Philly has a new mobile unit to help combat surge in gun violence

An ATF board displays some the types of firearms confiscated in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

An ATF board displays some the types of firearms confiscated in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The federal government has loaned the Philadelphia Police Department a mobile forensics unit to help investigators make more arrests for gun-related crimes.

Authorities say the $250,000 vehicle, paired with a trailer dedicated to test-firing crime guns, will help reduce the amount of time it takes for experts to process ballistics evidence — evidence that could prove critical to clearing one or more open shooting cases.

“The faster we can do the work, while maintaining quality, the more actionable the lead is. The longer a lead takes, the less value it may have because the time to go back and look for video, look for other things, may get lost,” said Michael Garvey, director of the city’s Office of Forensic Science.

Walter Dandridge, Firearms and Toolmark Examiner with the ATF, explains how the National Integrated Ballastoc Information Network examines bullet casings from crime scenes at their mobile forensic van on May 7, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The gold standard for processing ballistics evidence is 48 hours, a mark Garvey said the office hasn’t achieved regularly since the middle of last year.

The loan from the U.S. Department of Justice, which typically lasts three months, comes amid a historic surge in gun violence that’s putting the Police Department on pace to set a single-year record for confiscated guns — and at a time when the city is actively recruiting ballistics experts to fill nearly a dozen positions left vacant through attrition.

It’s also part of a broader “all hands on deck” initiative involving Philadelphia police and more than a dozen federal agencies, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to reduce gun violence in the city.

“More evidence equals more cases that our office can charge federally, which equals more convictions of violent criminals who have been using these guns to wreak havoc on the streets of this beautiful city,” Jennifer Arbittier Williams, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said during a news conference Friday.

Acting US Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams announces the arrival of the the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network mobile forensic van in Philadelphia to assist PPD in arresting gun violence perpetrators at a press conference on May 7, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Garvey’s office has lost 10 forensic experts since 2016, when the office had a total of 22. The city has funding to replace them, but training and certifying new hires takes time — up to two years.

The timeline makes the mobile forensics unit — which will remain parked outside the city’s forensics lab on Poplar Street — an invaluable addition, adding much-needed personnel and an extra set of equipment to test and trace ballistics evidence to guns and suspected shooters, officials said.

The city’s crime lab has two identical sets of equipment that experts can use to enter gun-related evidence into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, a specialized database containing digital images of recovered cartridge casings.

“The end goal here is not to only solve crimes that have occurred, but also to prevent these dangerous individuals from committing future crimes or taking a life,” said Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.

Mark Monaghan, Branch Chief of Firearms Operations with the ATF, pulls a casing from a test fire at the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network examines bullet casings from crime scenes at their mobile forensic van on May 7, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

To date, police have recovered 2,152 crime guns, putting the city on pace to seize more than 6,200 firearms by year’s end and “shatter” the record set in 2020.

Last year, officers recovered roughly 5,000 crime guns — guns that were either used in a crime, suspected of being used in a crime, or illegally owned.

Nearly 700 people have shot so far this year, a roughly 40% increase over the same period in 2020, the deadliest year in three decades.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal