Loss of RCMP firearm labs will hurt police, critics say

Critics fear that police could lose timely access to a key technology used to investigate shootings as Ottawa shutters several regional forensic laboratories.

IBIS-equipped laboratories closing down in Regina, Halifax

Forensic science in Canadian policing. 3:22

Critics fear that police could lose timely access to a key technology used to investigate shootings as the RCMP shutters several regional forensic laboratories.

The technology known as the Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS) helps police analyze bullets and shell casings picked up at crime scenes, helping to determine if they have come from a firearm known to law enforcement.

It's a Canadian-designed technology that is used in dozens of countries around the world, including in the United States, Mexico, as well as in Europe and South Africa. The company that developed IBIS says the technology has helped police link tens of thousands of criminal cases.

In Ottawa, the federal government has even helped connect countries outside of Canada with IBIS, donating equipment to Belize and Costa Rica in recent years.

But the RCMP is in the midst of closing down IBIS-equipped laboratories in Halifax and Regina. A third forensics laboratory in Winnipeg is also being closed, but it does not have IBIS equipment.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Canada sent an email to CBC News saying that the closure of the IBIS labs in Halifax and Regina was "in line with the government’s efforts to achieve efficiencies within the federal government without affecting service to the public or provincial/territorial partners."

RCMP Sgt. Greg Cox said any IBIS requests that would have gone to Regina are now being directed to other labs in Canada.

In an email to CBC News, Cox said that the winding down of lab operations in Regina will have "no impact on gun cases or future ballistic investigations."

The Halifax forensic site is due to wind down its operations over the next two years, Cox said.

Saving costs over solving crimes?

Shutting down the laboratories will save an estimated $3.5 million, but critics say that process could create backlogs and problems for police.

Ralph Goodale, the deputy leader of the federal Liberals, said that it appears the government is more focused on finding savings than it is on having police solve crimes.

Deputy Liberal Leader Ralph Goodale says the move to close down several regional RCMP forensic labs will inevitably create a backlog. (CBC)

"The government says this is all in the interests of better service and efficiency, but the fact of the matter is they are going to be trying to shove the business that used to be handled through six labs with a backlog, into now four labs," Goodale told CBC News in a recent interview.

Defence lawyer Josh Arnold, the vice-president of the Nova Scotia Criminal Lawyers Association, said people on both sides of the law could have to wait longer for critical information if firearms and other exhibits have to be sent to distant laboratories for analysis as a result of closing regional laboratories.

In an interview with CBC News, Arnold said that for the person sitting in a cell, or the forensics expert who testifies at a trial, the further away the lab is located from an investigation, the more issues there can be.

"Every stage where there is a delay in the proceedings, so that the investigation can continue, the stress, the stigma, the chance for something to go wrong — all of that impacts on the accused person and their constitutional right to a trial within a reasonable time and the general good working of the judicial system," Arnold said.

IBIS journey 'a bit of an accident'

Forensic Technology is the Montreal-based company that developed the IBIS technology over the past two decades.

Robert Walsh, the company’s president and CEO, said the technology grew out of a proposal that police came forward with in 1991.

Robert Walsh, the CEO of Forensic Technology, says that current IBIS technology grew out of a pilot project that was started more than two decades ago. (CBC)

As Walsh told CBC News in a recent interview, the path to creating IBIS was "a bit of an accident" that resulted from a request from someone in law enforcement.

Walsh said the client identified a problem that police were having, in which laboratories were struggling to keep up with the volume of evidence coming in from drug cases.

"We didn’t know very much about guns or bullets or cartridge cases, but it sounded interesting because we knew a technology that we could probably apply," Walsh told CBC News in a recent interview.

"So we did an investigation and that’s how it all started."

Within 10 years, Walsh’s company sold off its wider engineering interests, in order to concentrate solely on its forensics business.

The company now employs 160 people in Canada and additional staff outside of the country.

Walsh said he has watched his company’s technology evolve from providing two-dimensional images to the more advanced three-dimensional images it provides today.

"We put in a tremendous amount of our revenue into R&D every year, because there’s a lot of new technologies that weren’t available five years ago," he said.

With files from the CBC's Nazim Baksh and John Lancaster