By Mike Bloom
Frank Nicolosi, a member of the Westchester County Police Ballistics Unit and Senior Firearms Examiner/Investigator, ran the fragment of an evidence bullet under the comparison microscope in his office. On the other side of the microscope, Nicolosi placed one of three test bullets so he could compare the striations of one bullet to the other.
To the naked eye, the first test bullet looked fairly similar to the evidence bullet. But it was obvious after a close look they were no match. To Nicolosi, it’s even more obvious. With years upon years of training, Nicolosi possesses the rarefied ability to use his eyes and experience in the field to accurately determine if indeed the bullets are a match.
He ran the second test bullet under the microscope.
“Now, how does this one look Michael?” he said to me.
“Pretty close. Definitely closer than the previous one,” I said.
“Close is only good in horseshoes. We gotta be perfect,” Nicolosi said with a grin on his face as he removed the bullet from the microscope.
And that is the motto of the men that investigate criminal scenes for Westchester County. Detail is everything.
In its natural sense, gun ballistics is the study of projectiles from the time of shooting to the time of impact with the target.
Nicolosi, along with Anthony Tota, another Senior Firearms Examiner from the Ballistics Unit at the Westchester County Department of Public Safety, gave me a run through of all that goes on when dealing with firearms.
Along with those two gentlemen, I spent a few hours with the Westchester County Department of Public Safety and observed many components that make up a crime investigation unit. Besides their incredible understanding of the technology they use and the repercussions of their work, the men at the department were very friendly and informative as well.
Sgt. Michael Dowd, commanding officer and director of the forensics unit, was the first individual I met. He gave me the gist of how they ran things there at the department and how much pride they have in their duties to the community of Westchester.
“We are an accredited public crime lab in New York State,” said Dowd. “In 2007, we were the first to implement computer forensics in New York State, 13th in the country, and 22nd in the world.”
But Westchester’s forensic unit isn’t like the one you would see on C.S.I. Miami or C.S.I. New York. Dowd explained to me that what they do on those types of shows is “simplyâ€¦ unrealistic.” He even critiqued the databases they use on the programs, claiming that the ease of the investigation process is next to impossible.
“Nobody can do what they do in a 45 minute interval,” commented Dowd sternly. “These latent print investigators do post-mortem fingerprinting with dead bodies. Now you don’t see that on C.S.I. You can’t show through television how much a dead body smells.”
In the department there are four distinct forensic science divisions: ballistics, crime scene, latent prints, and digital evidence/computer forensics.
Each division is made up of its own trained and highly-experienced personnel. Of the 12 detectives in the unit, there are three investigators assigned to digital evidence, three for ballistics, and six for investigation to latent print who also double as crime scene investigators.
The crime lab is publicly funded and according to Dowd, who cited Article 4ab, “â€¦we are accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD), a lab accreditation board.”
Dowd also mentioned that the lab “â€¦meets hundreds of different criteria laid out by the ASCLD. We must stay in conformance with their criteria.”
The lab must also be granted credibility for a five-year period by the Legacy Certificate. As of April 2008, the lab was re-certified.
“We have to make sure the tools we are using are current for the science we are practicing,” said Dowd.
I saw firsthand how these tools work and just how complicated the process is, how advanced the technology was, and how precise and patient a forensic investigator had to be.
The glamour of the C.S.I. show melted away with every new process the Westchester County Police taught me. There was no theme music or witty one-liners. There was no assurance that everything would be solved by the end of the hour. Dowd explained that the process is so meticulous, some cases take years to solve.
As I walked through the forensics and latent print areas of the building, I felt overwhelmed. Dowd explained the process prints have to go through in order to be identified, processed in the system, and examined. He went through the chemical process as well.
Thick orange cases, which seemed to me to be indestructible, held the cameras the investigators used on the scene.
“We use Nikon digital cameras because they supply us with the best results,” said Dowd. “We recently switched from film to digital within the past couple years.”
I also got to see where they kept evidence, probably the most interesting aspect of the tour. Of course I was warned, not advised, to keep my hands off.
At the department, there is a very precise and efficient way of storing and identifying certain evidence. By using green colored bar-codes, a staff member can differentiate pieces of evidence almost instantly.
Dowd explained to me what the various symbols meant. For example, the biohazard symbol identified that some type of bodily fluid was stored in that specimen.
While I had a tremendous amount of information thrown my way in the latent print and crime scene units of the building, the most hands-on experience came in the ballistics unit.
There I learned how crucial the program IBIS (Integrated Ballistics Identification System) was to Westchester’s public safety. Astonishingly, IBIS helped solve 213 cases last year alone. The program is primarily computer based, and consists of thousands of different entries based on firearm data.
Nicolosi and Tota were experts in firearms and bullet impacts.
“We test every single gun before it is examined for operability,” commented Nicolosi. “Then it is entered into IBIS in hope that we find a match.”
I tried to soak up information in a few hours, realizing that to train for this position, it takes three to four years. They took mercy on me and let me have some fun after cramming my brain with scientific terms and science principles.
Nicolosi, Will, and I took a trip downstairs, as Nicolosi called it, “to make some noise!” I was about to witness three bullets go off in front of my very eyes.
In the basement, there was this large water-tank were Nicolosi tested handhelds. Wearing protective headsets to guard our ears from the loud ‘pop’ sound we were about to sustain, Nicolosi fired three deafening shots from a Smith and Wesson into the tank.
POW! POW! POW!
I had never heard a more deafening noise in my life.
Nicolosi pulled the bullet fragments from the water and handed them to me as souvenirs. My ears were ringing. I’m sure he was used to it, while keeping a steady heartbeat at the same time.
Meanwhile, my ears hummed while my heart decided to run a marathon.
I couldn’t get over the way the bullets shattered upon impact and how they all looked the same from afar. There was an odd beauty in the destruction of those bullet casings, as I couldn’t put them down for hours after the demonstration.
Nicolosi ran the third test bullet under the microscope. He adjusted the lighting and altered the position so we could get an accurate read. The striations matched.
“Now we have a perfect match,” said Nicolosi with the utmost confidence.
The exactness of the career still amazes me, how every inch of evidence must be studied and documented. These men do not pretend to be the detectives we see on television, living glamorous lives by solving cases that seem to piece themselves together within an hour. Instead, they examine every last detail and practice with fascinating patience – all to put a criminal behind bars without any fanfare.
Their only reward, aside from self-satisfaction, is that they get to climb into the basement every now and then and make some noise.
POW. POW. POW.