Feature Article, December 2000

This month's article was originally published in the AFTE JOURNAL (VOLUME 31, NUMBER 3) SUMMER 1999. It is being reprinted here with permission from the AFTE Journal Editor, Mickey French, and the author.

POLICE BALLISTICS SECTIONS IN AUSTRALIA

By: Sergeant Gerard Dutton, Ballistics Section,
Tasmania Police, Hobart, Tasmania, AUSTRALIA

Key Words: Ballistics Sections, Australia

Introduction

In 1997, I attended my first AFTE conference, something Iíd been wanting to do for years. Definitely one of the most interesting and informative aspects of attending such a gathering, was meeting and talking with firearms examiners from all around the globe. Upon speaking with these examiners and discussing how we each do our job in our respective countries, it became apparent how much variance there is in the role of forensic firearms examiners in different jurisdictions. This was dependent on many factors, the majority of them stemming from local needs and considerations, but it was plain that the duties and responsibilities of firearms examiners differed substantially worldwide.

For example, only some firearm laboratories carry out chemical testing as a part of their duties; whilst other examiners work only in the laboratory and donít attend crime scenes, but rely on others to collect and submit the crime exhibits for analysis. Some I spoke with didnít normally attend post mortem examinations of gunshot victims to interpret and study gunshot wounds. And I could see that as time progressed, computer imaging programs such as Drugfire and IBIS were becoming more widely used. It seemed the differences between ballistics sections and firearms examination units from all corners of the world, involved just about every facet of the work.

Intrigued by this, I sent a list of questions relating to various aspects of forensic firearms investigation to all the ballistics sections in Australia, to see just how greatly things differed between state/police jurisdictions in this country. Their responses have been incorporated into this paper along with my comments. This information is presented for AFTE members, not only to be compared to their own experience, but for pure interest value as to how we carry out this function in Australia. Other related data is also presented, as it has relevance to forensic firearms investigation, such as who carries Out GSR analysis and the like.

Australian Ballistics Sections

Australia consists of six states: New South Wales (NSW), Queensland (QLD), Victoria (VIC), South Australia (SA), Western Australia (WA) and Tasmania (TAS), and two territories: the Northern Territory (NT) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). All have their own independent Police Departments and Forensic Services, including a ballistics section. Australia therefore has eight police jurisdictions, with the Australian Federal Police having the responsibility for policing the ACT as well as their nationwide role. All Australian police ballistics sections are located in the state capitals, without any decentralized ballistics sections in country areas.

As a way of comparison, I have included the overall population, land area, number of police personnel in the respective states and staffing for each of the ballistics sections. The number of firearms examiners in each state fluctuates as they all have slightly different responsibilities and workloads; this will be further expanded upon.

Some may wonder at the seemingly strange correlations of these numbers. For instance, Western Australia has a massive land area just under a third of the Australian total, yet itís general population and police numbers are not in context to say NSW, which has nearly four times the population of WA in under a quarter of its land area. The reason for any apparent discrepancy in the figures is due to the fact that the majority of inland Australia is desert or quite arid, consequently the interior is sparsely populated.  The main population areas are located on the eastern seaboard and in south-west Western Australia.

State

Population

Area (km2)

Size of Police
 Department

Firearms Examiners
(As of November 1997)

NSW

6,115,000

801,600

13,070

11 (4 expert, 7 trainee)

VIC

4,502,000

227,600

10,016

5 (5 expert)

QLD

3,277,000

1,727,200

6.290

5 (2 expert, 3 trainee)

WA

1,732,000

2,525,500

4,227

7 (3 expert. 4 trainee)

SA

1,474,000

984,000

3,616

5 (2 expert, 3 trainee)

TAS

473,000

67,800

1,072

3 (1 expert, 2 trainee)

ACT

304,000

2,400

661

2 (2 expert)

NT

174,000

1,346,200

756

2 (1 expert, 1 trainee)

Totals

18,051,000

7,682,300

39708

40 (20 expert, 20 trainee)

(The first three sets of figures were sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics 1997 Yearbook and are based on 1995 figures.)

Civilian or Police Firearms Examiners?

In Australia, the main areas of forensic services that have traditionally been a police responsibility are crime scene examination, the photographic laboratory, document examination, fingerprints, video section and firearms/toolmarks examination. This does vary a little from state to state dependent on the size of the police department. Other forensic areas such as forensic chemistry and biology, are normally staffed by qualified civilian chemists and biologists who have specialized in forensic applications. These specialists do not usually form part of the police department. In most cases, these are state government analytical laboratories with clients other than the judicial system.

One of the main differences I noted between Australia and other parts of the world is that Australia currently doesnít have any civilian firearms examiners working in police laboratories. Traditionally, ballistics personnel have been sworn officers who have previously worked as uniformed general duties police or in other squads, before transferring to the ballistics section. This is in contrast to some of the other areas found within police forensic services such as fingerprints and photography, where civilians are now widely employed in positions that were once filled by police officers.

Victoria has felt civilianization more than any other state and of all the forensic disciplines, only the Firearm and Toolmark Section and the Crime Scene Section remains wholly staffed with police officers; secretarial and typing staff excluded. It is quite likely that as time progresses civilianization will occur within the ballistics sections. Most expert examiners tend to spend their career in one department, although interstate transfers of forensic experts, not just in the ballistics field, is becoming more common. Other than a-police firearms examiners, there arenít any qualified civilian experts with experience and training in shooting crime scene reconstruction, comparative macroscopy and gunshot wound interpretation. (In Australia, these three areas of expertise can only be learnt within the police ballistics section and this knowledge separates the firearms examiner from other gun enthusiasts, including gunsmiths. This however, doesnít stop some attempting to pass themselves off as ďexpertsĒ in the courtroom, despite having no expertise in the afore-mentioned three areas. Even in this day and age, unqualified people still attempt to give opinion evidence outside their sphere of knowledge. I expect that Australia is not alone in this regard.)

There are fewer than two dozen experts working in the field in this country, which is a limited resource of specialists to draw from. The only way that qualified civilian firearm examiners will develop in Australia is by being employed as a trainee (in place of a police officer) and developing along the same lines as a police officer.

Other duties performed in Ballistics Sections

Additional duties, other than forensic firearms investigation, are carried out by the ballistics sections and include the following:

Armoury - Three ballistics sections (WA. SA and TAS) also have a responsibility as the police armoury, repairing and servicing police issue firearms and reloading practice ammunition, etc. The remaining states have separate armouries staffed with police and civilian armourers who do not carry out any forensic work.

Tool Mark Examination - This function is carried Out by ballistics section personnel. The equipment required for comparative analysis and the necessary understanding of the principles behind tool marks and how they are caused are well understood by firearms examiners. The markings left behind on bullets and cartridge cases from firearm components are only specialized types of toolmarks. This means that the firearms examiner is obviously in a better position to give technical tool mark evidence in court, than specialists from the other forensic disciplines.

Serial number restorations - most ballistics sections also restore firearm serial numbers, mainly by chemical etching, with other processes used when applicable. Until recently, one section (WA) also conducted serial number restorations on motor vehicles.

Firearm destruction - half of the ballistics sections (VIC, NSW, TAS & WA) destroy firearms which have come into police possession. These have been received by police as a result of either surrender, by being found or by being forfeited through the judicial system after the owner was convicted of a firearm related offence. The majority of these firearms are destroyed by smelting; some are kept for reference purposes in the firearms reference 11-brary.

Other duties for some sections include firing range inspections and on-going firearm training and instruction for police officers. One ballistics section (QLD) participates in a 24 hour roster and they are available for jobs other than firearm related crime.

Firearms Reference Libraries

All eight ballistics sections have a reference library of handguns, shotguns, rifles and other weapons varying in size from 1000 to 5000 items. These numbers were substantially boosted recently with a nationwide review of gun laws following the Port Arthur shooting in Tasmania on 28 April 1996. As all pump action and self loading shotguns, and self loading rifles (both centerfire and rimfire) are now banned Australia wide; hundreds of thousands of firearms were handed in, the owners compensated and the firearms destroyed.

Not all Australian ballistics sections were allowed to keep any of these now illegal firearms for reference purposes. This was an unfortunate political decision which varied from state to state depending on the level of firearm paranoia perceived by the relevant authorities. Consequently, thousands of excellent reference firearms were needlessly destroyed, despite the value they have to firearms examiners in the investigation of firearm crime. The fact that some were rare or valuable for historical reasons held no sway.

Despite this absurd situation, in excess of 23,000 reference rifles, shotguns and handguns are now held in the eight ballistics sections, which represents a comprehensive cross-section of firearms. If a particular model of firearm is needed by an examiner in one state, it would be very unlucky not to find the same model in at least one of the other state reference libraries. I have personally borrowed a firearm from another state reference library on a number of occasions for investigative purposes.

Workload

The amount of jobs attended by any one ballistics section cannot be attributable merely to the population of each state, as many other factors come into play. Many jobs outside metropolitan areas are not attended by ballistics staff, due to financial or manpower limitations. The workload can only be managed with the appropriate resources. If serious shootings increase, the minor jobs would be relegated a low priority. An example of this is in NSW where suicides are not routinely attended or the exhibits later examined, due to the sheer amount of criminal casework that has priority. In all other states, suicides by firearm in metropolitan areas are attended and investigated by members of ballistics sections. In country areas shooting suicides are attended by crime scene personnel only. Ballistics members will attend suicides in these regions, only if there are suspicious circumstances or upon request by the attending crime scene examiner.

The following table relates to the number of shooting scenes attended, the number of jobs examined annually and the number of firearm murders investigated. It must be kept in mind that these figures are approximate only and will vary year to year. 

State

Shooting scenes
attended

Jobs per year

Murders 
(Shootings only)

NSW 

50-60

650 

30 

VIC 

42

346 

24 

QLD 

69

302 

23 

WA 

150

400 

6-10

SA

20 

207 

5

 TAS 

20 

80 

1-2

 ACT

20 

120 

1-2

NT

30 

60 

2

Members of all eight ballistics sections attend the mortuary as a matter of course for post mortem examinations on gunshot victims. Generally the wounds are studied and interpreted with the forensic pathologist, then measured, photographed and notes taken to refer to when conducting any muzzle to target GSR determinations, etc.

The table is included as a guide to illustrate what is experienced by the respective ballistics sections. Each ballistics section doesnít examine every crime scene where firearms have been used, nor does every firearm used in an offence get submitted for examination. Some of the figures have been averaged over the last few years. I have not included aberrations such as the Port Arthur shooting in Tasmania where 35 people were killed, as this would give an incorrect picture of the number of firearm murders annually in that state. Jobs per year may include a single bullet from a crime scene for examination, or it could relate to multiple offenders with dozens of guns, bullets and cartridge cases. Job numbers therefore do not reveal the actual amount of work involved or completed for this reason.

Predominant firearms used

The list of firearms most encountered in criminal casework varied a little between jurisdictions, but overall Iím sure every state and territory has had wide experience with the types that have been listed by their interstate colleagues. I was interested at the Ď97 AFTE conference to hear that handguns seem to be the main type of firearm used in crime in the USA. Rifles and shotguns, especially in shortened form, are much more prevalent in crime in Australia. From my experience and from the responses to this question, it seems that in Australia, the .22 Stirling self loading rifle must win the dubious award for the most commonly used firearm in crime!

State

Most common firearms

NSW 

.22 Stirling self-loading rifles. (Sawn off versions common)
12 gauge Bentley pump shotguns. (Sawn off versions common)
(Both of these firearms are manufactured in the Philippines and
although cheap, are quite robust and functional.)

VIC 

.22 rifles and 12 gauge sawn off shotguns, but in particular: .22 Stirling rifles. 12 gauge Boito and Baikal shotguns. (single & double barrel)

QLD 

.22 Stirling .rifles.
12 gauge Bentley pump shotguns.
7.62x39mm SKS rifles.
.22 Jennings pistol.

WA 

Various .22 rifles and 12 gauge sawn off shotguns, also 9mm and .357 Magnum pistols.

SA 

Various .22 rifles.

TAS 

Various .22 rifles and 12 gauge shotguns.

ACT 

Various .22 rifles and 12 gauge shotguns. Some centerfire pistols.

NT 

Various 12 gauge shotguns.
.22 Stirling rifles.

GSR sampling

Gunshot residue sampling is carried out by all Australian police forensic services personnel, but not by staff from the ballistics sections due to contamination concerns. In many cases. sampling may be carried out but not examined due to the cost. They are then filed for future reference if the need for analysis arises in future.

GSR samples in Australia are currently examined using the Scanning Electron Microscope fitted with Energy Dispersive X-Ray analysis capabilities. Not all states have capability for GSR analysis by SEM-EDX, so they are sent to the laboratories in VIC or SA on a cost recovery basis.

Comparison macroscopes

The models of comparison macroscopes differs slightly across the country with each state having various cameras, video/monitors and printing facilities attached. The macroscopes are all Leitz or Leica models, with only some of the instruments bought in the 1930ís of a different make, such as the Spencer Lens Company. These early models are retained for historical value only. The following models are currently in use around Australia:

NSW:

Three large floor mounted Leitz.

VIC:

Two large floor mounted Leitz.

QLD: 

One large floor mounted Leitz and one bench mounted Leitz.

WA:

One bench mounted Leitz and one large floor mounted Leitz fitted with a monocular head.

SA: 

One bench mounted Leitz.

TAS:

One Leica DM-C, One large floor mounted Leitz with revolving monocular head, One bench mounted Leitz.

ACT:

One large floor mounted Leica, One bench mounted Leica.

NT: 

One large floor mounted Leitz.

Most of the large floor mounted models in Australia originally had monocular heads, which were converted by Leitz when binocular heads became available. Unfortunately it seems that WA and TAS missed the boat on this and Leitz no longer makes this conversion. The monocular eyepiece causes excessive eye-strain and along with the bizarre upright sitting position required when using the instrument, means that these models will probably never be used again.

Training

Traditionally in Australia, the trainee required five years of tuition under the guidance of senior experts, for the trainee to reach ďexpertĒ status. Only then could he express opinions in court. In-house courses were undertaken which touched on some aspects of firearms identification, such as crime scene examination, photography, macroscopy, study tours of firearm and ammunition plants, etc. However there was no set curriculum which covered all the topics and the trainee basically learnt by on-the-job experience.

This system is flawed as the caseload experienced by some of the smaller states didnít come anywhere near those of the larger states. What one trainee learnt in five years in a smaller state was probably learnt within two or three years in a larger state, accelerated by greater exposure to the varying aspects of forensic firearms investigation. Also, without a curriculum to follow, some of the more obscure aspects of firearms investigation which needed studying, may have been missed. It is only in recent times that the Courts are asking how the police forensic expert (in all disciplines) can express valid opinions in the witness box without formal training and qualifications.

This has now changed with the development of a Diploma in Forensic Investigation. The National Institute of Forensic Science (NIPS) with involvement from the Australian police forensic, science community and the Canberra Institute of Technology, have developed (or are currently developing) curriculums in five main forensic areas:

Crime Scene Examination
Fingerprint Examination
Document Examination
Fire and Explosion Examination
Firearm and Tool Mark Examination

As there are more Crime Scene Examiners Australia wide than personnel working in the four other disciplines, their Diploma was written first (by senior experts working in the field from around Australia) and some trainees have now successfully completed this four year part-time course.

The remaining four Diplomas are in various stages of development, with all of them having at least the module descriptors (course content, learning outcomes, student assessment, etc), and competency standards written. In regards to Firearms and Tool Marks, only the Learning Guides remain to be written, with a completion date of 1998/99.  Trainees can start their Diploma already on entry level and common core subjects. The Firearm and Tool Marks Diploma has been written with input from a senior expert from each of eight Australian police jurisdictions.

Now, as new personnel enter the police forensic services, they will have to complete the Diploma that relates to their field. Ultimately, those practitioners will have a recognized formal qualification that will not only enhance their standing in court, but will allow greater scope for movement between Australian police departments because the training they have received has been standardized nationally.

Australian Ballistics Computer Imaging System - ďFireballĒ

Drugfire or IBIS are not in use in any of the Australian Ballistics Sections. Having read about both systems and seen them in use, the advantages are obvious, especially in those laboratories where a high case load of unsolved firearm crime is experienced. Although every Ballistics Section in Australia has their own unsolved or open files, we are not yet at the stage where it is too large a burden for the firearms examiner to physically check the unsolved crime exhibits. For instance, even with fifty unsolved murders, actual checking of exhibits under the comparison macroscope can be narrowed down to only a few files due to elimination by differing class characteristics.

Consequently, there is no need in this country for a computer imaging and storage system for unsolved shootings, with an automated search facility. The Western Australia Police Ballistics Section in conjunction with the Edith Cowan University and NIPS are currently developing a computer program which can scan cartridge cases and bullets and store them within itís database. This system will be linked to the eight Australian Ballistics Sections, each with a work station. Once the class criteria is entered, the stored images can be manually checked against the questioned exhibit. If any particular unsolved exhibit looks promising, it will then be physically compared under the comparison macroscope.

The advantages of locally developing a computer imaging system are that it is tailored to Australian conditions and the cost is substantially less than other established systems which have capabilities in excess of local needs.

Other minor details

All sections use a water tank for the recovery of fired bullets, with some sections also using a function box - a large steel rectangular prism partially filled with cotton waste and sand. This allows test firing of all commercial pistol, rifle and shotgun loads when the ejecta is not required. ACT did report experimenting with ice, wet cotton rolls, phone books and 10% ordnance gelatin for bullet recovery, with varying results.

Only three of the eight sections (NSW, ACT & VIC) have an indoor firing range facility within their building for testing purposes. The other five use either Police Academy facilities or public firing ranges when conducting their various tests.

Six of the sections have one member on call after hours to attend shooting scenes. QLD has a 24 hour rostering arrangement, whilst only NSW has two ballistics members (1 expert, 1 trainee) on-call after office hours. I feel that NSW has the best arrangement, as it allows the trainee to watch and learn from his experienced off-sider. As the traineeís experience and confidence grows, he can then complete the job under the direct supervision of the expert. Accordingly, NSW has three vehicles attached to their section, two of which are taken home after hours by the on-call members for response to shooting scenes. Five of the remaining sections have one vehicle, whilst two ballistics sections do not have a vehicle at all. They have to rely on the crime scene examiner to take them to shooting scenes, or the ballistics member must arrange to borrow a vehicle.

Over a 12-month period, ballistics personnel are required to give evidence in the following (approximate) number of court cases:

NSW

80 to 140 occasions

VIC 

84

QLD 

87

WA 

40

SA

20

TAS 

20 to 30

ACT

20 to 40

NT 

25 to 30

Conclusion

I thank all my interstate Australian colleagues who completed the survey which allowed me to compile this paper. I didnít intend this article to be exhaustive. Just as I was interested to hear how other AFTE members did their job, I felt that members might be interested to know what occurs in Australia in our firearms laboratories. Iíd invite any member who has any comments on any of the issues contained within this article, to correspond with me.


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