Why South Africa, France and the USA?

28th July 2019

Whilst we often hear about the rise in UK knife crime over the last few years, it is also important that we consider all forms of violent crime and do not lose sight of the reported increase in gun crime in some parts of the UK, for example, too.

Although UK gun crime is significantly lower than it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, and is fortunately very low in comparison to other countries such as South Africa, reducing the illegal use of firearms and ammunition in the UK remains a national strategic priority. It is also important that we are aware of local, regional and national changes in gun crime to ensure we are appropriately prepared to effectively and efficiently respond, predict and prevent future crimes that affect our communities.

The UK Home Office defines gun crime as:

“Gun crime is crime (violence against the person, robbery, burglary and sexual offences) in which guns are taken to be involved in an offence. A gun is taken to be involved in an offence if it is fired, used as a blunt instrument, or used as a threat. Where the victim is convinced of the presence of a firearm, even if it is concealed, and there is evidence of the suspect’s intention to create this impression, then the incident counts. Both real, and fake firearms, and air weapons are counted within this category.”

College of Policing, 2017

However, the amount of gun crime reported to, and thus recorded by police, is typically lower than the levels which truly exist in our society, both nationally and internationally, and there are also differences in public perception and recorded crime figures.

In addition, the above definition does not include the illegal possession, production or supply of ammunition, and does not cover the movement or trafficking of arms or ammunition. From my project and blogs’ perspective, I therefore use the term ‘gun crime’ much more broadly than the above definition.

For each of the locations I visit during my Fellowship, I want to explore the wider causes and concepts of illicit supply and usage. As a result, I will also use the terms ‘technology’ and ‘investigation’ in their broadest sense too. I am interested to learn about how any relevant hardware and/or software (i.e. technology) are used by the people I meet to better understand how technology helps or hinders them in their job. My use of the term ‘investigation’ therefore again extends beyond the UK policing definitions of a criminal investigation and the investigative process, and considers similarities and differences in the use of these technologies between different countries.

So why South Africa, France and California within the USA in particular? The main reason is suggested by the title of my research fellowship, the use of both similar and different technologies to that which we currently use in the UK. However, to understand the potential value and impact of these technologies for the UK, it is important I don’t focus on the technology in isolation. Forensic science is just one cog in the complex workings of our criminal justice system, and therefore it is vital I also understand the following the best I can in the time available:

  • The reasons underpinning the level of gun crime in each region
  • The rationale for identifying and using the technologies they have adopted
  • How gun crime (in its broadest sense) is detected, investigated and prosecuted
  • Who and how firearm evidence is collected and submitted for forensic analysis
  • Where forensic firearm examination fits within the wider criminal justice system
  • How forensic reports are provided and used by law enforcement and/or the judicial system
  • What the wider barriers and facilitators are to reducing violent crime and gun crime in particular in the region.

Gathering all of this information will mean that my insights and opinions are as well considered as possible when I share my research findings both in the UK and internationally.

South Africa

When I applied for my Fellowship back in September 2018, I chose to visit South Africa for a number of reasons:


France’s socio-economic status and recorded level of gun crime is more comparable to the UK compared to South Africa, and France is also one of the UK’s closest international borders. Currently, France’s Gendarmerie and National Police forensic laboratories use a different ballistic imaging solution called Evofinder to link firearms and shooting incidents. This means it can take slightly longer to confirm whether firearms are being used in crimes across borders and therefore we are investigating approaches to improve data sharing between systems.

In addition, the International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL) is based in Lyon. They have developed the INTERPOL Firearms Protocol and provide an important toolkit and services to support countries internationally develop their approach to investigate and combat firearm trafficking. As a result, I am visiting them to learn more about their recent experiences and how their protocols have been implemented internationally.

California, USA

The San Francisco bay area of California is home to a few technology company headquarters, one of the Crime Gun Intelligence Centers and there seems to be an interesting combination of technologies used to tackle gun crime within this area. For example:

  • San Francisco Police Department and ATF are using ShotSpotter, IBIS Trax and their national ballistics sharing network NIBIN to reduce gun violence
  • Stockton Police Department are using ShotSpotter, IBIS Trax, NIBIN and GunOps to enter, access and visualise relationships between firearm-related crimes
  • Contra Costa County is also using Shotspotter on their freeways in combination with CCTV and license plate recognition as a new application of the technology
  • BallisticSearch is also about to be piloted in the region and has the potential to digitally capture firearm evidence at crime scenes and speed up processing time for investigators.

It will be interesting to see how these technologies are being integrated into the working practices within both crime laboratories and law enforcement departments, and evaluate the impact of this on their investigative approaches and criminal justice outcomes.

Current Update

The level of insight I am able to gain during my Churchill Fellowship is completely dependent on the availability and openness of the organisations and individuals I meet.

I have been incredibly fortunate to connect with some amazing people who have been in total support of my visits, have been very open and willing to share their professional experiences and thoughts with me over the last 4 weeks of research. I thank them immensely for their time and hospitality, and for ensuring that I have a wonderful experience in their beautiful country.

I honestly cannot believe how busy I have been; it has been fantastic! As a result, my real-time updates are, and will continue to be, available through Twitter (follow @DrRachelBK), and I hope to release my next blog in the next few weeks to update you on South Africa and France in more detail!

For any UK citizen who is interested in applying for a Winston Churchill Fellowship for 2020, you can find out more and apply here. The deadline to submit your application is 17th September 2019, good luck!

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