Does a ‘Code of Silence’ Among Students, Parents Abet School Shootings?

School shootings can be averted when parents, school authorities and students themselves take seriously the signals indicating potential violence from troubled youths, and communicate their concerns as quickly as possible, according to the Police Foundation.

School shootings can be averted when parents, school authorities and students themselves take seriously the signals indicating potential violence from troubled youths, and communicate their concerns as quickly as possible, according to the Police Foundation.

In two companion studies of 51 completed and 51 averted incidents of school violence that have occurred in the U.S. since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, researchers found that the reluctance to break the “code of silence,” and tell responsible authorities about fellow students who openly make threats or display signs of mental instability is a critical factor determining whether a tragedy occurs or is prevented.

“Communication is the key to preventing mass attacks,” concluded Peter Langman and Frank Straub, the co-authors of one of the papers. “To improve communication, communities need to be trained to recognize warning signs and to know what to do when they encounter them.”

Langman, a psychologist and expert on school safety, and Straub, a former Spokane police chief who is now director of the Police Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies, found that, although there was no typical school shooting, there were common factors connecting many of them.

The incidents studied—which were not intended to be a comprehensive list of all the school shootings in the US since 1999—were mostly committed by males under the age of 27, most of whom already had a “history” of mental instability.

“A majority of perpetrators who completed attacks had a history of being treated for one or more mental health issues or development disorders,” said the paper.

Often there were clear signals of homicidal intent long in advance that parents or students failed to take seriously.

In one example, a perpetrator was so obsessed with the Columbine shooting that he convinced his mother to drive him across country so he could see the site where the shooting happened.

“Despite knowing that he was suicidal and obsessed with Columbine and owned firearms, she apparently did not recognize these factors as warning signs for violence,” the authors wrote.

In several cases, students or parents ignored comments about proposed violence—especially when they were made in a joking manner, or failed to recognize signs of mental illness—underlining the need for a changed national approach to mental health, the paper said.

Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness

“Increased knowledge about mental health and the signs of psychological distress could have resulted in better intervention by parents, teachers, and others,” said the authors. “In addition, the stigma regarding mental health treatment has been a barrier that has kept people from getting help.

“Efforts to destigmatize mental health treatment should be a national priority, along with increasing available services and making sure they are accessible and affordable to all who need them.”

The second paper, by Jeff Daniels, attempted to identify the factors in the 51 “averted” incidents that prevented potential tragedies from occurring.

Daniels focused on two contrasting cases. In the first, a 17-year-old boy, his brother, and friends, calling themselves the “Trench Coat Mafia” in imitation of a group of students at Columbine, plotted to blow up their school and shoot any surviving teachers and students as they fled. But one of the conspirators disclosed the plot to a teacher, who then passed the information along to a school resource officer, who notified the local police. As a result of the investigation, five youths were arrested.

In the second case, a bright 15-year-old boy from a broken home who had begun to do poorly in his studies, talked repeatedly with friends about “pulling a Columbine” and bringing a gun to school and kill people. His friends largely dismissed it as a joke. When he actually announced he was going to “bring a bunch of guns” to school the next day, some of his friends were concerned enough to pat him down for a gun.

However, they failed to search his backpack, which contained the gun. He entered the school and shot 15 people.

“The primary difference between the two case examples is that in the averted shooting, multiple people reported their concerns, but in the completed shooting, no one who was concerned about a possible attack contacted either the school or local law enforcement,” Daniels said.

The reluctance to tell authorities or others their fears is a result of the “code of silence” that prevails among many young people who fear being called snitchers, the paper said.

According to the paper, school authorities can go a long way towards puncturing students’ concerns by helping them make “a distinction between ‘snitching’ (which is reporting to get somebody in trouble) and reporting a concern (which is intended to help others).”

The Police Foundation studies were part of an Averted School Violence project that began in 2015 and was funded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) at the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The project selected an equal number of averted and completed incidents to establish a database from which it could draw conclusions and recommendations for law enforcement, community groups, parents and educators.

Both papers drew a number of other lessons from their study related to school security, first responders and strengthened community partnerships.

‘Punishment is Not Prevention’

One lesson was that expulsion of students who exhibit troublesome behavior was not likely to head off a shooting incident, noting that in several cases students who were suspended returned later to the school with a gun and committed murder.

“Punishment is not prevention,” the Langman-Straub paper said. “The lesson here is that when students are suspended and prohibited from being on school property and this is not communicated to school personnel, the students can return to the school, enter, and commit acts of violence.”

Other recommendations for school authorities, parents and law enforcement have frequently been made by other experts. Both papers notably stayed away from hot- button issues raised by advocates on different sides of the debate about preventing mass shootings in schools, such as stricter gun control or arming teachers.

The recommendations included:

  • Ensure that guns are stored and locked safely in the home;
  • Make an effort to secure the school grounds, even though metal detectors were shown rto provide little detection;
  • Develop effective first-response plans to hand potential school emergencies;
  • Maintain trusting relationships with students to detect potential signs of distress and physical aggression, and educate students themselves about warning signs;
  • Use trained security or school resource officers as a deterrent;
  • Parents should not hesitate to check diaries, papers or social media used by young people who have displayed problematic behavior.

But the overall conclusion of both papers is that early and transparent communication among all the players who are likely to be involved in a school shooting incident is a primary factor in keeping schools safe.

“Safety is a community concern,” said the Langman-Straub paper. “When more people take action to maintain safety, the more likely a community is to prevent an act of violence.”

Additional Reading: Stopping School Shootings: Is Colorado’s Safe2Tell Hotline a Solution?

See also: Today’s TCR newsbrief: ‘Silent Panic Alarms to be Installed in NJ Schools.”

Both papers are available for download. The Langman-Straub paper is accessible here.  The Daniels paper can be accessed here.


Citizens-Not Cops-Need To Do More To Control Violent Crime

Baltimore Police Motorcycles Highlights We are in danger of losing cities to violent crime. There may be points of no return for decades. The future of policing and cities hangs in the balance. Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. […]

The post Citizens-Not Cops-Need To Do More To Control Violent Crime appeared first on Crime in America.Net.

Baltimore Police Motorcycles Highlights We are in danger of losing cities to violent crime. There may be points of no return for decades. The future of policing and cities hangs in the balance. Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. […]

The post Citizens-Not Cops-Need To Do More To Control Violent Crime appeared first on Crime in America.Net.


Criminals And Guns-Why Cops Are Concerned

Highlights A very high percentage of violent offenders use or carry firearms per federal sources. What this means for police-involved shootings and public policy. Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former […]

The post Criminals And Guns-Why Cops Are Concerned appeared first on Crime in America.Net.

Highlights A very high percentage of violent offenders use or carry firearms per federal sources. What this means for police-involved shootings and public policy. Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former […]

The post Criminals And Guns-Why Cops Are Concerned appeared first on Crime in America.Net.


NY DA Vance Funds $250m Project to Prevent Youth Crime

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.will use asset forfeiture proceeds to develop an elaborate network of social services aimed at keeping youths out of the criminal justice system.

With funding from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.,  the City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governance is developing an elaborate network of social services aimed at keeping youths out of the criminal justice system.

The Criminal Justice Investment Initiative was outlined to criminologists on Saturday at the American Society of Criminology’s annual convention in Atlanta. The experimental effort is being paid for from asset forfeiture proceeds Vance obtained from three international banks accused of violating U.S. sanctions.

In one part of the project, five “coalitions” consisting of dozens of social service agencies in New York City have been organized to offer services in areas such as jobs, education and housing to about 3,000 youths in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods including Washington Heights, Harlem and Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Another part of the project employs “navigators” who work individually with young people between 14 and 24. One aim of the project is to “develop meaningful career pathways for at-risk, high-need groups including disconnected young people who are out of work and out of school, victims of crime, and people returning from incarceration.”

The five-year $250 million program is in its early stages. Institute director Michael Jacobson said that the hope is that after the initial funding is exhausted, successful elements of it will be continued by government or nonprofits agencies.


PA Massacre a ‘Game Changer’ for Synagogue Security

Jewish communities have felt safer than smaller religious minorities, such as Muslims or Sikhs. That may be changing. “Many of us knew a moment like this would happen and people would begin to feel more vulnerable in Jewish spaces, as many minorities feel,” said one rabbi. “In that way, I think the culture is shifting.”

Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue had practiced active-shooter drills. Staff members knew the protocols, and they assessed the building’s security last year. On high holidays, police officers would keep watch. Like many synagogues, Tree of Life had its doors open for Saturday’s Shabbat services, welcoming its congregants, the Washington Post reports. After a gunman entered and killed 11 people in the worst attack on American Jews in U.S. history, President Trump and others suggested that armed guards might have prevented the carnage.

Jewish leaders are grappling with whether that suggestion makes sense. Saturday’s massacre could usher in a new era of ramped-up security. Rabbi Aaron Alexander of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., said the attack is a “game changer” for Jews, and for security at synagogues. While security budgets at synagogues have increased, Jewish communities have felt safer than smaller religious minorities, such as Muslims or Sikhs. That, he predicts, is about to change. “Many of us knew a moment like this would happen and people would begin to feel more vulnerable in Jewish spaces, as many minorities feel,” he said. “In that way, I think the culture is shifting.” On Sunday, Jewish leaders took part in a phone call with the FBI over security concerns, and many have been in close communication with the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit clearinghouse on how to handle potential threats to Jewish institutions. When the network was formed in 2004, only two of the 147 Jewish Federations in U.S. metropolitan areas with a large Jewish population had a full-time security director. Now that number is at 30, and it is expected to grow. For smaller synagogues with tighter budgets, paying for armed guards might be impossible.


Mail-Bomb Defendant Called ‘Very, Very Disturbed’ Man

“The family has always from a young age encouraged [Cesar Savoc] to get treatment and mental health counseling,” said hisformer layer, Ronald Lowy said. “He refuses. He gets angry. He says, ‘I hate you, you think I’m abnormal.’ He just won’t see reality.”

As a young man, Cesar Sayoc struggled with mental health problems, but his family could not persuade him to seek help. Sayoc, facing federal charges for mailing bomb-like devices to top Democrats and media personalities, would get angry when his relatives asked him to seek help, said Ronald Lowy, a Miami lawyer who has represented Sayoc and his family, reports USA Today. “The family has always from a young age encouraged him to get treatment and mental health counseling,” Lowy said. “He refuses. He gets angry. He says, ‘I hate you, you think I’m abnormal.’ He just won’t see reality.” Sayoc, 56, was arrested Friday. The former strip club worker and pizza parlor employee listed his mother’s Aventura, Fl., condo as his residence, but he has lived for as many as six years in a van. He was identified by authorities as the man who put pipe bombs in small manila envelopes, affixed six stamps and sent them to some of President Trump’s most prominent critics.

A lawyer who deposed him was stunned by his outlandish, and untrue, claims on a resume that included being a professional soccer player, an aspiring veterinarian and a financial wizard able to raise struggling businesses from near collapse. Mostly, Sayoc lived a troubled life, unable to hold a job, and unlikely to maintain friendships. Sayoc’s aunt, Theresa Sharp-Russell of Boca Raton, described her nephew as a “very, very disturbed” man who struggled to stay out of trouble and lost touch with family. Sharp-Russell sold Sayoc a home in 2006. The home later went into foreclosure, and he lost it in 2009. He led for bankruptcy in 2012. Sharp-Russell said her nephew is not a terrorist. She described Sayoc as a “kid who wanted attention. He was looking for a father figure. He found it in Trump.”


Don’t Post Home Surveillance Video Too Quickly, Police Say

Authorities warn what gets posted on social media may not be accurate and can create unnecessary hysteria, particularly if an arrest has already been made that the public doesn’t know about.

As doorbell cameras and other smart home surveillance systems become more common, experts are urging residents not to post that video of the suspected burglar on your front porch until you’ve talked to police, reports the Detroit Free Press. “We like to be notified first so we can start our investigation prior to the public starting their investigation,” said Berkley, Mi., Public Safety Director Matt Koehn. An uptick in interest in home security systems, particularly affordable and easy-to-monitor doorbell cameras, and social media platforms, such as Nextdoor and Facebook, make it easier than ever for homeowners to share videos and photos of suspicious activities in their neighborhoods. Authorities warn what gets posted on social media may not be accurate and can create unnecessary hysteria, particularly if an arrest has already been made that the public doesn’t know about. In some instances, people may be falsely accusing someone of a crime when that person had a legitimate reason for being on their porch.

Video can help police identify a suspect, vehicle or license plate, provide clothing description and other circumstantial evidence and show a suspected criminal’s mode of operating. In Chesterfield Township, police are asking residents or businesses with private video surveillance to register with Chesterfield’s Observation Program. If an incident happened in the vicinity of a person’s camera system, detectives can ask the owner to review the video to see if it contains any valuable information. Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, said privately-gathered surveillance video can be helpful to police because there are no Constitutional issues, such as the Fourth Amendment, which protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures.


Opioid Epidemic Offers Different View of Addiction: Mason

“Locking people up for long sentences, arresting people and putting them in jail for drug crimes are not what produces safer communities,” says Karol Mason, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The movement “about rethinking about what we do with our criminal-justice system is nonpartisan,” John Jay College of Criminal Justice President Karol Mason tells the Washington Post. “It’s not a conservative issue. It’s not a liberal issue. People realize it’s a people issue.” Mason notes that many jail inmates “are really drug addicts,” adding, “The opioid epidemic has opened up an opportunity for us to think about drug addiction differently, and see it as a health issue and not a crime issue.”

“The challenge for me,” Mason says, “is getting people to think of our criminal justice system in that right framework of what’s gonna create safer communities. And we know from research that locking people up for long sentences, arresting people and putting them in jail for drug crimes are not what produces safer communities. What produces safer communities is looking at what are the causal factors putting people into our criminal justice system: lack of opportunity, lack of jobs, health care, education poverty. We’ve got so many people in our criminal justice system simply because they’re poor, and what we ought to be doing is investing upstream in keeping people out of the system and providing opportunities.”


Should Chicago Spend Money on a Police Academy?

Supporters want to spent $95 million on a new facility to train police. Opponents say Chicago already allocates too many funds to law enforcement and that an academy won’t solve the city’s crime problems.

A year and a half after the U.S. Justice Department issued a report criticizing the Chicago Police Department’s use of force and racially discriminatory conduct, tensions between the police and community remain high in many neighborhoods. One major point of contention is a proposed $95 million police and fire academy. The planned 30-acre campus would include state-of-the-art training facilities and provide much-needed jobs to residents in a community struggling with poverty and gun violence, say supporters. The academy has become a flashpoint for many politicians and community members, who argue that the money would be better spent elsewhere, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The proposal for a new police academy was made after the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old who was shot 16 times by an officer as he walked away from police in 2014.

The Chicago Police Department solves one in 20 homicides, and that rate has been declining. At the same time, the city has paid victims of police misconduct more than $50 million this year alone, a marked increase from last year. Now, the city is creating a consent decree for the police department, which would require adoption of suggested by DOJ. Local organizers say a new police academy on the West Side will not solve the underlying problems of policing and crime in Chicago. They point out that a new facility is not the same as better training and that the police department has already changed its curriculum, graduating three classes of officers who received what the mayor has called “best-in-class training.” Chicago spends 39 percent of its municipal budget on policing, while New York spends just 8 percent and Los Angeles spends 26 percent, says the Center for Popular Democracy. This means the city has less funds for things like schools and social services.


Finding Shooters Before They Shoot Again

A crime lab in the San Francisco Bay area has made an impressive dent in gun violence by helping local cops swiftly identify weapons used in crime through the 20-year-old National Integrated Ballistic Information Network. So why aren’t other police departments taking advantage of the network?

The criminals terrorizing the East Bay suburbs outside of Oakland, Ca., were getting bolder.

They robbed a family in well-to-do Fremont, Ca., at gunpoint. They broke into another house with pistols drawn, ready to confront residents. They shot a local school board member and pistol-whipped her husband as the victims unloaded groceries in their driveway, and then fled with a purse and cell phone.

For weeks in the summer of 2016, police struggled to gather enough evidence to arrest the men. Then one of them tried to dispose of a gun.

[That provided the evidence police needed to crack the case—thanks to a local crime lab that has uniquely positioned itself as a major player in combating the area’s endemic gun violence.]

As one suspect fled from carjacking a Danville man in his garage, police say he tossed his Glock in a commuter lot beside the freeway. Investigators from the county gang task force, who were monitoring the man through a wiretap on his cell phone, picked up the gun within minutes. They delivered the weapon to the Contra Costa County crime lab, where technicians used a sophisticated ballistics database to link it to shell casings from three other recent shootings, including the one that left the school board member hospitalized.

With those leads in hand, investigators gathered enough evidence to arrest eight members of the so-called Swerve Team gang and charge them with three murders, 14 attempted murders, six armed robberies, and two carjackings.

“The gun was the first link,” said Robert Pamplona, a senior inspector on the county’s gang task force.

Law enforcement departments across the country have access to the same system that Contra Costa has been using to catch the people committing gun crimes on its streets. It’s known as the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), and it’s maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).


When a gun is fired, it leaves a unique marking on the shell casing it ejects. Images of those casings make up the NIBIN database. Pictured: A microscope in the Contra Costa lab for examining bullets. Photo by Cayce Clifford/The Trace

NIBIN is like a giant fingerprint database—but for guns, which when fired leave unique markings on each shell casing they eject. By entering images of fresh casings into the system, investigators can make matches to those already on file, connecting different shootings to the same gun, and from there to shooters or gangs.

But NIBIN only works if police assiduously log all the casings they recover, and do so quickly, before trails grow cold. In many cities and counties, that’s not happening. Studies show many police departments and crime labs are misusing NIBIN, or not using it at all.

“Research has consistently shown that police investigators often do not receive forensic evidence testing results until after their investigation has concluded,” a team from Sam Houston State University in Texas wrote in the Journal of Forensic Sciences last year.

“These time lags prevent investigators from using this critical evidence in the manner that we expect it to be used: to assist in identifying suspects in criminal cases.”

The Contra Costa crime lab’s proficiency with NIBIN is the result of protocols put into place by its no-excuses director.

Those procedures have also made it an exception. In partnership with NBC Bay Area, The Trace surveyed California’s 18 city and county crime laboratories. On average, they report taking three months to enter evidence into NIBIN and get back leads. That’s more than 15 times as long as the turnarounds that Contra Costa achieves.

In the Bay Area, the San Francisco Police Department’s crime lab last year processed bullet casings up to 95 days after police collected them. The Santa Clara crime lab reports that it takes “months to a year” to run casings through NIBIN and look for leads. Both labs say they are working to narrow that window, and San Francisco says that, so far this year, its average turnaround time is about eight days.

At least three California counties — Fresno, Ventura and Orange — are not using NIBIN at all.

“If a lead is taking eight months to get into hands of investigators, it’s worthless,” said Sam Rabadi, who was head of the firearms division at ATF in 2012 and 2013, and who now works for Vigilant Solutions, a private investigative technology company.

“The overarching goal is to get to the shooter before they shoot again.”

Public officials are desperate for more ways to link guns to shooters. About two out of every five murders in the U.S. go unsolved, according to the FBI. Solve rates for nonfatal shootings are in the single digits in several major cities.

Unapprehended, perpetrators strike again. Street justice fills the void, leading to revenge shootings.

“NIBIN is a chance to deter that small number of people who are prone to grab guns and shoot at other people,” said William King, who authored the first comprehensive report on NIBIN for the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013.

“NIBIN holds those people accountable.”

By misusing the ballistic fingerprinting, or not using it at all, King said, “police have failed a lot of communities in the inner cities.”

Better ballistics testing, on its own, won’t fix the problem. Many police departments are understaffed, have strained relationships with the communities they rely on for witnesses, or simply don’t prioritize solving gun crimes. But taking full advantage of NIBIN’s capabilities can help cops catch shooters who might otherwise remain at large.

Underperforming Crime Labs

Contra Costa County used to be among the many jurisdictions underperforming in their use of NIBIN. Then, in 2015, a former San Francisco detective named Pamela Hofsass took over as director of its crime lab. Without an influx of funding or manpower, she transformed how her department taps the technology’s potential. The results she achieved helped shift how law enforcement throughout the county approaches solving gun crimes.

Hofsass dramatically cut the time it took to get NIBIN leads back to sheriff’s deputies and local police officers. That, in turn, helped them make more arrests, giving them greater incentives to pick up shell casings at shootings and bring them to the lab.

Pamela Hofsass

Without an influx of funding or manpower, Contra Costa lab boss Pamela Hofsass transformed how her department taps NIBIN’s potential and processes ballistic evidence. Photo by Cayce Clifford/The Trace

“Back in the day, when there was a shooting where no one was hurt, the officer might have kicked those casings into the curb,” Hofsass said. “They thought, there’s no blood here, no injured victims, there’s nothing. Now we know that the people who end up killing people usually start by shooting randomly.”

Ron Nichols, a former ATF NIBIN head who is widely credited with redesigning the agency’s protocols to get faster results, said the changes that Hofsass wrought are possible for any department.

“It’s less about money and resources,” he said, “and more about getting labs to change their mindset about how they do things.”

Ballistic investigations used to be an analog business. Firearm examiners would take Polaroid pictures of cartridge casings and store them in paper files. When a new shooting happened, they’d pull out the photographs and eyeball them for matches.

Beginning about 20 years ago, the ATF launched NIBIN, and brought the art of ballistics comparisons into the digital age. These days, after police send shell casings to a crime lab, staffers load them one at a time into an imaging machine, which takes photographs and uploads them into the database.

A gun collected as evidence goes through its own procedure. Technicians test fire it into a water tank, then gather the casings and enter them into NIBIN, looking for matches with ballistic signatures already on file.

The ATF now touts NIBIN as a cornerstone of its national crime-fighting operation. The agency maintains 179 NIBIN sites across the country, serving 3,000 law enforcement organizations. The system contains about 2.8 million images of shell casings.

Gun Violence Blind Spots

But laggards remain, leaving blind spots in the system. As of 2016, according to The Marshall Project, 11 states didn’t have a single NIBIN machine. Another 19 had only one or two. The ATF declined to provide The Trace with updated numbers.

Where NIBIN is available, many agencies are still struggling to realize its potential.

In Chicago, officials working to combat the city’s high murder rate have made efforts to collect more shell casings. A Chicago Police spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, said officers now try to pick up and process shell casings after every reported shooting, even when no one is hurt.

But that requires the department to know when a round has been fired, and the city has installed gunshot-detection sensors in only about half of all precincts. In the others, it’s extremely difficult for officers to locate casings after the fact.

Processing times can also hinder investigations. Casings for homicides usually get entered into NIBIN within a couple of days, Guglielmi said. But lower priority cases, including shootings that don’t result in injuries, take a few weeks.

Experts say that delay can stall officers at critical moments — when it might be possible to stop someone from killing, or killing again.

“The sooner that I can get it [a lead] in my hands, the sooner I can get to the shooter before he or she reoffends,” ATF Firearms Operations Division Chief Michael Eberhardt told NBC Bay Area.

Last year, the ATF dispatched vans equipped with NIBIN equipment to Chicago, Baltimore, and Houston. The equipment in the vehicles is no more sophisticated than what each city is already using in-house. The bureau’s goal was to show local investigators how fast evidence can be processed when protocols are streamlined, and to entice investigators by getting them quick leads that help them bring more shooters to justice.

Spread over 700 acres of rolling hills northeast of San Francisco, Contra Costa County is dotted in some parts with cow farms and in others with desperate urban blight.

A war has raged for years in the western part of the county between gang members in Central and North Richmond.

“Out of the friends I had growing up, six are dead and three are incarcerated and not coming home,” said LeDamien Flowers, a North Richmond community organizer.

Within Richmond city limits, one in every three homicides went unsolved between 2011 and 2016.

When Hofsass took over the Contra Costa County crime lab in 2015, there was a backlog of more than 700 shell casings waiting to be scanned. On average, it took well over a year for the lab to get back to police with the results of a ballistics test.

“We’re talking about major crimes — attempted homicides or homicides with fired cartridge cases just sitting there,” she said.

Hofsass understood from her own experience as a detective that the lab had to do better.

“I knew from when I was in homicide, if I didn’t have critical information, then I wasn’t moving forward in that particular aspect of the case,” she said. “We had to think about what the detectives really need — to streamline it and strip it down. So that’s what we did. We overhauled the whole process.”

On her watch, Hofsass resolved, technicians would get detectives leads within at least four days of the shooting—two days to get the evidence to NIBIN, another two to get the lead back from the ATF.

But first, she had to get her staff onboard.

Prior to Hofsass’s arrival, “we were just functioning to put out fires right before things went to trial,” said Donnie Finley, her chief deputy. “Some days her message went over better than others. I remember people saying ‘We can’t do that, we don’t have enough people.’ ”

Tidy and no-nonsense, Hofsass convinced her team that they didn’t need more sets of hands, just smarter protocols.

Before Hofsass took over the lab, ballistic evidence routinely sat on shelves while it waited to be tested for DNA and fingerprints. Now it was immediately assigned to a technician.

She cross-trained her staff so members outside the ballistics team could help out colleagues when their own workload got thin. Investigators who primarily worked crime scenes were taught how to enter evidence into NIBIN on the side. Latent fingerprint examiners were shown how to record the make, model, and function of crime guns when ballistics tests got backed up.

Hofsass bought iPads to replace the paperwork that lab technicians had been doing by hand. Lab workers who used to have to draw pictures of shell cases and their markings now snapped photos instead.

crime lab

A technician at the Contra Costa lab demonstrates the process of test-firing a gun to capture its ballistic “fingerprint.” Photo by Cayce Clifford/The Trace

She also asked for help from the ATF. At many local police labs, in-house criminalists do the initial side-by-side comparisons between shell casings they’ve entered into NIBIN and possible matches that the computer returns. That’s important work, since those initial hits are the ones that investigators can run with right away as they hustle to get shooters off the street. But it’s also time consuming.

In Contra Costa, and at 19 other labs across the country, those first matches are now made by ATF technicians based in Huntsville, Al. Hofsass said that’s been a huge help streamlining her process and opens up time her technicians can use to button up cases when they are ready to go to trial.

The ATF says it wants to do image comparisons for more agencies. The bureau plans to expand this service to as many as 30 additional sites next year.

The ATF also lent Contra Costa two technicians to help test fire about 600 crime guns that had been sitting in storage, and get that ballistic information into the NIBIN system. As they plowed through their backlog, Contra Costa crime lab workers started with the most recent cases, so they could get leads to detectives while the evidence was still fresh.

Rewarding Success

Today, Hofsass’s team is completely caught up. To keep her staff motivated, she painstakingly plans elaborate ceremonies to recognize techs who meet their benchmarks. When Hofsass hears that efficient lab work helped to make an arrest, or clear a suspect, she broadcasts that information to her staff, to make sure they know the work they’re doing matters.

“I’m saying there’s a way to be efficient, effective, and maintain your quality,” she said. “We’re here to make the world a safer place. So why would you want to take your time?”

Before Josh Medel worked for the FBI/Contra Costa County Safe Streets Task Force, he was an intelligence analyst in Iraq. He studied satellite images, drone data, and classified reports, trying to discern what opposition leaders were were planning. In Contra Costa, he looked at crime reports, social media feeds and cell phone data to figure out how who was running Contra Costa’s gangs and what they might do next.

When he heard what Hofsass was doing to produce faster ballistics results, he called the lab and asked for a year’s worth of the data it had collected. Analyzing it, he mapped out a sprawling diagram of the county’s gun crime: which guns were connected to which shootings, and which gang members might be connected to those guns—valuable information for prosecutors in California, where gang affiliation can mean longer prison sentences. In some cases, the webs sprawled to dozens of incidents.

The picture Medel was able to put together from Contra Costa’s NIBIN data was usually not enough to yield arrests on its own. But it was packed with valuable clues.

On the day of the carjacking that broke the Swerve case, police test-fired the gun that the suspect tossed in the commuter lot and entered the spent casings into NIBIN. When the ATF sent initial matches back, the results showed that three other recent shootings might have been done with the same weapon.

Investigators then gathered surveillance videos, GPS, DNA and cell phone data looking for other ties between the four shootings. They plugged that material into Medel’s map to figure out where a particular crime spree might fit in with wider county trends.

In the end, the Swerve Team linked 16 guns to 42 different shootings. Seven men were charged in the crimes. Police said that officers confiscated more than 200 illegal guns as a result of the investigation.

Getting shooters and guns off the street was not the only victory that came with the Swerve Team arrests. The headlines, and the fact that ballistics leads were key, got the attention of police at departments large and small across the Bay Area.

“Cops started saying, ‘Wow, maybe we need to clear out our evidence room,’” Medel said.

Every year, technicians at California’s Contra Costa County crime lab process hundreds of guns and shell casings recovered by police. Photo by Cayce Clifford/The Trace

Hofsass took advantage of the renewed enthusiasm for NIBIN to further refine Contra Costa’s use of the technology. She set up a drop box at the county’s central evidence locker. There, casings can be deposited round the clock with a simple evidence form, even if they aren’t collected as part of a criminal case. She’s planning a second drop box at the county jail, where police have to go regularly anyway when they book suspects.

For Carol Brown, the Swerve Team arrests marked a life-changing moment. A school board member in the leafy San Francisco suburb of Orinda, Brown and her husband were unloading groceries in their driveway in September 2016 when masked men attacked them. They beat Brown’s husband with a gun and shot her through the arm and chest.

The crime made headlines across the Bay Area, shocking in its apparent randomness.

Brown would spend two days in a locked ward in the hospital, protected from assailants who remained at large. On the third day came the NIBIN hit, when investigators connected the gun tossed in the commuter lot to shell cases from Brown’s driveway, compiling enough evidence to arrest the suspects.

Brown didn’t know that Hofsass’s ballistics team helped solve the case. What she knew was that she was safe again.

“I will not soon forget that moment,” said Brown. “Hearing they were in jail was the first time after it happened I felt like I could breathe.”

Editor’s Note: A video accompanying this story is available here.

Earlier versions of this story were originally published in The Trace and the San Jose Mercury. Ann Givens is a 2018 John Jay Crime Reporting Fellow and a juror in the annual John Jay Excellence in Criminal Justice Journalism Awards. She welcomes comments from readers.