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"It's like a fingerprint"; Milwaukee police using science to link gun crimes

Deep underneath Milwaukee Police Headquarters, the sounds of gunshots are muffled by thick concrete walls.

Officer Matthew Staedler stands alone in a room no bigger than a bathroom. His only equipment: A snail trap, a box of recovered guns, and plenty of ammunition.

It’s in this room, that Milwaukee Police test fire every gun seized on the streets. The bullet casings are collected and used to link shootings.

“It’s using science to help solve crimes,” says Staedler. “And that’s a good day.” 

By matching these casings to others recovered at crime scenes, police can link crimes that might otherwise have no connection. Last year, Milwaukee Police recovered 2,419 guns. Nearly all of those were test fired, producing casings unique to those guns.


“It’s kind of like a fingerprint,” says Staedler.

Back upstairs in the Intelligence Fusion Center, Staedler places those casings into a special cartridge, which slides into a computer. Hundreds of 3D photographs are taken of each casing, measuring depth, tread, and unique markings. Those are stored in a database called NIBIN, which automatically links similar casings.

“We can immediately pull up the two images side by side and see if we’ve got a match,” says Staedler.

The machine is called IBIS (Integrated Ballistics Identification System). They are the only police department in the state to have one.

On September 3rd 2015, police were called to 26th and Auer on Milwaukee’s north side. A man and a woman had been shot while standing in front of their home. By the time officers arrived, the suspect was long gone. Both victims were rushed to the hospital, where the woman died.

“We did not have any leads at that time,” says Staedler. “The casings were recovered from that scene, and the casings were entered.”

Two days later, a shot spotter alert sent officers to an address less than a mile away. When they arrived, police say 26-year-old Damonte Fipps ran from officers, dumping a gun as he ran away. He was caught and arrested, and that pistol was recovered. 

“That firearm was test fired, and it matched the homicide,” says Staedler.

With no prior connection, police had their man, thanks to the previous casing stored in the database.

“It’s a good feeling,” says Staedler.

Before they had this technology, investigators had to do everything by hand. That meant lining up casings side by side and examining them for comparisons.

“It took hours,” says Staedler.

Now, they can input casings, and receive matches before the end of the day.

“We can get results back in four hours in just a blind search,” says Staedler.

The database now has more than 10,000 individual casings in it, which result in matches on a daily basis. That includes some casings with more than a dozen matches, with the gun still out on the streets.

“There’s one particular gun that was fired 14 different times in the City of Milwaukee,” says Staedler. “And it’s still out there.”

Police know when they find it, they’ll be able to link that gun, and hopefully a suspect, to those shootings.

“It’s been a big help for us,” says Staedler.

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