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Back to Archives | Back to November 2005 Contents 

Inside the New ATF

By Andrew L. Lluberes, Senior Public Affairs Specialist, Office of Public Affairs, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Washington, D.C.

Inside the New ATF

hen the federal government underwent its homeland security reorganization after the passage and signing of the Homeland Security Act in November 2002, one of the seamless changes for state and local law enforcement was with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). ATF changed its name, its departmental affiliation, and some of its functions without interrupting its service to local law enforcement. Few street officers noticed the difference in their relationship with ATF.

After more than 200 years under the mantle of the Treasury Department, where it began as a revenue collection agency, the bureau moved in January 2003 to the Department of Justice, was renamed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (still referred to as ATF) and shed its regulatory and revenue collection responsibilities over the alcohol and tobacco industries.

Now ATF is part of a department whose primary mission is the administration and enforcement of U.S. laws. ATF is the lead federal agency in the fight against firearms crime, arson, explosives violations, and the illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco products. Given that bombs and other explosives are the terrorist weapons of choice, ATF's expanded jurisdiction for enforcement of the Safe Explosives Act means the bureau also brings its expertise and jurisdiction to bear in the fight against terrorism. ATF's missions are to prevent terrorism, reduce violent crime, and protect the public.

ATF, which became a separate bureau in 1972, traces its proud history as a unique, specialized law enforcement agency back to 1789, when the first Congress passed a spirits tax to help pay the Revolutionary War debt. Through Prohibition, revenuers, and Eliot Ness's Untouchables in the 1920s and 1930s, the missions of ATF have continued to change to meet the needs of criminal justice and community safety.

Today, with nearly 5,000 employees, including special agents, industry investigators, and a host of other administrative and technical professionals, ATF operates 23 field divisions with 250 field and satellite offices and has attach├ęs in Canada, Colombia, and Mexico and a representative in Lyon, France, at Interpol.

Under Director Carl J. Truscott, who was named to the post in April 2004, ATF has reinstated the Directorate of Public and Governmental Affairs, including a Liaison Division dedicated to maintaining the bureau's longtime partnerships with state and local law enforcement agencies. Ultimately, ATF succeeds in its missions because of these partnerships and the dedication and expertise of its employees.

Additional assets and resources ATF can share with state and local law enforcement are a new state-of-the-art National Laboratory Center that includes a fire research laboratory dedicated to fire scene investigations, two other forensic laboratories, and the Arson and Explosives National Repository. The repository has developed the Bomb and Arson Tracking System (BATS), which allows local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to share information about bomb and arson cases and incidents. The bureau also helped develop Dfuze, which provides its users with a comprehensive international and national information management system on explosives incidents. Law enforcement counterparts in the United Kingdom, Colombia, and Mexico were among the first to join ATF in Dfuze.

Another way ATF assists state and local law enforcement is through the deployment of its four rapid-response National Response Teams to large-scale arson and explosives incidents. These teams of ATF agents and other highly specialized experts have all of ATF's resources at their disposal, including arson and explosives detection canines. The bureau's Special Response Teams are specially trained agents who safely respond to high-risk tactical situations such as arrest and search warrants and undercover operations.

As the federal government's lead agency on explosives, ATF now has jurisdiction for investigating all explosives incidents not related to terrorism and, in an effort to improve information sharing with state and local law enforcement, for maintaining all of the Department of Justice's consolidated arson and explosives incident databases. ATF's explosives expertise extends to the war in Iraq, where explosives enforcement officers and special agents who are also certified explosives specialists are training the new Iraqi Police Service, participating in the Regime Crimes Liaison Office preparing the war crimes tribunals against leaders of the ousted Saddam Hussein regime, and serving as handlers of explosives detection canine teams.

National Tracing Center
ATF's National Tracing Center is a firearms-tracing facility providing leads that help local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies solve firearms crimes. The National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) provides a unified ballistics tool for 230 law enforcement partners who can instantly compare gun evidence.

Located in Martinsburg, West Virginia, the National Tracing Center, the National Firearms Act Branch, and the Federal Explosives Licensing Center offer services that help law enforcement agencies solve crimes through tracing, licensing, testing, evaluation, technical support, and training.

National Laboratory Center
Located in suburban Maryland and completed in June 2003, the state-of-the-art National Laboratory Center includes a laboratory devoted to fire investigation support and forensic fire research. Law enforcement agencies throughout the world use the facility for training and to solve some of the most challenging cases. This facility has three basic components:

  • The Forensic Science Laboratory, where investigators examine evidence from criminal investigations related to firearms, explosives, arson, and alcohol and tobacco diversion.

  • The Fire Research Laboratory, dedicated to fire scene investigations, including the ability to reconstruct fire scenes to determine how fires start and spread.

  • The Alcohol and Tobacco Laboratory, which conducts chemical, physical, and instrumental analyses to support alcohol and tobacco product taxation and assure safety for consumers. The Department of the Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau runs the lab.

Canine Enforcement Training Center
Completed in September 1999, the Canine Enforcement Training Center in Front Royal, Virginia, includes an indoor training area for accelerant and explosives detection canines from local, state, federal, and foreign law enforcement agencies. More than 131 accelerant-detection canine teams and more than 450 explosives detector canine teams have been trained and certified through the ATF program.

ATF Programs
The bureau cooperates with local, state, and federal agencies in carrying out Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) and the Violent Crime Impact Teams (VCIT) initiatives. PSN and VCIT take a highly focused approach and combine the personnel and resources of U.S. attorneys nationwide, state and local prosecutors, and local, state, and federal law enforcement in designing local plans and targeting areas with high rates of violent crime.

ATF regulates the explosives industry as well as investigates explosives-related crime. The bureau has the statutory authority to oversee 12,000 explosives licensees and permit holders as well as 106,000 federal firearms licensees.

ATF provides countless hours of explosives training to local, state, federal, and foreign agencies through its programs at Fort A. P. Hill in Virginia and the training offered at the U.S.-funded international law enforcement academies in Botswana, Hungary, and Thailand.

In investigating diversion, the illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco products on which no taxes have been paid, ATF works to stop the vast profits from these smuggling enterprises that end up in the hands of criminals and, in some cases, terrorist organizations.

ATF enhances its enforcement missions with community outreach programs designed to deter crime and violence. In all too many cities, children face the grave threat of gang violence. ATF's educational outreach to schoolchildren in the 1980s eventually became the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program, now funded by the Office of Justice Programs. ATF trained 16,000 officers to provide GREAT instruction to nearly 3 million children, who learn to make good decisions, resist negative influences, and develop more positive attitudes toward police officers.

ATF is also proud of its partnerships in reducing violent crime to a historic low and supporting the Department of Justice in preventing terrorism. ATF's tradition of excellence will enable it to continue to make real progress in promoting the country's security and making communities safer. The men and women of ATF remain steadfast in their resolve to safeguard the American people and embrace the challenges of the future with confidence and determination. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 11, November 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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