(Photo: Courtesy of Polizia di Stato)

Italy’s leading law enforcement organization and Vanderbilt University are planning to collaborate on research of firearms identification evidence.

The Italian State Police and their Scientific Police Department (Servizio Polizia Scientifica, or SPS) will work in the areas of “physics and mathematical models for quantitative forensic science,” according to a memorandum of understanding signed by the agency and the school on Oct. 24.

The trace marks under the microscope will be “a thousand times smaller than a dust mite,” according to the Italian authorities.

“We believe this collaboration can transform the world of firearms identification and can move us in the direction of the quantitative side of forensic science, which is something we really need to make the results of our investigations more reliable in court,” said Luigi Carnevale, the director general of the SPS.

Vanderbilt University has established a research collaboration with the Scientific Police Department of the Italian State Police (SPS — Servizio Polizia Scientifica) to take forensic science to the nanoscale. (Video Credit: Courtesy of Vanderbilt University)

The professional link began with earlier academic work, according to Vanderbilt officials.

The director of forensic investigation for the Italian agency is Pasquale L. Iafelice. The scientist had previously been a visitor at Vanderbilt in 2007, during his last doctoral year of theoretical particle physics. During that stint he made contact and worked with Vanderbilt professor of physics Thomas Kephart. The two reconnected in 2014. Most recently, a collaboration begun in 2015 involving the two men and Anthony Hmelo, a professor of materials science and engineering, has worked toward exploring nanoscale measurements and identification of firearms.

The features are a thousand times smaller than the current state-of-the-art analysis techniques, the school adds in a statement announcing the new partnership.

“The Italian Scientific Police have been on the cutting-edge of forensics for a hundred years and more,” said Kephart. “We believe that with a new scientific approach we can significantly reduce the uncertainty involved in current methods of ballistic analysis.”

The two agencies said they envision changing the way firearms forensics is conducted.

“Through this collaboration, we expect first-of-their-kind breakthroughs, such as demonstrably superior techniques for identifying firearms by examining nanoscale imprints on the bullets they discharge,” said Padma Raghavan, Vanderbilt’s vice provost for research.

Kephart told Forensic Magazine the new techniques would involve higher-resolution imaging, more advanced statistical analysis and algorithms, as well as more efficient data analytical techniques.

Outcomes of criminal cases could be effected, he added.

"Yes, indeed we believe outcomes can change," said Kephart. "We think we can identify firearms analyzing bullets with our techniques where others could fail."

Recent criticism of the state of forensic sciences such as the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report and the more recent President Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report from last autumn questioned the comparison techniques of ballistics, firearms and toolmarks matching. Some have said the 2-D methods are not accurate enough—and don’t provide a statistical framework to tell juries the likelihood the match is wrong. The criticism has fueled some criminal defense arguments—but Forensic Magazine has not yet identified an erroneous firearms match that led to a conviction.