Edmonton police count on in-house gun evaluation will present bang for the buck

In the first two weeks of December, police in Edmonton responded to 10 separate shooting incidents. Five of them resulted in injuries; three resulted in deaths.

These are the kinds of statistics that worry Staff Sgt. Eric Stewart, who heads up the Edmonton Police Service’s firearms examination and gang investigation units.

But the numbers also offer grim support to the efforts begun by EPS in 2020 to ramp up its in-house ballistics testing abilities, which Stewart says will aid investigations and speed up prosecutions of gun crime.

The EPS firearms examination unit officially launched in January 2021. This fall, it expanded its capacity by hiring two fire examiners — one from South Africa and one from Belize — and going ahead with renovations toward its own full–service gun lab.

“Now we’re able to gather the evidence we need off these shooting scenes and these firearms, and be able to share that evidence and intelligence with the investigative team in real time,” Stewart told CBC in an interview.

Before the lab existed, getting that kind of information could take months, he added.

Long delays

The journey toward in-house firearm testing and gun analysis began in June 2020, when the Alberta government announced a partnership with the Calgary and Edmonton police departments and the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT).

The idea was to have all firearms testing in Alberta done at the Calgary testing facility, which was already in place, and a new one to be built in Edmonton.

The change was prompted by waiting for up to eight months to get results from the RCMP’s National Forensic Laboratory Services (NFLS). Those delays were putting prosecutions at risk, particularly under the Supreme Court’s Jordan decision which allows judges to dismiss cases for unreasonable systemic delays.

At the time, about 600 Alberta firearms went to the national lab for testing each year, according to then-Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer.

Staff Sgt. Eric Stewart is the head of Edmonton Police Service’s gang suppression and firearms examination units. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

In Edmonton, start-up costs for the lab — which is part of the Forensic Identification Services Section — were about $400,000. This paid for renovations in the building in southeast Edmonton and equipment like specialized software and microscopes.

Setting up and renovating a standalone test-fire facility — a modular structure sitting in the yard of an EPS compound in southeast Edmonton — was expected to cost the police service $617,000, but it’s likely going to come in under budget, EPS spokesperson Cheryl Voordenhout said in to email.

Much of the lab’s funding comes from the Alberta government via ALERT, which is committing about $700,000 per year to pay for a lab manager, two scientists and two forensic examiners.

EPS and RCMP are also kicking in additional funding for two other staff and other costs, Voordenhout said.

The EPS lab also purchased a $132,000 Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS), which comes with a $15,000 per year service agreement.

The capabilities of IBIS are key to the lab’s work, according to Courtnee Bell, one of the new firearms examiners hired by EPS.

The IBIS device — which looks like an oversized PC computer tower — takes pictures of fired cartridge casings and then compares the images against a national database of other spent cartridges and fired bullets, Bell told CBC in an October interview.

“This will allow within a few days — it’s about three days — we can get information back regarding a specific firearm or cartridge case,” said Bell, who trained and previously worked in South Africa.

“And that can get a gun off the street within a matter of a week.”

A woman in a red top.EPS firearms examiner Courtnee Bell is one of two examiners who are helping the police service increase its ability to do forensic firearms work in-house, speeding up investigations. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The RCMP operates and maintains the database, which is called the Canadian Integrated Ballistics Identification Network (CIBIN).

When participating police agencies across Canada upload images to the database, it either creates a new entry or makes a “hit” — a potential match to another crime scene or a particular gun.

In 2021, EPS submitted 588 entries to IBIS and got back 42 leads. As of late November, the EPS lab had submitted 808 entries in 2022 and had gotten back 34 leads.

The RCMP tracks national CIBIN data by fiscal year. A spokesperson said that in 2021-22 there were 9,334 acquisitions added to the database, and that 1,487 hits had been generated.

National demand

Surging demand for gun processing at the RCMP’s national public labs has motivated police forces across the country to set up their own shops for firearms analyses.

In the last fiscal year ending March 31, it took NFLS about 161 days to process a request for a firearms analysis, according to spokesperson Cpl. Kim Chamberland.

She said demand has ebbed and flowed over the past five years following the closure of some of the RCMP’s lab sites.

Chamberland said there had been an approximate 60 per cent increase in service demands in 2020-21 compared to 2013-14.

Ontario and Quebec already had public provincial labs that take on most forensic services for those provinces, including firearms, DNA and other services.

Now, Calgary police, Vancouver police, and the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit of British Columbia all have full-service labs that are able to process and upload data to CIBIN independently.

A pilot program enabled Edmonton and Winnipeg police to do the initial processing and upload of data to CIBIN, but RCMP examiners were still completing a review of the data.

Bell said with two examiners on staff, they’ll also be able to provide evidence in court on whether or not a particular gun fired a specific cartridge case — a match made by one examiner must be confirmed by another.

As well, the examiners aren’t working for the police investigation but as independent scientists. Their findings are impartial, she said, and have no bias toward a particular suspect or theory.

Bell calls it a “one-way street.” They pass along their results to police, but it’s up to investigators to put the pieces together.

Court challenges

But some jurisdictions are beginning to see pushback when it comes to relying on firearms forensics in court, said one expert CBC spoke with.

“There have been a few pretty notable cases where judges have placed pretty strong restrictions on what examiners are allowed to testify about and the type of language they’re allowed to use,” said Nicholas Scurich, a professor of psychology and criminology at the University of California Irvine.

Scurich, who is currently a visiting research professor of law at the University of California, has given evidence in some of these cases, notably United States v. Tibbs, 2019, after finding issues with many of the existing studies about how accurate firearms examiners are when it comes to matching a gun to a bullet or casing.

A shell casing.Staff in EPS’s firearms examination unit are using an Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS) device to upload evidence from a shooting and look for possible matches in a national database. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Scurich said in his opinion, the first level of analysis of firearms examination — determining what kind of gun could have fired a bullet — is incredibly useful.

But he said in his view, examiners’ ability to accurately go beyond that and say a bullet came from a particular firearm is still unproven.

“I think there’s no doubt that guns do leave marks most of the time. But the question is, are all of those marks truly unique? Because if they’re not, if guns, hypothetically, were leaving identical marks, and examiners didn’ t know that in casework they could be making false identifications,” he said.

In the Edmonton lab’s first year of operations in 2021, unit staff processed 749 weapons. As of the end of November, it was on track for a similar number, examining about 670 guns spread across 583 police files, according to information from the EPS website.

In an email, Voordenhout said EPS’s examiners use scientifically valid methods, have some of the best equipment available on the market and that conclusions are based on the agreement of independent examinations performed by two different examiners.

“Decades of validation and proficiency studies have demonstrated that firearm and toolmark identification is scientifically valid,” she said.

“Despite the subjective nature of the final comparison stage of analysis, competent examiners employing standard, validated procedures will rarely, if ever, commit false identifications or false eliminations.”

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