NEW ORLEANS -- Gunfire is commonplace at the New Orleans Police Crime Lab. Sometimes an automatic weapon, sometimes an old pistol, is test fired to recover the bullets for analysis.
"The crime lab is equally as important as actually taking a statement from somebody that admits they did a crime,” said NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas.
Serpas was the crime lab commander early in his career, but when he returned as superintendent after Hurricane Katrina, he found it nearly dysfunctional, the original lab ruined in the flood.
"This crime lab was basically dead on arrival,” Serpas said. “It was having very little success in doing firearms examinations. There was no real work going on with DNA."
So he launched a three-year program to rebuild the crime lab. Now a series of labs occupy 18,000 square feet of space in a temporary facility that employs 38 people.
The prime focus is on firearms because of the violent crimes in this city. Where they had one expert, now they have three, using microscopes to examine bullets used in different crimes to see if they match.
“We're extremely busy,” said senior firearms examiner Meredith Acosta. “We work every single shooting involved."
Federal Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents arrived to discuss a case. They have a special partnership with the police crime lab, which handles weapons tests for the agency.
"It's unbelievable the volume of work the firearms unit has done,” said Captain Michael Pfeiffer, NOPD’s crime lab commander. “No place else in the country touches the volume of work this unit does. I can guarantee you, pound for pound, we are faster and better than anybody you want to look at."
But the tests show that in many cases the same guns are used to commit crime after crime. They've even developed charts to show the links.
"There's a small group of people out there committing a majority of the gun violence that occurs in the city of New Orleans, and the more we can show the linkages between those people, and between the cases, the more likely we are to take, not just individuals, but groups off the street,” Pfeiffer said.
Weapons are just one part of the process to collect evidence that starts when the experts arrive at the crime scene.
"I see information. I see evidence here, I see evidence that may be present there,” said Troy Dickerson, the forensic examiner.
They bring the evidence back to the lab and analyze it, from soil samples, to fibers, to hair to documents. Fingerprint expert Troy Dickerson showed he can even recover prints from wet surfaces.
"You can see the print starting to develop, and as you go around it, it's a wet surface, and you have fingerprints that are developing,” Dickerson said.
"We focus on the evidence,” Pfeiffer said. “Our stuff is objective."
Down the hall, samples of illegal narcotics are analyzed.
"We see a lot of marijuana, cocaine and heroin, but recently we've been seeing an uptick in the number of newer synthetic drugs that we've been testing,” said criminologist Brian Schulz.
They're a dedicated bunch, because their work puts criminals in jail.
"I had a particular vehicle that was recovered, a stolen vehicle. I was able to dust the vehicle, maybe like the rear view mirror, exterior, passenger exterior or maybe the interior of the door, and to see the print appear, and be able to dust it with dusting powder, it's a wonderful thing,” said crime scene tech Shandrell Privott. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said, "The Crime Lab that we're working with today is far more effective than the Crime Lab that was in existence when I first took office. Like I said, the Crime Lab is responsible in many cases for recreating that scene for the jurors or the judge." Rafael Goyeneche of Metro Crime Commission said, "Where they were five years ago, and where they are today, light years difference.” But the one thing the crime lab doesn't handle is DNA samples. Now all the DNA work is handled by Louisiana State Police. "We made a contractual relationship with the state police that they will have two employees that we pay for to work our cases, and help them with their cases, until we transition to our own crime lab in about two or three years,” Serpas said. Architects are now designing the new permanent police crime lab. But Goyeneche worries it will be too small. "What we see in Jefferson Parish is they have a 45,000 square foot crime lab. In St. Tammany Parish, they have a 30,000 square foot crime lab, and if we only build a 13,000 square foot crime lab, it'll be obsolete before it's opened." Goyeneche urged city leaders to find the funding to build a crime lab large enough to handle crime scene evidence processing for the next two decades.