A man shot to death in his home. Two teens wounded in a shooting. And that was just in two days this month in Atlantic City.
Increased gun violence in the area has led investigators to enlist more ways to solve these crimes and see how they may be connected.
By cataloguing ballistic evidence and analyzing it through the state’s Regional Operations Intelligence Center, or the ROIC (pronounced “rock”), authorities have been able to link shooting incidents.
For the past few years, every gun, slug or shell casing found in Atlantic County has gone through the Prosecutor’s Office. The information is then compiled by the ROIC, which researches possible links and analyzes the information.
The information is also entered into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network established by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 1999.
Through the system, “partners are able to discover links between crimes more quickly, including links that would never have been identified absent the technology,” according to the NIBIN website.
If a match seems likely, firearms examiners compare the original evidence with a microscope to confirm it.
A ROIC analysis obtained by The Press of Atlantic City centers on five ballistic matches that link eight shooting incidents in Atlantic City last year. A total of 10 people were targeted, with six wounded and one killed. While several resulted in arrests, the homicide remains open.
A more complicated web weaves out from the victims and “persons of interest” in those cases, showing links to other shootings in the city, and at least one in Galloway Township. Those date from 2010 to early this year.
“Every gun has a different signature,” said Steve Trubow, founder of Olympic Behavior Labs, a Washington-based researcher and consultant firm that uses technology in its work with entities including the Department of Defense. “The bullets will have a different signature (based on) that gun. It’s like DNA.”
Atlantic County has had 17 fatal shootings this year, two more than all of last year. That increase can be traced to Atlantic City, where nine people died in shootings last year.
On Nov. 16, Thomas Polk, 49, became the city’s 11th shooting fatality this year.
More than 50 others have been wounded in gunfire in the city, including two teens shot at Lighthouse Plaza on Nov. 17.
Acting Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain said the information has been helpful but has to be used properly.
McClain said the information is not released to the public because it can contaminate an investigation.
“You don’t want to release too much information to the public because you can be accused of planting a seed,” he said.
For example, if it’s released that ballistics link one shooting to another, potential witnesses could be swayed to make that connection as well.
“We would rather just put out Event A and that information and then Event B and that information and have the public link them up,” McClain said.
While the information is helpful, it does not replace evidence such as fingerprints on a gun or other forensics that would tie the person to the weapon or the crime.
“It’s another piece of information,” McClain said. “It doesn’t mean you can prosecute someone. It can serve to provide you with leads. It can keep you pointed in the right direction.”
The ROIC analysis obtained by The Press also connects the shootings to gang activity, with the 800 Blok — a Back Maryland-based group — against the Stanley Holmes Village gang called Dirty Blok.
“Gangs are a real problem because gangs sell guns,” said Trubow, who was not involved in this analysis. “They sell drugs, and they sell guns. That’s the two big standard moneymakers for gangs.”
But even with technology, finding out how those sellers get those guns can be difficult.
When a gun is first sold, it’s registered. That ties it to someone, Trubow said.
Those safety guards put in place for an original purchaser, however, are not there when it comes to reselling, whether at a gun show or illegally.
“It’s very rare that, when you trace the gun, it’s only one step removed from its lawful purchase,” McClain said.
Instead, it gets “lost in the fog” of black-market sales, thefts and exchanges.
“All illegal,” McClain said.
The nation sees about 700,000 new guns on the street a year, Trubow said.
“There is absolutely no way of tracking guns in the United States,” he said. “The police have no defense. How are they going to stop the most dangerous people from getting guns when all that person has to do is go to a local gun show? How are police going to defend that?”
Trubow stresses this is not about either side of the gun-control debate.
“The people who are against gun control know that bad people are going to get guns no matter what and they feel if they can’t get guns, they can’t defend themselves,” he said. “People who don’t own guns, they don’t want anyone to own guns.”
Meanwhile, investigators will continue to try to collect information and track where the weapons are coming from.
“There are too many guns out on the street,” McClain said. “The prevalence is the number one law-enforcement problem in the county, probably in the state.”
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