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The Gun Wars II: In A Sea Of Weapons

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

Lt. Vincent Testa admits to being something of a neat freak, so you can imagine how he felt two and a half years ago when he walked into his new command at the Philadelphia police department's Firearms Investigations Unit.

The unit, which is charged with testing guns used in crimes, had a backlog of 6,101 cases.  Guns, tagged and wrapped in plastic bags, filled plastic bins. Officers looking for a particular gun had to rummage through them. The place was a mess.

"I went into our storage area and it was nothing but stacks of Rubber Maid bins," Testa recalled.  "The problem was we were understaffed and overworked by the sheer volume of the jobs.  While you were working on one job another was coming in. We were so behind.  I walked in here and thought at one point: 'I am going to fail.'"

Fortunately Testa arrived at the right moment. A joint state-city task force had been formed to concentrate on gun violence.  It brought with it a scarce commodity in these tight budget times - money.

At the time,  the F.I.U.  had six examiners, most of them police officers trained in ballistics to handle evidence - not just guns but also bullets and shell casings - and do matches using high-powered microscopes.

It is exacting work, requiring a long period of training.

"We want cases signed, sealed and delivered, as we say down here," Testa said. "Every 'i' has to be dotted and every 't' crossed because when you go into court it all has to be absolutely right."

Al Toczydlowski, the former city prosecutor now heading the task force, used some of the $5 million in state money at his disposal to help the F.I.U.

 

Thank Uncle Al

The task force paid for 12 new examiners to be trained, a process than took 18 months for each.  It purchased two high-powered microscopes for the unit, at a cost of $70,000 each.  It bought a motorized filing system so the weapons could be tagged, stored and be easily accessible - no more rooting through plastic bins to find the gun they needed.

Finally, task force money was used to subsidize the unit's overtime bill as Testa's examiners worked to cut into the backlog.

Lt. jpgIt's no wonder members of Testa's unit affectionately call Toczydlowski "Uncle Al."

Now, the backlog is down to 1,187 cases.  The F.I.U. is current on all new cases. The unit, which operates out of a basement office on the 800-block of North Eighth Street on the edge of Northern Liberties is a hive of activity, churning out ballistics reports daily.

The key to reducing the backlog was the new examiners, Testa said.  There are now 20, trained on state money but paid from the Police Department budget.

Testa, 46, came to F.I.U. from the department's SWAT unit.  With a solid, muscular build and a shaved head he looks a bit like a bullet.

F.I.U.'s principal job is to link guns to a crime - to prove or disprove that a Weapon X was used to kill or injure Victim Y.  Every firearm has it own unique markings, Testa explained:  the grooves in the barrel of the gun that can be matched with the bullet fired, but often the bullet has been distorted by hitting an object.

 

Shell-case markings

"Our bread and butter is in shell casings," Testa said. "When the bullet goes off, it creates breech face markings. Also there is a firing pin mark.  They leave very unique marks, but don't become distorted like the bullet."

The matches are done through miscroscopy - the use of high-resolution microscopes that match, for instance, a shell casing recovered at a crime scene with a shell casing fired from the suspect firearm.

Everything in F.I.U. is done through peer review, Testa said.  Two examiners review the same evidence and must agree on the findings before a case can advance.

It's important not to let cases back up.  Finding a gun linked to a crime done three years ago means the case is cold, the witnesses scattered, the detective could have retired or simply moved onto other active cases.

The volume of cases F.I.U. must handle is huge.  Testa said the unit takes in 6,000 to 7,000 weapons a year - about four out of five of them used in a crime.  In addition, other ballistic evidence - shell casings, bullets, etc. - numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Once F.I.U. is done with its analysis, the weapons are shipped off to City Hall for storage.

But the unit has a mini-museum of weapons - they call it the weapons archives - that holds everything from ancient derringers and zip guns to modern 9MM and Magnums, from old sub-machine guns to AK47s -- most of them recovered on the streets of Philadelphia.

Testa would not speculate on the exact number of weapons still out there, "but if we get 6,000 to 7,000 coming in here each year, you can imagine."

The city is a vast sea of firearms.

 

The Gun Wars, Part III: Taking on the issue of gun control vs. gun enforcement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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