’s leadership in obtaining the system as a community asset.

“Adding the new Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS) TRAX-3D System is another improvement to our laboratory ballistics section which very few laboratories across the country have at this time,” Childress said. “In less than 12 months after her appointment to Crime Laboratory Director, Becky Parker-Hall has delivered ASCLD Crime Laboratory Accreditation to our community, something that has never been done in Georgia at a local laboratory. She continues to impress me on her efforts to lead her lab staff and gain additional law enforcement partners to our regional laboratory.”

Copyright 2015 The Valdosta Daily Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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