By: Lance Gima, Krisha Lovito and Norm Leong
Is your agency dealing with burglaries or other property crimes that have neighborhoods concerned and your investigators scrambling to solve the cases with very few leads? Does your agency still use only fingerprints as your major forensic evidence to help solve property crimes? Do you only use DNA analysis as a tool for violent crimes? If so, your agency should look at advances in DNA technology and the development of local DNA databases. These developments have made it possible for law enforcement agencies to process DNA evidence in hours rather than months.
We have all watched the CSI shows on television and, while most of it is mythical, what is accurate is that DNA evidence can play a critical role in solving crimes. Many departments are collecting and submitting DNA samples for violent crimes, as well as property crimes. This increase in submissions of DNA evidence has created a backlog for crime laboratories. Crime laboratories are inundated with DNA from violent crimes. Therefore, property crime cases are generally handled at a lower priority. Recently, the California Legislature passed a law requiring DNA laboratories to analyze rape case evidence within 120 days which further delays property crime DNA evidence from being processed.
With the recent innovations and uses of DNA in forensics, law enforcement agencies are attempting to establish their own local DNA databases using rapid DNA analysis systems. In an article written in Evidence Technology Magazine by Chris Asplen, Fred Haran, the Director of Public Safety in Bensalem, PA stated, “that most crime is local and property crimes are the most recidivistic crimes. Therefore, a local database with a rapid turnaround time and results that can be quickly crime cases, the faster we can remove thieves and burglars from the streets. The sooner we do that, the more crime we can prevent.”
Rapid DNA analysis systems allow local or regional DNA programs to potentially solve more property crimes in a faster manner because they are not beholden to the backlog and lower priority levels of a traditional crime lab. Using the newly developed rapid DNA profiling instruments, departments can analyze their own samples without an environmentally controlled room, as required for crime laboratories, and without a forensically trained DNA analyst. To store and search their DNA profiles they will need a CODIS-like software program. Finally, to establish a local DNA database, policies must be developed to define what legally obtained samples can be collected for their offender file. There are many vendors currently marketing the instrument and software needed to establish a fully operational local DNA program.
CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System managed by the FBI, has stringent regulations and specific criteria for uploading profiles. A challenge that local law enforcement agencies face using CODIS is that it contains few profiles from similar, local crimes since DNA analysis has mostly been restricted to violent crimes. Local databases do not face the same regulations as CODIS. Therefore, DNA profiles can be uploaded and searched faster, resulting in quicker investigative leads. Keep in mind, because of these lesser restrictions, support would be needed from the State and/or local District Attorney’s Office in establishing these local offenders databases. In addition, the DNA hit based on a local database would likely be used as an investigative lead only and DNA evidence for admissibility in court would have to be analyzed through the traditional method at a Forensic Science Laboratory and ran through CODIS.
According to an article in Space Coast Daily, Florida’s Palm Bay Police Department, among the first police departments to embrace this new technology, implemented a program to collect and analyze samples of burglars. The department used samples from those arrested who consented to DNA testing to establish their local offender file. DNA profiles of evidence associated with burglary cases, analyzed in-house, could then be searched against this file.
The advances in technology of DNA analysis present a new future in making our communities safer by allowing another means to identify suspects. A local DNA database, like the one established by Palm Bay PD, includes DNA profiles from offenders that may not be included in a state database, therefore increasing the chance of solving local crimes. As departments and communities struggle to lower Part 1 property crimes, we need to look into new tools to solve the cases quickly.
Lance Gima who is the retired Chief of the CA Department of Justice Bureau of Forensic Services. Currently he is the Forensic Science Director of the Alliance Project for the Conference of Western Attorneys General where he manages a Mexico/US effort to identify human remains using DNA.
Krisha Lovito is a Supervising Forensic Investigator for the Sacramento Police Department and has a Master’s degree in Forensic Science from the University of New Haven.
Norm Leong is a Lieutenant with the Sacramento Police Department.