Highlights Drones are being used by a variety of law enforcement agencies. But what’s coming may revolutionize police and correctional operations. 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 Senior Specialist for […]
Highlights Drones are being used by a variety of law enforcement agencies. But what’s coming may revolutionize police and correctional operations. 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 Senior Specialist for […]
The constitutional prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures could prevent law enforcement from using the sophisticated surveillance technology made possible by artificial intelligence, according to a University of California-Davis law professor.
The Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures could prevent law enforcement from applying increasingly sophisticated surveillance and predictive policing technology, including “superhuman” methods employing artificial intelligence, according to a professor at the University of California-Davis School of Law.
In an essay published in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Elizabeth E. Joh argues that the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carpenter v United States established a precedent for using the Fourth Amendment to limit the use of emerging technology, ranging from drones that help patrol borders to predictive-analytic software that can determine when and where the next crime will occur.
In that landmark case, decided this summer, the Court ruled law enforcement cannot access citizens’ cellphone location records without a search warrant. Although the decision focused on whether information held by “third parties” such as cellphone providers was subject to privacy protections guaranteed under the Constitution, Joh said it also touched on the changing “nature of policing” ─specifically the technologically enhanced means law enforcement can now exploit to gather information in the cyber era.
In the Carpenter case, justices were asked to rule on whether FBI agents sidestepped their constitutional obligations to show “probable cause” for obtaining a search warrant to retrieve the locational data of a suspected serial robber’s cellphone to prove he was near the scene of stores in the Detroit area where thefts had occurred. The agents had instead applied for an order under the federal Stored Communications Act.
In her essay, titled “Artificial Intelligence and Policing: Hints in the Carpenter Decision, Joh cited Chief Justice John Roberts’ assertion that while technology can be a useful tool for law enforcement, its use also raises the risk of the kind of government “encroachment” on personal liberty that the framers of the Constitution sought to prevent.
“Rapid advances in technology are changing Fourth Amendment boundaries,” Joh wrote. “Lower courts are already grappling with how to apply Carpenter’s new protections.”
Joh also noted the dissenting opinion from now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, who warned that the ruling could unduly interfere with law enforcement’s legitimate efforts to investigate and counter serious crimes.
“The new rule the Court seems to formulate puts needed, reasonable, accepted, lawful, and congressionally authorized criminal investigations at serious risk in serious cases, often when law enforcement seeks to prevent the threat of violent crimes,” Kennedy wrote.
But Joh argued that the majority decision effectively showed that police applications of artificial intelligence, which uses machine-created algorithms to approximate human thinking, could also be blocked under the Court’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment.
“Artificial intelligence has begun to change the capabilities of the police, by permitting them to do what was once nearly impossible or impracticable,” Joh wrote, noting that it allows them to access to vast amounts of data scooped up by automated technologies and stored in the “cloud.”
“Resource constraints always checked traditional surveillance discretion,” she wrote.
“There are never enough officers nor enough money for cameras and other machines. But machine-generated analyses have changed that calculus.
“The police today enjoy a surfeit of data that can be collected, stored, mined, and sifted through easily and cheaply: license plate data, social media posts, social networks, and soon our own faces.”
Even though artificial intelligence did not specifically enter into the Carpenter ruling, Joh said the Court effectively developed a template for assessing how constitutional protections should be applied to so-called “superhuman” technologies which processed data faster and cheaper than ordinary human beings could, in an environment where urban life was increasingly policed by automated or cloud-based systems.
“If I am right about the Court’s forward-looking approach to the Fourth Amendment and policing methods, that may begin to cast doubt on the extreme deference courts have given to the judgments of human police officers,” she wrote.
“If we have a really close encounter with armed people it doesn’t work out well for anyone,” said Portland, Or., police K-9 officer Shawn Gore. “If we can gain distance it gives us lots of options to negotiate and de-escalate.”
Police dogs have always helped their human counterparts through their eyes and nose, and now some of the dogs are getting cameras that transmit live video, the Associated Press reports. The devices attach to dogs’ backs on a vest and transmit video to a handler watching from a screen, possibly on their wrist or around their necks, so the officers can better assess what they are up against before they go into a situation. “If we have a really close encounter with armed people it doesn’t work out well for anyone,” said Portland, Or., police K-9 officer Shawn Gore. “If we can gain distance it gives us lots of options to negotiate and de-escalate.”
David Ferland of the United States Police Canine Association, a training program for police dogs, said departments use the cameras when dogs go out to look for suspects, missing people or explosives, for the dog’s safety and for intelligence gathering. Ferland suspects fewer than five percent of agencies have the cameras because they cost between $6,000 and $20,000. Some K-9 academies are already training dogs with vests and cameras so they get used to them. K-9 cameras started gaining traction a decade ago after departments saw their success in helping dogs in the military. Law enforcement agencies pay for the cameras through donations or use forfeiture or drug seizure money. Portland has used 10 cameras on its 10 K-9s since about 2012 and is in the process of getting newer cameras, costing about $20,000 each. Tactical Electronics started making K-9 cameras in 2006 and has sold 5,000 to 6,000 to law enforcement and military around the world.
The LE-5 cameras made by Seattle-based Vievu will be removed from 16 commands around the city. An officer in Staten Island reported seeing smoke coming from the bottom of the device and removed it from his uniform. Once removed, the device exploded.
The New York Police Department is pulling a type of body camera that its officers wear after one unit began smoking and then burst into flames, the Wall Street Journal reports. Nearly 3,000 LE-5 cameras made by Seattle-based Vievu will be removed from 16 commands around the city, said police spokeswoman Devora Kaye. An officer in Staten Island on Saturday reported seeing smoke coming from the bottom of the device and removed it from his uniform. Once removed from the officer’s chest, the device exploded. The officer wasn’t injured and the cause of the defect is being investigated, but the incident revealed a potential for the battery inside the camera to ignite. “Nothing is more important than the safety of our officers, and equipping the NYPD with the best equipment is a paramount priority,” Kaye said.
Some 12,510 remaining cameras will continue to be used by officers as required. NYPD officers are required to activate a body camera when making arrests, during a home search or when interacting with crime suspects. The cameras have been in a pilot phase since December 2014, after a federal judge ordered the NYPD to start a body-camera pilot project for its officers in ruling that its use of the so-called stop-and-frisk program disproportionately affected minorities and was unconstitutional. Every patrol officer is expected to wear a camera by the end of 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said. In 2016, Vievu won a $6.4 million, five-year contract to supply the body cameras to the NYPD. A spokeswoman for Axon, which acquired Vievu in May, said the company is working with the NYPD to investigate this issue. In addition to New York City, Vievu provides cameras to police departments in Miami; Phoenix; Oakland, Ca.; and Aurora, Co.
Dustin Burns of Springfield, who was on probation for violating a restraining order, was jailed and charged with felony tampering with electronic monitoring equipment after he posted a Facebook video showing, “This is how you take an ankle bracelet off — without breaking the circuit,”
A Missouri man is behind bars after authorities say he removed his ankle monitor and posted a four-minute video of the stunt on Facebook, providing an online how-to lesson for others, reports the Kansas City Star. Court records said Dustin Burns, a 33-year-old Springfield, Mo., man on probation for violating a restraining order, was charged with felony tampering with electronic monitoring equipment. “This is how you take an ankle bracelet off — without breaking the circuit,” a man who is apparently Burns says in the Facebook video, which has been viewed more than 1,000 times.
As the video is recorded, the man wearing the ankle monitor uses a butter knife to fiddle with the large black device around his ankle. Eventually he switches to a utility tool that includes a screwdriver, video shows. Along with the video is a descriptive caption: “Today’s lesson how to remove a GPS tracking bracelet without stopping the circuit…encase anyone was curious.” The man offers a few tips as he works on freeing himself from the monitor. “Don’t damage it, so you won’t owe f—–g thousands of dollars,” the man advises. At the end of the video, the man holds up the ankle bracelet that has been successfully removed.
As the national drone industry continues to take off, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) experts say it’s likely drones will be used by almost every law enforcement agency across the U.S. within the next few years.
As the national drone industry continues to take off, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) experts say it’s likely drones will be used by almost every law enforcement agency across the U.S. within the next few years, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports. Sgt. Daniel Marek of the Nevada Highway Patrol led a session at the 2018 InterDrone conference this week discussing how to integrate the technology into first response situations. More police departments and law enforcement agencies have adopted drone programs, said Menashe Haskin, co-founder and chief technology officer of Edgybees. The California-based company uses augmented reality technology to help drone pilots gather more details in first-response situations.
Haskin expects drones will be used in every police department within two to three years, saying, “It costs more not to have it. Within $10,000, you could have a significant drone program. It’s a small budget. It’s something every police department, once they get used to the idea, they will have it.” Nevada’s Marek agreed, especially as the cost of drone equipment drop. “You can probably see a small UAV in every single patrol car in five to 10 years,” he said. The Nevada Highway Patrol has five drones, but Marek said it doesn’t have the money to purchase software to process the information they collect. He said the two states ahead of Nevada in drone usage in law enforcement agencies are Michigan and North Carolina, which have a dedicated budget for their drone programs.
Boston Police Commissioner William Gross says his officers must deal with “second, third and fourth” gun-related cases from suspects already on GPS monitors. “It’s just repeat offenses with the same folks,” he says.
Court-issued GPS ankle bracelets that track thousands of people across Massachusetts fail to keep gun-toting defendants from reoffending, the Boston Herald reports. “It’s a great frustration to law enforcement, it’s a great frustration to the people that we serve in our community,” said Boston Police Commissioner William Gross. “It’s just repeat offenses with the same folks.” Gross said his officers must deal with “second, third and fourth” gun-related cases from suspects already on GPS monitors. Incident reports dating back to October list suspects accused of gun crimes while out on GPS monitoring, such as Marquis Martin, 28, who was wanted for a murder on Oct. 29 and a drive-by shooting the same day. He was caught in a Rhode Island motel. In February, an ankle bracelet-wearing suspect reportedly pistol-whipped a convenience store cashier with a semiautomatic handgun and took off with $1,500 cash. He was later busted.
There are about 3,650 people across the state wearing GPS hardware,. At an Aug. 14 triple-shooting scene, Gross said that “ankle bracelets do not work,” and pressed judges to get tougher. Former judges agreed there’s a need for reform in bail and probation systems, but they called the commissioner’s shots “unfair.” “When horrific things happen, to point out judges and fire off criticisms at them is really superficial,” said former judge Tom Merrigan. Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley, agreed that the system needs fixing. “GPS devices simply aren’t deterrents among the cohort of violent offenders who drive the city’s violence,” he said. Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said community correction centers are alternatives to bracelets.“You don’t put people out in the community and take the risk of putting an ankle bracelet on them,” he said. “You’re telling me you don’t completely trust them to do the right thing.”
“If we do our job right, police officers should be really engaged, and the tech should start to melt into the background, rather than intimidating in the foreground,” Rick Smith, CEO of the company that makes Tasers and other police technology, tells The New Yorker.
The products made by Axon, formerly Taser International, are designed to transform police work. It is testing software, aided by artificial intelligence, that can automatically transcribe dialogue and collect identification information, capabilities that could one day obviate written reports, reports The New Yorker. In the near future, its software may be able to search databases to create a detailed portrait of a suspect, including a Facebook-like network of his prior arrests, properties he is associated with, and people to whom he is connected. CEO Rick Smith said, “If we do our job right, police officers should be really engaged, and the tech should start to melt into the background, rather than intimidating in the foreground. That’s where you balance the sci-fi stuff with the world we want to live in. We don’t want to build the dystopian world.” He adds, “Our mission has expanded. We are the tech company that’s going to make the world less violent”
Facial recognition, which techno-pessimists see as the advent of the Orwellian state, is on the horizon. Smith has assembled an A.I. Ethics Board to help steer Axon’s decisions. Tracy Ann Kosa, a privacy researcher and a member of the ethics board, sees the potential of Axon’s technology to exacerbate power imbalances between the police and civilians. “The data belonging to the police department—that’s one of the big philosophical concerns I have,” she said. “There are lots of ways to put controls around access to data, but the larger issue is that once you release that into the wild it is up to each department and each office and each government to figure out how they’re going to do it. That’s the place where we will see the explosion of any issues that already exist in the system, with much bigger consequences.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
New research into how the brain works is contributing to innovative strategies for reducing recidivism and developing alternatives to incarceration.
In the courtroom, testimony or evidence about abnormalities or damage to a defendant’s brain has been used to assess the level of responsibility for criminal behavior. But new research into how the brain works is contributing to innovative strategies for reducing recidivism and developing alternatives to incarceration.
The Mind Research Network, a non-profit based in Albuquerque, N.M., has been on the forefront of discovering how the brains of psychopaths and violent offenders differ from the average person’s.
Psychopaths make up a substantial part of prison population and are 20 to 25 times more likely to be in prison than non-psychopaths.
Dr. Kent Kiehl, a lead researcher for the network, says the research can help target appropriate treatment for example, for youths who have demonstrated violent behavioral traits.
“This will improve our ability to predict which kids are high-risk, and how to individually tailor treatment to help kids change,” he told The Crime Report.
Using a portable MRI machine, Kiehl and his team studied and scanned the brains of roughly 4,000 violent juvenile and adults offenders from 10 prisons in two states over the last decade. The process yielded the largest neuroscientific database of violent offenders in the world.
One focus of the research was to examine the differences in the brains of juveniles who have committed homicides and juveniles who haven’t.
“Scanning is the easy part,” said Kiehl about the intensive process that goes into examining each inmate he studies.
In addition to scanning, Kiehl and his team conducted intensive clinical interviewing which examined IQ, past trauma and socioeconomic history, as well as personality.
Kiehl and the Mind Research Network have partnered with the Today=Tomorrow Program at Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC). in Madison, Wi., a cognitive behavioral treatment program that tries to help juvenile offenders with psychopathic traits, according to its website, by educating “youth of the connection between their thoughts, attitudes, and emotions to their behaviors; to identify ‘thinking barriers’ and substitute responsible thinking, and to increase pro-social thinking and skills through modeling and role-play practices.”
The Today=Tomorrow Program at the MJTC has garnered some attention in recent years and has been covered in-depth by several outlets like NPR and The Atlantic.
Similarly, a study by the Douglas County Juvenile Department in Wisconsin found an 85 percent decrease in recidivism after one year among 48 subjects who went through the program, and a 94 percent decrease in recidivism after two years with a smaller sample size of 12 subjects.
The program is not likely to make these troubled juveniles into model citizens, but it tries to teach them a practical form of empathy that can help them avoid the impulse to commit violent or criminal acts.
Kiehl has been scanning subjects in the program three times during the process of treatment to understand mechanisms of change in those who don’t come back for repeat offenses.
Research like Kiehl’s is helping neuroscientists map out which brain regions should be targeted for treatment that will translate to improved behavioral and life outcomes.
This approach has been likened to working on a muscle that has atrophied from not being used.
“That’s the holy grail, to show which therapies and treatments adjust and help these circuits adapt,” Kiehl said. “What is the brain mechanism of change, and is it sustainable?
“That’s what we’re working on now. And if we figure that out we can get carefully derived measure of treatment efficacy.”
The concept of brain age and maturity is at the heart of Kiehl’s work with juveniles and psychopaths. Neuroscience can be a way to help determine how mature a person’s brain is more accurately than their numerical age.
Kiehl says that this is the essence of neuro-prediction.
“If you can measure the brain components that predict something rather than a proxy, like impulsivity, that circuit will indicate someone’s future impulsive behavior better than self-reports or other ways of measurements,” he said.
“Brain age is a better predictor if you re-offended than your date of birth.”
Drawing conclusions about people’s behavior based on brain imaging presents challenges and pitfalls for neuroscientists.
One danger involves a term called reverse inference, which can amount to researchers overestimating how much a certain area of the brain is involved or responsible for determining a specific behavior or cognitive process.
Kiehl argues that having strong data that can allow for good predictive power helps lessen the need for interpretation, and therefore creates the possibility of errors that stem from things like reverse inference.
Scientists may disagree about the exact function and role of the amygdala, for example, which has been linked to fear and aggression. But, according to Kiehl, “an amygdala deficit is an amygdala deficit. We can academically argue about the interpretation, but what’s really important is the data.”
Other than the obvious benefit of reducing future violent acts and the damage that ripples from them, the kind of treatment offered at the MJTC can ultimately be much cheaper than it is to incarcerate people in the long run if reoffending can be reliably reduced.
A 2006 study in the Journal of Research on Crime and Delinquency found, “Over the 4.5 year follow–up, the return on the investment in the MJTC amounted to over 700 percent.”
Dr. Daniel Martell, a forensic expert at Park Dietz & Associates, and assistant clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at U.C.L.A., says that even though neuroscience is starting to tackle problems that were once thought to be unsolvable, like how psychopathy can be effectively treated, it has a long way to go before it’s ready for widespread implementation.
“We get great findings, but the problem is getting researchers to actually replicate those findings,” said Martell.
“We don’t really even have first generation studies to be replicated, so that’s where people like Kiehl are contributing.”
Martell went on to say that in terms of overall progress, “we’re still crawling.”
Dr. Francis Shen, an associate professor of law at the University of Minnesota who specializes in what’s called neurolaw, thinks that neuroscience will need to work in tandem with other developing sciences, such as genetics and psychology, in order to make the most valuable contributions to law and other fields.
Shen notes that neuroscience presently doesn’t show a lot of new ways to successfully alter the brain, and it is currently best thought of as a tool to aid in behavioral interventions, not only for juveniles but in other areas of law as well, such as poverty.
Shen used the example of poverty law to describe how neuroscience can make contributions to data we already have from other disciplines about the effects poverty has on people.
“We are starting to open the black box,” Shen said in an interview with The Crime Report. “We don’t need neuroscience to tell us that poverty’s bad, but neuroscience will let us understand the mechanisms allow for earlier and more targeted interventions and reframe discussion for policies.”
As mentioned above, neuroscience offers opportunities to extrapolate brain data and make claims about human behavior that aren’t justified.
However, Shen and Kiehl have both pointed out that neuroscience, as well as other human sciences, usually make predictions based on a spectrum.
Neuroscience deals in probabilities, and tries to predict the likelihood someone will behave a certain way.
Someone who is diagnosed as highly psychopathic may never actually commit a violent crime, although the probability they will is higher compared to the average person.
While one should always be wary of both the past mistakes that have been made in the name of brain science, and the obstacles that lie ahead, the work mentioned by Kiehl and others is trying to up-end the determinism that many fear results from a neuroscientific perspective of behavior.
Dane Stallone is a TCR news intern. He welcomes comments from readers.