Should police departments be able to have their own DNA databases?

DNA is supposed to be the answer for solving cold cases. For example, Wisconsin police have turned to DNA to help solve a 42-year-old cold case of “Baby Sarah.” Recently in Niagara Falls, cops found the man responsible for a smash and grab robbery committed 11 years ago, in 2006, via DNA which the man had been ordered to submit for unrelated offences. But it takes some state labs a year-and-a-half to process DNA, so some police departments are bypassing the state labs and creating their own DNA databases to track criminals.

The Associated Press reported:

Dozens of police departments around the U.S. are amassing their own DNA databases to track criminals, a move critics say is a way around regulations governing state and national databases that restrict who can provide genetic samples and how long that information is held.

The actual number of police departments maintaining DNA databases is not known, as there is no state or federal oversight, but AP cited Frederick Harran, an early adopter of a local Pennsylvania DNA database, as saying there are at least 60.

To get around the 18-month wait for Pennsylvania state lab to process DNA, Harran said the DNA samples are turned into a private lab which can get the results out within a month. The private lab work is paid for via “money from assets seized from criminals.” To Harran’s way of thinking and justifying the local DNA database, “If they are burglarizing and we don’t get them identified in 18 to 24 months, they have two years to keep committing crimes.”

Catching crooks is not a bad thing, but not all DNA collected comes from people suspected of crimes. AP explained, “Some police departments collect samples from people who are never arrested or convicted of crimes, though in all such cases the person is supposed to voluntarily comply and not be coerced or threatened.”

The coercion factor may come into play such as when DNA is collected from kids. San Diego cops can collect DNA from kids if a kid will sign a consent form. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against San Diego after police collected DNA samples from minors without first obtaining parental consent or a warrant.

ACLU attorney Bardis Vakili told AP that when cops take DNA samples from kids without a court order, “it’s hard to imagine it’s anything other than coerced or involuntary. I think they are trying to avoid transparency and engage in forms of surveillance. We don’t know what’s done other than it goes into their lab and is kept in a database.”

A San Diego officer admitted that cops stopped five boys walking through a park not because they were suspected of having been involved in a crime, but because “they were black juveniles” wearing blue on a gang “holiday.” The cops told four of the boys that they could go after submitting to mouth swab and signing a consent form. The fifth boy signed and was swabbed as well before being taken into custody on charges which were dropped due to the illegal stop. Yet the cops kept the DNA.

The EFF said that targeting black children for DNA collection is a gross abuse of power and “a gross abuse of technology by law enforcement.” Some argue that local DNA databases are as well.

University of Arizona law professor Jason Kreig told AP, “The local databases have very, very little regulations and very few limits, and the law just hasn’t caught up to them. Everything with the local DNA databases is skirting the spirit of the regulations.”

It’s one thing for DNA to possibly be used to store “all of the world’s data in one room” and quite another for cops to avoid regulations by maintaining local DNA databases. Sometimes, investigators turn to familial searching – “searching offender databases with wider parameters to identify people who are likely to be close relatives of the person who may have committed a crime.” It’s even worse when you consider that some of the DNA is collected in questionable circumstances and stored for who knows how long…maybe permanently? 

On the other hand, some people pay to turn in their DNA to sites willing to help trace their ancestors. The cops can just turn to those sites to request the DNA information. As Wired warned, “Your relatives DNA could turn you into a suspect.”

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