For four months last year, Essam "Sam" Rabadi commanded an intensive federal-local "surge" in the toughest neighborhoods of Philadelphia, leading to charges against 92 defendants.
Last month, Mr. Rabadi was named the special agent in charge of the state for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. On Thursday, in his first visit to Pittsburgh since taking that post, he said he is going to bring the same aggressive leadership to ATF efforts on this end of the state, using technology, cooperation and innovation in a time of budget cuts and staff constraints.
"If someone's illegally putting guns on the streets, we will vigorously enforce," he said in an interview in the Federal Building, Downtown. Asked about a recent bust built in part on a YouTube video, he said, "We're going to hit you from every angle, especially our younger workforce."
Mr. Rabadi, 52, originally of Yonkers, N.Y., started his career as a police officer there, then joined the U.S. Secret Service and finally, in 1992, the ATF. He has primarily been stationed in Pennsylvania since 2000.
In Philadelphia last year, he was the ATF's lead man in the Violent Crime Reduction Partnership, in which the agency worked with that city's police "exclusively in the areas with the highest gun violence," he said. The agency and department created four squads -- aimed at armed robbers, home invaders, gun interdiction and special intelligence -- that netted "individuals who were involved in multiple felony offenses, multiple violent crimes," he said.
Of the 92 people charged federally, 16 could qualify if convicted for the 15-year mandatory minimum sentences meted out to armed career criminals.
Mr. Rabadi said parts of Pittsburgh could benefit from similar attention, areas where levels of violence are "just ridiculous, off the charts, compared to other parts of the city." Given the belt-tightening mandated by the federal fiscal sequester, he's not promising a surge but is pledging to use the available tools vigorously.
"If I'm able to get more shooters off the street and get them behind bars, then I'll have succeeded at what I've set out to do," he said.
Statewide, he has 175 agents, inspectors and other staff members. He's got a reputation for working with local bureaus and departments, and he's determined to more fully realize the potential of technology ranging from social media to the ATF's National Integrated Ballistic Information Network.
The network is a system that can analyze the tiny markings on shell casings and match them to casings found at other crime scenes and sometimes to the guns that fired them. Since the 1990s, the ATF has been encouraging large local law enforcement agencies to promptly put every crime scene casing into the system.
Its effectiveness is "based on the timeliness of the entries," Mr. Rabadi said. "We want investigators to know of any potential [match between casings found on crime scenes] within 24 to 36 hours.
"Hopefully, ultimately, you end up with the gun," which may then be traced to the shooter or supplier, he said. "But cases have been made without the recovery of the gun," he said, highlighting investigations that connected multiple shootings and led to convictions.
Last week, the ATF got a search warrant allowing agents to take saliva from Montay Towan King, 37, of Penn Hills. The agency is trying to match the DNA in the saliva to that found on two guns that police said were recovered in a rented Dodge Charger. King, a repeat felon and rapper who goes by the stage name Tay Loc, was driving the Charger, police said, but was not the registered user.
Felons caught in vehicles with firearms routinely argue in court that the weapon and car were owned by someone else and claim they didn't know the gun was there. However the ATF, according to an affidavit filed in the case, found one rap video on YouTube in which King appeared with the Charger and another in which he held two guns -- including at least one that matched a Glock found in the car -- over the lyric, "Got that heat, blow your mind."
King has pleaded not guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and possessing and intending to sell crack cocaine.
Mr. Rabadi said the use of YouTube is an example of the many lessons he learns from younger agents.
"We're recruiting a whole different generation of agents at ATF," said Bill Earle, who retired from the ATF in 2004 after a 33-year career that ended with seven years as the agency's chief financial officer. "They know all about social media and where you can find people, whether it's Facebook pages, or LinkedIn, or YouTube videos."
Mr. Earle is now vice president of the ATF Association, a membership group of current and former agents. He said he is worried that the new generation isn't populous enough.
"You've got a huge cohort of agents who are aging out and who will become mandatory [retirees] when they become 57," Mr. Earle said. Recent training classes have been too small to replace retirees, and that trend threatens to continue with the federal sequester.
"We're almost at the point of crisis mode with the attrition issue," Mr. Rabadi agreed. "We have to be smart about how we deploy our resources."
Legal limits on the ATF's activities, and its position as the kid brother to the FBI in the Department of Justice family, also present challenges, experts said.
"ATF has been put in a position where they can work certain types of cases, and they do a great job, but they're kind of the red-headed step child of federal law enforcement," said William Vizzard, a former ATF agent who rose to the rank of special agent in charge of systems and records nationally before he left in 1994 to teach law enforcement. He's now a professor emeritus at California State University-Sacramento and is the author of "In the Crossfire: A Political History of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms."
"Their biggest problem is that we've just never decided what we want to do with guns in the United States," Mr. Vizzard said. For example, Congress has barred ATF from creating a gun ownership database.
Without a database and with just 700 inspectors nationally to handle some 100,000 licensed gun sellers and thousands of explosives licensees, the ATF is hard-pressed to sort through paper records to establish improper sales, Mr. Earle said.
Even when they catch a gun dealer falsifying records, federal law allows only a misdemeanor charge, Mr. Vizzard said. "When you go in and audit a dealer and find that they, literally, have 1,000 missing guns, you can't charge a felony."
Long a target of the National Rifle Association's ire, ATF has been pilloried by critics for its handling of the Fast and Furious gun-tracking project. And for seven years, the agency has operated without a confirmed director. President Barack Obama's nominee, B. Todd Jones, last week got a long-awaited Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, but it's as yet unclear when he'll get an up-or-down vote.
"Not having a permanent director does impact morale with our folks," Mr. Rabadi said. "You can't just have rotating people" at the top.
"Nevertheless, we're all doing our jobs."
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter @richelord.