At the Centre for Forensic Sciences, shooting ranges and firearms libraries are all in a day's work.
Somewhere close to Keele and Wilson, behind several layers of security guards, ID swipes, and an iris scan or two, the Centre for Forensic Sciences has a cache of weapons. Thousands of different firearms—ranging from standard-issue military rifles, to pink-handled handguns, to antique crossbows and even a few handmade guns—are tucked into cubbies and hung in neat rows. Seeing that much firepower in one place is a frightening, breathtaking experience.
But for Joanne Rovensky and the other members of the all-female firearms technologist team, the firearms library is just part of the average workday. Rovensky uses a shooting range, several water- and Kevlar-filled tanks, and the Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS) computer to help figure out if the bullets, casings, and firearms that come through her office have been involved in crimes. The technologists examine cases from Niagara Falls up to Sudbury, but they have a 60-day turnaround time and a sense of humour about the work: when she’s demonstrating the clamp that holds guns that may be unsafe to fire by hand, she says drily, “I think we got this trigger puller at Walmart. We get a lot of stuff at Walmart.”
Rovensky, who returned to her Toronto hometown after working in Wisconsin and Florida, has a Master’s degree in Forensic Sciences and over a decade of on-the-job experience. To take on her role as a firearms technologist, she passed her Firearms Safety courses and underwent months of procedural and ethics training to ensure a level of professionalism that guarantees her work will be ready for scrutiny before the courts. “We have to treat it with as much integrity as possible,” she says.
Our interview with Rovensky—about the difference between American and Canadian crime scenes, the importance of paperwork, and certain television crime procedurals—is below.
Torontoist: How did you decide to become a firearms technologist?
Joanne Rovensky: In grade 10, I had to do a book report, and I read a book by Dr. Thomas Noguchi. He’s a coroner out in California, and he did famous people’s autopsies. I was hooked at that point. I also used to watch Quincy as a kid, which is about pathologists, and is actually based on this gentleman, Dr. Noguchi. I found it very interesting that you could have a decedent that had a bruise, and determine the date of that bruise and if it was related.
I started reading everything I could, and that’s when I found out about forensic science. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I have a background in molecular biology, and I wanted to do the DNA work, so I kind of fell into firearms—but I don’t regret that.
What’s does a typical day look like for a firearms technologist?
First thing is getting onto the computer and checking to see what needs to get done. We’re usually assigned the SFI [suspicious firearms index] cases. Sometimes we get the firearms themselves, and sometimes we just get test fires from the agency, which are just the bullets and the casings. So we get the information, and we start doing paperwork. The one thing that people should know about these types of jobs is that they’re 90 per cent paperwork and 10 per cent hands on. I don’t spend all day firing guns. I spend five minutes firing a gun, and then I do four hours of paperwork on that gun. Or I sit at the IBIS system, and that’s an all-day affair. To look at the striations on a fired bullet, that can take anywhere from a half-hour to an hour for a single bullet. The cartridge case? Maybe a half-hour. To correlate it, you’re looking at another two hours, and more if it’s damaged. So it’s really a lot of computer work and a lot of paperwork.
When most people think forensics, they think “crime scene.” Are there other applications for your skills?
I don’t go to crime scenes in this job. Firearms scientists will, on occasion, go to crime scenes. Police officers called ident officers are the ones that do the crime scenes. We rarely go. But there are other things we do: for example, I’m involved with the Ontario Police College, and I assist with a shooting reconstruction course. We train ident officers on what to do. So there’s a lot of educational things we can do. I also used to teach a crime-scene photography course.
In Florida, you don’t have to be a sworn officer to become a Crime Scene Investigator, so I did it all: I worked homicides, rapes, suicides, burglaries. You name it, I did it—including the photographs, the fingerprinting, the autopsy assistance. I’ve done all that. Here, it’s primarily paperwork and computer work. It’s definitely different here—it’s more nine-to-five. There, sometimes I’d be on scenes for 17 hours straight. I’d sleep in my car for a few hours and then go back. I think the longest scene I was at was a total of three days, and it was just enough time to go back to the office, drop off the evidence, secure it, take a nap, and then go back to the scene. I then spent about two months working on all the evidence. In Canada, you have to be an expert, and you have to be sworn. In Florida, I was just a civilian, but I was trained in special knowledge and coursework.
I think the popular conception is that, in Canada, aside from a few high-profile shootings, we’re pretty lucky when it comes to gun violence. But you work with guns all day, so what’s your insider’s take?
This is just my opinion, and I don’t speak for anybody else. I think Canadians forget that the population density is different in the States, and they’re so used to seeing the media splash everything about shootings up, so it becomes like, “Oh, we have to ban that gun.” I think it’s so much more high-profile in America, based on population density, than anywhere else. If someone’s going to commit a crime, they’re going to commit a crime. I mean, who registers their firearms? Does a bad guy do that? No. The good guy does.
I think we just focus on the wrong things. I don’t think we’re as lucky as people think we are. There are definitely a lot of homicides, but when you look at general crime trends, the warmer a place gets, there’s higher crime. We’re kind of cold in Canada.
What’s your opinion on procedural shows like CSI or Dexter? What’s the biggest misconception they spread about your work that you wish you could clear up?
I hate ‘em! We all know CSI, and what I don’t like about that show is that they’re in both the field and in the lab. In the States, in general, there’s a definite divide: you’re in the field or in the lab. There are detectives that interview people, and they go to the scene and ask the people working there what’s going on, but they don’t take the photos, fingerprint the body, go work in the lab, and then go interview the suspect like they do on CSI. It’s insane to believe that you could be everything and be perfect at it.
Those shows give false expectations. You know, my evidence does not come back to me in an hour. I don’t have Minority Report–style computers with floating screens. We’re a good group of people with a workplace camaraderie. And when we watch those shows, we’re like, “Oh, nope, we don’t do that, that’s fake, that doesn’t work like that,” but it makes for great TV. I don’t carry a gun. Nobody here carries a gun, because we’re not sworn, and we’re technologists. I carry a pack of gum.
How do you stay on top of a profession where the technology is constantly being upgraded?
I watch CSI—that’s how I stay on top of things. [Laughs] No, just kidding. You’re always training. If you don’t believe in continuing education, don’t even bother going into a science industry, especially if it has to do with the law. Things change so fast—I mean, how do you know if a gun is prohibited, and how do you know if the magazine is allowable? We have stay abreast of the situation. We have gun magazines and law magazines that circulate, and we take the time to read them. And when I go and do education, like at the Ontario Police College, I do learn about new techniques and new technology. They teach me as much as I teach them. You have to read, you have to take the time. When a gun comes in, you don’t just load ammo into it; you research it and learn about it.
What’s the best part of the job?
When I get a hit—because I feel like I’m helping. That’s why I got into this, because I wanted to help people. Even though I believe that people have the right to bear arms, I don’t think they have the right to hurt anybody or cause harm to someone’s property. If I can help somebody and piece together a puzzle, that makes my day. It makes my week.