The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is far more than the sum of its parts. A domestic law enforcement agency with over 5,000 employees, it has a long history of forensic excellence. ATF’s first laboratory traces back to 1886 when two scientists convened in the attic of a US Treasury building. Today, the main hub of ATF’s forensic work occurs at the National Laboratory Center in Beltsville, Maryland, including the Fire Research Laboratory, National Firearms Examiner Academy, and one of ATF’s two forensic science laboratories.
ATF’s eponymous mandate makes for a line of work that teems with forensic evidence. ATF employs forensic auditors, biologists, chemists, engineers, firearm and tool mark examiners, latent fingerprint examiners, questioned document examiners, and trace evidence examiners to work collaboratively in the pursuit of justice. And, in addition to providing accurate and authoritative scientific analysis, they’re conducting groundbreaking research and expanding the limits of what’s possible in forensic science.
To learn more about working in forensics at ATF, read on.
Forensic science at ATF has changed significantly since the attic days of 1886. Today’s ATF laboratories are accredited through ISO standard 17025 and meet the requirements of the FBI Quality Assurance Standards for Forensic DNA Testing Laboratories. Old methodologies, like thin-layer chromatography, have fallen out of favor for mass spectrometry. ATF’s forensic professionals are working with increased precision in the most sophisticated forensics techniques. They’re also forging new pathways in the discipline as a whole.
“One thing that is relatively new for ATF is DNA evidence,” says Greg Czarnopys, Deputy assistant director for the Office of Science and Technology/Forensic Services at ATF. “We only started that in 2007. The technique had been around for some time, but it was not sensitive enough for the types of samples we see at ATF until 2007. We also lacked the capability in-house, so we built that up. We’re now the leaders in low-level touch DNA.”
In forensics, the work one does is dictated by the evidence samples they get. At the ATF, that means primarily the components of explosive devices and firearms, and often in fragmented or limited quantities. As a result, DNA evidence may be minimal. Getting DNA off a firearm is relatively straightforward, but off a fired cartridge case is very different: cartridge cases are typically made of brass that contains copper, making them inherently antimicrobial, degrading DNA when mixed with water.
“We spent about five years of research, working with different universities, on a technique to get DNA off of fired cartridge cases,” Czarnopys says. “We finalized that technique in 2019. Now, 66 percent of the time, in an investigation where the only evidence is a fired cartridge case, we’re getting DNA profiles. It used to be zero percent. That’s a huge change in the industry.”
Forensics professionals at ATF are generally based in one of the ATF’s laboratories, but they will spend time in the field as well. Fire engineers work closely with the Bureau’s certified fire investigators to analyze the scene; forensic chemists are often called to major explosives investigations. Any forensic employee at ATF can be called into the field to help process a crime scene or a search warrant. They also may be called upon as part of the Bureau’s National Response Team (NRT) for large and emergent cases.
“Forensic science is extremely important at ATF,” says Czarnopys. “It plays a critical role any time there’s physical evidence, from the simplest to the most complex case.”
A typical day at ATF will be dictated by a forensic examiner’s specialty. But there are some commonalities across disciplines. In fact, forensic examiners at ATF work collaboratively. Czarnopys highlights the importance of the lead examiner’s role: they’ll open a new case and determine the proper order of examination. An explosives case may require latent print examination, DNA examination, and toolmarks examination. Everyone has to work as a team to get the best results.
“A young forensics professional really needs to be curious and willing to seek the unbiased truth about the evidence,” Czarnopys says. “But they also have to be able to think beyond just science. They have to be articulate in how they communicate to different education levels.”
The collaboration extends beyond the forensic sciences to special agents, administrators, attorneys, judges, and juries. Outside of lab and fieldwork, forensics professionals at ATF regularly provide instruction to ATF special agents and other local, state, and federal law enforcement personnel, and they may teach courses at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Georgia or the National Center for Explosives Training and Research in Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.
“You have to be able to teach non-scientists science,” Czarnopys says. “You have to communicate in ways that people can understand. But when you do, and you see the light bulb go off, it’s so rewarding.”
There’s always pressure to get things done in a lab. TV shows have trained the layman to expect definitive forensic results in the span of a single commercial break, setting unrealistic standards. While there is a time for high throughput in some laboratory applications, ATF prides itself on not turning its laboratories into assembly lines. Instead, management prioritizes the ability of scientists to build up their expertise and identify and pursue solutions to problems they are encountering. That approach led to the breakthroughs in capturing DNA evidence off cartridge casings, and it’s an approach that Czarnopys is hopeful ATF can carry forward.
Heading into the future, the ATF aims to not only keep pace with advancements in forensic science but help push the boundaries of what’s possible in the field. The groundbreaking research done with partner universities on retrieving DNA samples from gun cartridge casings was just the beginning, and it’s helped shape a critical model for the future.
ATF has been funded for a new laboratory, the Forensic Crime Gun Intelligence Laboratory, which is expected to begin construction in Wichita, Kansas later this year. ATF hopes to nearly double their current forensic workforce once the new lab is fully operational.
The first of its kind, the lab will work with Wichita State University, focusing exclusively on firearms and firearms-related incidents and collaborating deeply with the university’s research capabilities.
“Science is constantly evolving, and you never know what’s next,” Czarnopys says. “But I think the future is really bright for ATF and for forensics.”
Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about the increasing digitization of investigations, the growing importance of forensic science, and emerging areas of investigative practice like open source intelligence (OSINT) and blockchain forensics. His writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best, including leaders and subject matter specialists from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS). As part of the Big Employers in Forensics series, Matt has conducted detailed interviews with forensic experts at the ATF, DEA, FBI, and NCIS.