Office fights crime one gun at a time
By Teresa Auch Schultz firstname.lastname@example.org July 12, 2014 9:22PM
The Crime Gun Intelligence Center at the Chicago office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which aims to crack down on illegal guns in Illinois and Northwest Indiana, is viewed on Wednesday. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 14, 2014 6:11AM
In an office in the middle of the ATF’s Chicago Division office, federal agents and local police are telling stories.
But these are no fairy tales; the stories are of guns used in crime: Where did they come from, who bought them, which criminals are connected to them, in which crimes have they been used?
These are stories of violence, but also, if the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ new Chicago Crime Gun Intelligence Center works as planned, these are stories that will help law enforcement reduce the violence, not only in Chicago but also in Northwest Indiana.
“Every crime gun that’s recovered has a story behind it,” Carl Vasilko, special agent in charge, said. “... You can follow the life of that firearm to determine how it got into the hands of a violent criminal.”
Erasing the state line
The center is officially a month old but has been in the works since Vasilko, who got his start in law enforcement with the Munster Police Department, came to the office in January.
That’s also the time that Northwest Indiana was moved from under the ATF office in Columbus, Ohio, to the Chicago division.
The move made sense when agents factored in that 20 percent of the guns connected to crime in the Chicago area were coming from Indiana, Vasilko said, second only to Illinois, where about 40 percent of the guns originate. No other state is even close.
The number for Indiana actually goes up when the guns are connected to gangs. Then, about 40 percent of the guns connected to crimes originated from Indiana, and about 20 percent come from Illinois.
“Criminals don’t see the state line …, so we wanted to erase that state line as well,” he said.
Bringing the ATF offices in northern Indiana under the oversight of the Chicago division was just one step, however. Another was figuring out how to best fight gun crime in the region. The ATF decided on the gun center.
Already installed at several other locations across the country, including New York City and Los Angeles, today it’s just a small room in Chicago, but a room that is filled with computers and video screens that allow access to a variety of information, including Chicago police cameras. The point of the center is to bring together several aspects of gun evidence and intelligence to help create a large picture of guns and how they’re connected to multiple crimes.
This larger picture, Vasilko said, will hopefully spur new leads in local cases. If law enforcement discovers that bullet fragments found at the scene of a shooting in Gary came from a gun retrieved from another crime scene in Chicago, then police in both departments can look to each other to see if they have any other evidence in common.
“Strategically, we’re able to link all these unassociated events together,” John Durastanti, assistant special agent in charge, said.
Vasilko and his team say the purpose of the center doesn’t stop there, however. By creating this larger story of guns and how they’re interconnected, they hope to identify those people who are the ones most often acting as the original purchasers of the guns. In essence, they are looking for the gun traffickers.
“I refer to the firearm traffickers as the unseen criminals,” Vasilko said.
Sharing information across agencies
Although implemented elsewhere, Vasilko says Chicago’s gun center is different partly because of the number of agencies involved. The office is currently staffed by not only ATF agents but also Chicago Police Department officers, various intelligence analysts and an FBI agent. The Chicago Division is already in the process of physically expanding the office and hopes to add more workers within a year, Vasilko said.
The gun center also works closely with two High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area groups, including the one in Lake County. Through these two HIDTAs, Vasilko said, the gun center is connected to “literally every law enforcement agency in Northwest Indiana,” plus most in the Chicago area. Various local law enforcement agencies also assign officers to the ATF, and they then can investigate the leads generated from the gun center.
“It’s a very, very close-knit association of investigators,” he said.
The other piece that sets this gun center apart from others is the number of National Integrated Ballistics Information Network labs. NIBIN labs are where local law enforcement agencies send the spent shells, bullet fragments and guns they recover during their investigations of crimes to be analyzed.
The labs take computer images of all this evidence. A computerized system then compares it with other gun evidence already entered in to see if anything matches any other evidence found at another crime scene. Northern Indiana has three NIBIN labs, including one operated by the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, and the Illinois State Police and the Chicago Police Department each operate several, along with a private NIBIN lab also in the Chicago area. No other ATF gun center works with so many NIBIN labs, Vasilko said.
Putting the puzzle together
From there, the federal agency starts working to see what other connections it can build on the hits. A large part of that is running an eTrace on the gun, which involves accessing a large amount of information to determine the life of the gun, such as who bought it.
Using this and other information helps create that larger picture, or web of connections.
“It’s just a complex, tedious process of intelligence analysis,” Vasilko said. “They begin to start to try to put a lot of the pieces of the puzzle together.”
Agents can then start looking for those connections that can help move local investigations forward, Durastanti said. Perhaps witnesses were able to give a description of a shooter in one case that is eventually connected to another case without a description. Or perhaps agents will start to see one gun turn up in cases connected with a group of people, such as a gang, Durastanti said.
The gun center already has started showing its worth in just one month of operation, Durastanti said. Hits from NIBIN labs have doubled from about 30 a week to 60. If they stay on this pace, the center will get about 800 for the year, one of the highest in the nation.
Those numbers could keep going up as the local NIBIN labs catch up on backlogs. Vasilko said that although each case is different, he would like to see evidence entered into the NIBIN lab with any initial hits returned in a period of 24 to 48 hours.
“We are getting better at what we’re doing, so the numbers are going up,” Vasilko said.
‘You’ve got to work together’
Along with producing fast and efficient results, the gun center also relies on the comprehensive collection of gun evidence. Vasilko said that his office has been working with U.S. Attorney David Capp in Hammond to coordinate training with all the local Northwest Indiana law enforcement groups, including meeting with senior officials.
Part of that emphasizes the need to collect everything, Vasilko said.
“The more comprehensive you are, the better results you’re going to get,” he said.
Sheriff John Buncich, whose department includes one of Indiana’s NIBIN labs, said he had been involved in discussions with the ATF for several months about the gun lab.
“This is a good thing,” he said. “It’s only going to do a lot to assist…. agencies in solving a lot of these crimes.”
The county has had the NIBIN lab for some time and has already been helping numerous local agencies in criminal cases. But with the continued gun violence seeping across the state border with Illinois, cooperation with the ATF and Illinois departments will help, Buncich said.
“If you’re going to solve crimes, you’ve got to work together,” he said.
East Chicago Police Chief Mark Becker hasn’t been able to attend a meeting on the gun center yet, he said, but he is excited about how it can help his department.
“Anything the federal government can do to help us, certainly we’ll accept,” he said.