The Local DNA Database
Written by Chris Asplen   


A NUMBER OF police departments around the country have found a DNA databasing system that truly turns DNA and DNA databases into a rapid law enforcement investigative tool. It’s not CODIS or the National DNA Indexing system. Increasingly, more departments are utilizing private laboratories to process DNA in weeks rather than months, creating their own databases where they control what profiles are used, and having the results reported directly to them. Unlike CODIS, the police agencies control what offenders go in the database and what crimes it can be used to investigate. Local DNA databases provide an investigative tool that puts the decision-making power in the hands of local police, not the crime lab, and not constricted by guidelines established for national utilization.

— Most crime is local and property crimes are our most recidivistic crimes. Therefore, a local database with a rapid turnaround time and results that can be quickly entered into that database offered huge benefits. —

I have been involved in the effort to maximize the potential of DNA technology for more than 20 years. As a county child abuse prosecutor, director of the DNA Unit for the National District Attorney’s Association, assistant U.S. attorney and director of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence, and consultant in over 35 foreign countries, I have pursued applications of DNA technology that leverage the power of DNA as a truly investigative tool—not just a better piece of evidence. But if you were to ask me how far along we were toward reaching that goal, I would say maybe 20% to 25%.

DNA analysis and DNA databasing make up some of the best crime fighting tools available to law enforcement. Nationally, we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in DNA-technology development, laboratory infrastructure, and evidence-backlog reduction. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has methodically developed an effective national connectivity of state and local databases. And every day we can find stories in the press about cases solved or innocent individuals exonerated. But we are not even close to solving and preventing the number and kinds of crimes possible. DNA is not truly law enforcement’s tool yet.

CODIS: What has changed… and what has not

First, the existence of CODIS has helped implement the explosion of “cold case” units, institutes, programs, and protocols. The DNA database has given police a reason to go back to old cases with a renewed sense of purpose and optimism. Thousands of cold cases have been solved and, in doing so, future crimes have been prevented. But there is a difficult question to be asked: How many cases were active when evidence was sent to the laboratory, but went cold while waiting for results from the state crime lab or while waiting for technical review of private lab profiles?

And what changes have not developed in the wake of CODIS? We have not seen the development of rapid response teams that show up to the station in the morning, check the list of database generated hits, and move out to find criminals—before they burglarize one more house, steal one more car… or worse. In fact, one of the biggest problems cited with the current system is the failure of police to follow up on hits.

Making local crime pay for local DNA databasing

Any time law enforcement considers a new application of forensic DNA, one of the first questions asked by anyone responsible for its implementation has to be, “How much is this going to cost me?” And that’s for good reason: regardless of the cost/benefit value of DNA testing, the initial investment in any DNA testing project will be considerable. That was certainly the case when Fred Harran, the director of public safety in Bensalem, Pa., was presented with the idea of using DNA and a local database to solve property crime. Like most police executives, the director quickly understood the basics: most crime is local and property crimes are our most recidivistic crimes. Therefore, a local database with a rapid turnaround time and results that can be quickly entered into that database offered huge benefits. The faster he used DNA to solve his property crime cases, the faster he removed thieves and burglars from the streets of his jurisdiction. The sooner he did that, the more crime he prevented.

Bensalem Township has decided to leverage the speed and efficiency of a private-sector laboratory, Bode Technology, and has established its own DNA database through the BodeHITS program. The police department now has its property crime, drug, and other DNA results returned in 30 days. And those results are entered into a database that the police department owns, allowing them to decide which profiles are entered.

Thus, the key component to this program is a commitment to quick turnaround time. Their laboratory has results tested and in the database in 30 days. As a result, police have a piece of evidence that actually helps them solve a case rather than simply confirming an investigation they have already solved after six or eight months of traditional—and more expensive—investigation based on evidence less reliable than DNA.

This isn’t CODIS and the data isn’t uploaded to CODIS. However, the power and potential of CODIS is not ultimately diminished. Bensalem does not lose the potential to solve a case that might be in the CODIS system but not in their local system. When a case is solved through the local database, and the defendant arrested and ultimately convicted, that individual’s DNA is taken and profiled according to state laws in every state. It is then entered into the National DNA Indexing System. At that point, other, jurisdictions may benefit from Bensalem’s local database. The case was solved through the local database, but now the defendant’s profile, a result of the arrest or conviction, is in CODIS to be accessed by other states in the event he has committed crimes elsewhere.

— Most remarkable is the fact that Bensalem also came up with an approach to funding the program that does not cost taxpayers a dime and, to an extent, regenerates itself. The director went to his drug forfeiture fund. —

Most remarkable is the fact that Bensalem also came up with an approach to funding the program that does not cost taxpayers a dime and, to an extent, regenerates itself. The director went to his drug forfeiture fund. The department participates in a drug forfeiture program with the federal government. Depending on participation, that program returns 2% to 50% of all monies seized in joint narcotics operations back to Bensalem. In June 2010, the director allocated about one and a half times the cost of a single new officer from his drug forfeiture fund to pay for a year of DNA testing for the creation of a local database to solve property crimes, car thefts, and drug cases. These are not just any drug cases; they are those common and difficult cases in which a vehicle gets pulled over, five guys and bag of heroin or crack are sitting in it, and everybody is pointing fingers at everybody else.

Constructive possession cases with multiple potential “possessors” are difficult cases for prosecutors. Resolution of the case, if resolution is possible, usually requires wheeling and dealing with some of the handlers to get to the bigger culprit. Even at that point, most constructive possession cases result in a negotiated plea deal.

Imagine the look on the face of the public defender when Bensalem Police Officer Dave Clee showed up at the preliminary hearing with a DNA result matching his client on a possession case of one baggie containing 30 vials of crack. “You did DNA on this case? Are you kidding?” was the first response. The second response was, “We’ll waive the preliminary hearing.” The third reaction comes later: “This is a non-negotiated guilty plea your Honor.”

But the other implications of using DNA in this kind of scenario are equally important. Thirty vials of crack constitute intent to deliver. A conviction of intent to deliver drugs kicks in federal and state drug forfeiture laws. Drug forfeiture laws allow police to take the cars out of which drugs are sold or transported and any cash found believed to be associated with the transactions. The cars are sold at auction and the proceeds as well as the cash are deposited in the drug forfeiture fund, ultimately for distribution to the police department. In Bensalem’s case, that means funding for more DNA testing.

In Bensalem, the DNA program will come close to funding itself. The differential between the cost of the program and the funds taken in by drug forfeiture monies is more than made up for in the value of cases solved, man hours reduced, and—most importantly—crimes prevented. Since the project was started in June 2010, Bensalem’s local database has assisted in solving 105 cases. Eighteen of those cases were the result of cold or blind hits. Given recidivism rates for drug dealing and property crimes, that’s a lot of crimes prevented and a very high rate of return on the money invested in the local DNA database.

About the Author

Chris Asplen is currently the President of Asplen and Associates, LLC and Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Rapid DNA Testing. If you have an interest in local DNA databases, please contact him: 215-264-0958

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