Ballistics reprieve

April 06, 2005

THE MARYLAND State Police want to scrap a program to collect the ballistic fingerprints of new guns sold in the state because the database hasn't helped solve crimes. Excuse the clichM-i, but the agency is jumping the gun, and legislators should resist its plea.

With a National Academy of Science study on this issue expected to be completed by year's end, shutting down the Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS) would be premature.

Maryland and New York are the only two states collecting the unique markings left on shell casings when a gun is fired; those markings are identifiable with a particular gun. After four years and $2.6 million, Maryland has collected more than 53,000 so-called ballistic fingerprints since a 2000 law created the database.

But state police this year have sought to end the program after a review by its forensics director found the system to be costly and ineffective. Supporters of ballistic fingerprint identification say the state police haven't promoted its use by other law enforcement agencies.

They got a boost last week when Prince George's County prosecutors won a first-degree murder conviction with ballistic fingerprint evidence. The murder weapon hadn't been found, but Prince George's detectives learned that the defendant's girlfriend had bought a gun three weeks before the shooting from a Forestville store. A detective brought shell casings from the crime scene to state police in Pikesville, and, with information about the suspected murder weapon, a police analyst was able to compare the casings with one in the database - and they matched.

The ballistics system might have produced more results if it were more user-friendly. Local police must mail or physically take evidence to Pikesville instead of sending it by way of a common database.

Even if legislation to repeal the database law fails, state police don't have money in their budget to continue logging in new ballistic markings - but the potential for solving crimes is there. Why else would the National Institute of Justice commission a national study on the use of ballistics imaging and the feasibility of developing a national database? That analysis should offer a comprehensive review of the value of ballistic imaging. State police might discover how to better use the system - or have in hand convincing evidence to shut it down. Until then, the jury is out.

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