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Bullet lab to help county take closer look at gun crime

YORK -- More than a thousand weapons sit in boxes and bags in evidence rooms at Moss Justice Center.

Evidence from these firearms, some seized from criminals and others used in incidents, could help the York County Sheriff's Office solve and reduce violent crimes.

A $58,000 Project Safe Neighborhoods grant will buy the equipment needed to retrieve the evidence and start a sheriff's office ballistics unit. York County Council approved the acceptance of the one-time award Monday.

With the money, the sheriff's office plans to purchase a bullet recovery system, a high-tech water tank designed to shoot firearms in, said Kevin Tolson, York County Forensic Services Unit director.

"Each gun, each barrel is unique," Tolson said. "When fired, the barrel leaves marks on each bullet, which we will be able to potentially match to other crimes."

The operator, who will be a member of the current forensics unit, stands on a platform, mounts the weapon and fires it into a tube and into the roughly 6-to 8-foot wide and 10-to 12-foot long tank, Tolson said.

"It's more than firing a gun into a big pool," Tolson said. "The tank is designed to slow the bullet down so it isn't damaged."

The projectiles are retrieved from the tank, and a mechanism catches the shell casings for analysis and database entry.

"It is believed if all seized firearms were examined, test-fired, categorized and entered into the Integrated Ballistics Information System, it would help to reduce violent crime in York County," according to the grant application.

The State Law Enforcement Division uses similar technology, but only firearms suspected of being used in serious crimes in York County are sent for testing and results can take several months.

"We rely on the state labs to do these exams for us. They service 45 other counties and have limited resources," Tolson said.

By having this system, Tolson said he hopes to retrieve the same data in a couple weeks.

This system, which is the first step toward York County's full-service ballistics lab, is at least four months away, Tolson said.

The Richland County Sheriff's Office added a firearms recovery tank in 2003 to their full-service forensics lab. Its tank is used at least three-to-four times a week, if not daily, said Dr. Demi Garvin, assistant director of the forensics lab.

Firearms examiner for Richland County, David Collins, said the sheriff's office forensics lab processes about 40 to 45 guns a month.

"We test fire virtually every gun of certain calibers that comes through the department looking for a case or incident where the gun was used that we're not aware of," Collins said.

Firearm characteristics and data collected in Richland County are sent to SLED for entry into a database.

York County hopes to be able to expand SLED's database or build its own by inputting information from pattern and distance testing and projectile analysis.

This will allow comparisons between crime scene evidence and other weapons, Tolson said. The analysis could help solve crimes across jurisdictions and link recurring crimes to one specific weapon.

A gun suspected of being used in a crime can be test-fired and the bullets compared to what was recovered from the crime scene, said York County Sheriff's Office investigator Todd Gardener, a firearm expert.

This system has substantial impact on a criminal investigation, Garvin said, because the faster you can get forensic evidence about the weapon or the projectiles, the faster it can be used to apprehend a suspect.

About 700 handguns and more than 300 rifles and shotguns have accumulated in York County's evidence collection since around 1999.

The goal is to fire all the guns in inventory and document the particulars about the weapons, which could be at least a yearlong process, Tolson said.

After the sheriff's office catalogues its inventory, Tolson said other agencies in the county will be able to use the bullet recovery system as well.

The York County Sheriff's Office grant awarded in September doesn't require a match from the county.

Project Safe Neighborhoods grants are distributed by the S.C. Department of Public Safety's Office of Justice Programs on behalf of the U.S. Attorney's Office. The sheriff's office and 15 other state agencies received almost $725,000 under this project.

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