Leadership at the Chattanooga Police Department say they plan to roll out the new gun crime unit on June 1 as part of an effort to tackle persistent violence involving firearms.
Sgt. Josh May, the new supervisor over the unit that was budgeted for last fall, said the initial team will include four investigators and a personnel member who will enter data into a shell casing database called the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN).
"We're going to look at a bevy of gun-related incidents, whether it be prohibited, whether it be NIBIN leads. The main thing we're going to be doing is following up on all shots-fired calls within a 48-hour period," May said.
The people hired for those positions will focus on ballistic matches from evidence gathered at scenes in order to track gun crimes, identifying consistently used firearms and the offenders who use them.
The hope is that investigators will be able to use those matches to build out cases against the small handful of people police say are driving the majority of violence in Chattanooga.
"The most exciting part is that it hasn't been done before," May said. "There are very few cities across the U.S. that have this technology [or] a unit that is specifically designated for following up on shots fired calls, as well as our NIBIN leads.
"Being able to put shell casings to guns, guns to people and people to incidents is extremely crucial in our focused deterrence model and intelligence-led policing."
To demonstrate some of the capabilities of ballistic imaging technology, agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives displayed one of two mobile NIBIN vans at a law enforcement conference held in the Chattanooga Convention Center on Wednesday.
Each van costs approximately $330,000 to produce and only two have been built, but ATF officials hope to make one available to every major police department in the country.
Specialist Erin Hine said every gun leaves a unique set of indicators on shell casings that can be thought of like a fingerprint. She said she can roll up to a scene, collect casings and use imaging devices built into the van to determine whether the casing matches evidence collected from previous crime scenes.
"The technology has really increased and improved and I've seen an incredible amount of increased commitment by ATF to organize and merge police department labs," she said.
The mobile units have been particularly useful in cities that have suffered from rampant gun violence. Hine said she recently worked in Chicago on a scene and was able to identify matches within hours.
"In Chicago, we were very, very successful," she said. "The agents were waiting, standing by and they got to the magistrate before the suspect did."