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Shell casings

Shell casing found in the alley behind 1530 Esplanade in Davenport where an exchange of gunfire took place in May.

As police in Des Moines were looking for a man wanted in a string of armed robberies, they caught a break when someone was accidentally shot and wounded during what police say was likely an illegal gun transaction.

At the scene, investigators interviewed a young man who allegedly had a gun in his pocket. A day earlier, the armed robbery suspect — later identified by police as 18-year-old Damir Young of Ankeny — had allegedly shot at and missed a witness, leaving three shell casings for investigators to find. After they arrested Young, investigators used a new ballistics machine to connect the dots between the shell casings and the gun, charging Young with a robbery that police might not have been able to quickly piece together otherwise, said Des Moines Sgt. Paul Parizek.

“This is the thing that connects bad guys to evidence where in the past we may not have been able to do that,” Parizek, a spokesman the department, said of the ballistics technology.

“That’s the story,” he added. “And you can tell this story over and over and over again.”

In September, Des Moines became the first municipal police department in Iowa to get a machine that links up with the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN, a forensic ballistics evidence tracker that’s managed by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.  The technology is lauded by the ATF as having the ability to match shell casings to the guns they are fired from with high accuracy, often compared to fingerprint ID for firearms.

Now, Davenport’s police department wants to get the same machine to assist with solving area gun crimes. Last month, city officials set aside $400,000 for the department to invest in the new technology, a decision that received unanimous approval in City Hall.

Davenport Police spokesman Maj. Jeff Bladel said the department is still very early in the process of getting the technology, saying the next step is a site inspection to determine the department’s eligibility to have one. But he said the department remains excited about what the machine could bring to solving violent gun crimes.

“It’s a great investment for laboratory resources here locally,” Bladel said.

The initiative comes as Davenport is experiencing gun-related violence that’s ebbed and flowed over the last few years.

As of early November, Davenport received 171 calls that led to confirmed shots fired incidents, which broadly includes instances when physical evidence of gunfire is found at a crime scene. Of those incidents, 23 were non-fatal shootings and five were gun-related homicides. Last year, 12 people were killed and 28 were wounded by gunfire, the most violent record within the last eight years. 

With gun investigations, Davenport’s police department currently ships evidence to a statewide crime lab in Ankeny. The lab performs high-level forensic analysis for nearly every law enforcement agency in Iowa, amounting to roughly 400 different departments, said Bruce Reeve, the laboratory’s administrator.

Reeve said there is a pretty large backlog for firearms cases, which are cleared based on priority, not the order in which they are received. Criteria for assessing a case’s priority level include whether a gun was used to injure or kill someone and if there’s an ongoing threat to the public, he said.

“It’s grown quite a bit the last couple of years,” Reeve said of the backlog, noting that Davenport was the crime lab’s third-largest requester for gun-related evidence analysis after Des Moines and Waterloo.

The backlog for gun requests at the Iowa crime lab was one of the central points Davenport police cited when they pitched the idea to city officials. Bladel has said the department sometimes waits for several months to get results back, an issue the new machine could reduce to a matter of days.

If the department gets its own machine, Bladel said they could lend a hand to other departments that need help analyzing ballistics, and will look at ways to connect the rest of the Quad-Cities to the technology.

“We have a vision of what it could be” for criminal investigations in the area, he said.

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