Deploying a Rapid DNA Laboratory to Solve Local High-Volume Crimes
Written by Fred Harran, Amy Jeanguenat, Andrew Singer   

THE BENSALEM Township (Penn.) Police Department got the break they were hoping for when seven motor-vehicle thefts, spanning a time period from December 2012 to September 2013, were linked to each other using a near real-time DNA analysis process in a deployed on-site laboratory. The very next day, investigators obtained consent for a reference sample from a possible suspect and a Bode Technology DNA analyst processed the sample at headquarters for comparison. Only a few hours later, that suspect’s DNA profile was matched to the motor-vehicle thefts. Cases closed.


An analyst with Bode Technology works with a sample in process in teh deployed DNA analysis laboratory at the Bensalem Township (Penn.) Police Department. The lab consisted of the thermalcycler shown above (used to amplify the DNA evidence), and other instruments, on a six-foot table; another table in the deployed lab was used as a worksurface for handling and sampling the evidence. During the pilot program, Bensalem received DNA results from batches of reference samples and DNA evidence from crime scenes within 90 minutes of processing, and a local DNA database was used to search for matching profiles.


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Bensalem utilizes a local DNA database and DNA-analysis outsourcing program called BodeHITS. The local DNA database enables Bensalem to focus on property crimes in their community. Through the program that has aided more than 100 investigations in a little more than four years, Bensalem investigators have gained complete control over which crime scene samples are processed. This has enabled a shift in focus to processing the most probative samples in a property crime scene, including touch DNA, blood, and saliva, and has been incredibly successful in helping investigate crimes. In the motor-vehicle theft investigation from above, samples that hit included swabs from steering wheels, a swab off of a syringe, cigarettes, and two swabs from drink containers.

In November 2013, a deployed laboratory was implemented at headquarters as a pilot project intended to evaluate the expanded impact of near real-time DNA results on investigations. The BodeHITS-Rapid DNA analysis pilot program at Bensalem took DNA testing to the next level. During the pilot program, Bensalem received DNA results from batches of reference samples and DNA evidence from crime scenes within 90 minutes of processing. After obtaining results, DNA profiles were immediately searched against Bensalem’s local database. Each day, forensic samples collected that day were processed, beginning with sampling and culminating with analysis and database searching. In just one month, almost 600 samples were processed and 34 DNA matches were obtained.

This is one example of how the use of DNA on high-volume crimes, a local DNA database, and fast turnaround on DNA analysis has put Bensalem at the forefront of criminal investigations using DNA technology. Success of the program illustrates reasons why more law enforcement agencies are expanding the use of DNA to include touch DNA to solve property crimes.

Current Landscape

DNA is one of the most unique identifiers of individuals. Yet—due to the lengthy processing times needed to generate results and the presumed high costs—the technology has not been fully implemented as a biometric for immediate identification and early investigative lead generation.

Sample-to-answer systems, available to the forensic market since around early 2012, can differentiate known individuals in one to three hours. However, these technologies have been slow to develop, currently only allow processing of reference samples, and come with a high price tag per sample. Complete integration into the law enforcement community is also complicated by the need for changes to federal law that would allow police departments to upload samples not processed by an accredited laboratory to the national database.

The forensic DNA field is relatively slow to adopt new technology, as methods must be scientifically proven to be reliable and acceptable. By their nature, policy and legal changes do not evolve at the pace of new scientific advancements. As a result, current standards do not account for rapid DNA processing or other cutting-edge techniques that are now available to help law enforcement. In the meantime, as demonstrated by the Bensalem pilot, DNA technology is adapting to solve crimes faster, more efficiently, and more cost-effectively during the investigation stage.

The recently published National Institute of Justice Special Report, “Making Sense of DNA Backlogs, 2012–Myths vs. Reality” (December 2013), stated that laboratories processed 10% more forensic DNA cases in 2011 than in 2009. However, DNA backlogs continue to increase as the demand surges for DNA services. This accounted for a more than 16% increase in requests from 2009 to 2011. The rise in DNA requests is due to the ongoing success in the use of DNA to solve crime and the expanded use of DNA in investigating more types of crime.

One deterrent from using DNA to solve property crimes is the current capacity of the crime laboratory to successfully prioritize testing of high-volume crimes when violent crimes are backlogged or take months to complete. However, the inaction of not moving forward with this testing may prove to have a much greater financial impact. Nationwide, 17 thefts against property occur every minute and account for an economic loss of $16.21 billion dollars annually. High-volume crimes such as residential burglaries, commercial burglaries, and auto theft occur nine-times more frequently than violent crimes such as murder, aggravated assault, and sexual assault (FBI, 2011). This national statistic shows high likelihood that everyone may be affected by a property crime in their lifetime, causing not only financial loss but also feelings of insecurity.

Many DNA crime laboratories throughout the country have property crime programs, but the ability to service every police department, or accept touch DNA samples, may not always be realistic. In addition, collection training is a critical component to the success of a property crime program. Educating investigators on collecting the samples that will yield the most probative results—usually just one to two samples per crime scene—could expand an agency into using DNA to solve more property crimes. Training on identifying biological samples, collection techniques, and discussions on probative samples add to the successes seen from such an initiative.

While blood and saliva samples are more likely to yield usable DNA profiles, items from touched or handled evidence can also be very successful (Roman, 2008). The Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office-Forensic Biology Unit analyzed property crime statistics for their agency and determined DNA profiles from 23% of touch DNA samples could be uploaded to the CODIS DNA database. In addition, touched items make up the majority of the samples that are submitted to the laboratory for property crime investigations (Crouse, 2012). Bensalem has experienced similar success rates with their property crime program and local DNA database uploads.

Local and Regional Solutions

Local DNA databases are a mechanism being adopted by law enforcement that allows the use of advanced DNA technologies to solve crimes that are causing their community the biggest problems, while still utilizing CODIS for their major crimes and assaults. Local DNA database programs can aid in crime prevention, reduction, and a more timely release of falsely accused persons. They also have a significant impact on making the community feel safer. The simple act of collecting a DNA sample from a property crime goes a long way toward demonstrating support for the community.

Many criminals committing property crimes are opportunistic, habitual offenders who may escalate to more violent crimes. Literature on criminal patterns indicate 25% of career criminals commit about 60% of all property crimes and armed robberies (Peterson, 1980). In support of the criminal escalation that can occur, the State of Florida reports 52% of violent crime DNA database hits match individuals who had prior convictions for burglary (US DOJ, 2004). This recidivism could be immobilized by solving more high-volume crimes.

DNA is one of the best tools that law enforcement has for identification purposes, which makes a local DNA database solution so critical. It is a tool that is now more accessible and has a proven impact on the law enforcement community, from investigators, to the district attorney’s office. In Bensalem, the DA’s office is a strong supporter of their local DNA database program and is actively engaged in the future of solving crimes at the local level.

Matt Weintraub, assistant DA in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania said, “DNA is a powerful investigative tool that has helped in successfully prosecuting cases that we’ve historically had a tough time bringing to court. We have successfully identified serial burglars and car thieves through the ability to collect and process samples containing touch DNA from a variety of cases. We are working to turn this local solution into a regional solution and bring DNA on property crimes county-wide.”

About the Pilot

Bensalem and Bode Technologies recently completed a one-month Rapid DNA Analysis pilot project. A first-of-its-kind program, the pilot utilized Bensalem’s local DNA database and Bode’s Rapid DNA Service to process almost 600 samples in four weeks, and searched profiles in Bensalem’s BodeHITS database in real time. During the program, Bode received two batches of samples per day (18 samples per batch), processed them with controls, and searched the database. As a result, investigative information was produced for Bensalem twice a day.

To make this happen, Bensalem was supplied a scientist from Bode and an instrument and reagents from Life Technologies. The result was a deployed operation where the Bode analyst received samples directly from investigators, processed samples for DNA, and searched Bensalem’s local DNA database to generate near real-time investigative leads through DNA hits. With Bode’s internally developed rapid DNA processing method, the processing time for DNA results under this program is 90 minutes, allowing the delivery of DNA results from evidentiary and reference samples to be completed while a suspect is in custody.

Overall, 587 samples were processed for DNA in 20 days, consisting of 245 from known individuals and 342 from evidence samples collected at various property crimes. Of the 245 reference samples, the rapid DNA process had a 99% first-pass success rate, with only two samples not providing complete results. The evidentiary samples consisted of biological fluids and touch DNA samples. Overall, of the 342 samples processed, Bode was able to detect DNA on 164 samples (48%) and was able to search 53 of those against the database (32%). By the end of the 20-day pilot project, there were 34 DNA matches. These cases are currently under investigation.

This scenario was unique in the sense that it was a true deployed laboratory, but also was a benchmark for a government-owned, contractor-operated (GoCo) organization. As a model for future endeavors, this organization enabled both parties to operate where their expertise is most effective.


Table 1—Sensitivity of Bode-Rapid DNA Analysis. Full profiles are reproducible at 125pg. Starting at 63pg, drop out <50 RFU begins to occur. Red indicates drop out at <50 RFU.


Table 2—Evidentiary Profile Examples. Full profiles were obtained from touch items, wearer DNA, blood swabs, cigarette butts, and mixture samples. Red indicates drop out at <50 RFU.

Rapid DNA Service Development

Advancements in the technologies used for DNA identification continue, specifically in direct amplification and rapid thermal cycling technologies. Direct amplification improvements eliminate the need for DNA purification and quantification procedures that add hours to total analysis time, while rapid thermalcyclers improve temperature ramp rates to decrease the total amplification time needed. Depending on the thermalcycler, amplification times can be reduced from three hours to as little as 14 minutes. With little investment in commercial, off-the-shelf equipment already present in most crime laboratories, significant decreases in standard DNA processing times can be consistently achieved.

Bode has capitalized on rapid and direct amplification advancements to develop a procedure that achieves DNA results from known samples and evidentiary items in less than 90 minutes using a rapid thermalcycler and an ABI 3500xl genetic analyzer from Life Technologies. Bode’s rapid assay development focused on novel sampling techniques that preserve evidence for reprocessing. The assay also utilizes Identifiler primers paired with modified PCR polymerases and buffering components to allow unpurified samples to be directly amplified. Additionally, reagent component enhancements allow for changes to thermal cycling conditions to reduce the three-step PCR process, “denature, anneal, extend,” into two steps in conjunction with a decreased activation and final extension.

The enhancements for use on evidence samples resulted in a 28-minute amplification paired with 30-minute electrophoresis for a total run time of less than 60 minutes for 24 samples; this includes the use of controls with every run.

Hundreds of samples were tested during development and internal validation. Bode’s rapid assay displayed full, reproducible, and accurate profiles down to 125pg (Table 1). This was achieved with NIST SRMs, 9947A, Bode buccal collectors, FTA cards, S&S paper and a range of evidentiary samples. Full 16 locus Identifiler profiles have been obtained from touch items, wearer DNA, blood samples, cigarette butts, and mixture samples. DNA from chewing gum did display some drop out in samples tested (Table 2). Currently, this assay is not suitable for rapid processing of hair, skeletal remains or samples containing semen.

Bensalem’s Local Database and the Future

The BodeHITS local DNA database has enabled investigators to use DNA to help solve property crimes and other high-volume crimes generally committed by repeat criminal offenders. Bensalem initiated their DNA database program in 2010 and has collected more than 7,000 samples to date. Samples are submitted in batches to Bode’s laboratory, and DNA results along with database searching are provided in 30 days. The database, primarily consisting of DNA samples from consenting individuals and DNA taken from property crime scene evidence, has led to hundreds of DNA matches. Analysis has played a role in over 100 criminal investigations.

The local DNA database solution provides investigators with greater access to DNA technology due to the program’s cost-effective DNA analysis and fast turnaround times. All samples processed use validated procedures that meet the FBI’s Quality Assurance Standards and ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation requirements.

In the immediate future, Bensalem will continue to investigate the BodeHITS-Rapid DNA analysis cases with hits in their local database. Beyond that, Bode and Bensalem will work to evaluate the results from the pilot program to identify samples that produce DNA profiles in particular crimes. Evaluations of this data may lead to information about better practices for property-crime collection, links between crimes and criminals within the community serviced by Bensalem, and the use of a small subject database to solve local crime.

Complete integration of rapid DNA into the law enforcement community’s normal practices is anticipated to still be three to five years away. Despite that, rapid DNA technology could be utilized as a screening tool to identify critical, probative samples out of hundreds collected in a serious violent crime. Questions of paternity could be resolved in just a couple of hours, down from typical one- to five-day turnaround times.

Rapid DNA analysis will also have a powerful presence in the military, intelligence, and immigration communities for providing quick answers to some of the nation’s most crucial terrorism questions. Screening an individual at the border or in an airport line with one of the most distinguishing biometrics available—DNA—is available now. Only policy and budgetary considerations are preventing its implementation.

For Bensalem, there remains the option to expand their local DNA database regionally, and utilize the database to identify criminals who come from neighboring communities. It is an important tool for law enforcement agencies, and will only expand in the future—especially as demand increases. Meanwhile, Bensalem continues the use of the local DNA databases for property-crime processing and seeks to further understand the impact of DNA early in their investigations.

About the Authors

Fred Harran has been in law enforcement for 27 years with the Bensalem Township (Pennsylvania) Police Department. He is currently the director of public safety for Bensalem Township. As director, he is responsible for the management and operation of the police department and for the coordination of the Township’s fire and rescue departments.

Amy Jeanguenat is vice president of operations and laboratory director for Bode Technology. She has been with Bode for ten years and manages full laboratory operations including overseeing applied research efforts for the development of new services for the crime laboratory and law enforcement markets.

Andrew Singer, vice president of sales and marketing for Bode Technology, has been with the company since 2008 and has more than ten years of experience in product development and management. He manages domestic sales efforts, as well as global marketing programs. Other key responsibilities include driving all new program and product launches, and developing and managing strategic partnerships.

Acknowledgements

Life Technologies was a partner in the pilot project and supplied the 3500 Genetic Analyzer and Identifiler Reagents to Bensalem for the duration of the project. Kristen Naughton, Stephanie Sivak, Sandra Gault, and Jon Davoren of Bode were critical to efforts that made the pilot project possible.

References

Crouse, C., et al. (2012). “Evaluating the Effectiveness of DNA Analysis on Property Crimes and Identifying a New Model for Outsourcing.” Forensic Magazine. (December 2012) Accessed on April 17, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.forensicmag.com/article/evaluating-effectiveness-dna-analysis-property-crimes-and-identifying-new-model-outsourcing?page=0,0

Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Crime in the United States 2010: Burglary.” (2011) Accessed on April 17, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/property-crime/burglarymain

Polich, S., M.A. Peterson, and H.B. Braiker. Doing Crime: A Survey of California Inmates. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. (1980)

Roman, John K., et al. (2008). The DNA Field Experiment: Cost-Effectiveness Analysis of the Use of DNA in the Investigation of High Volume Crimes. (April 2008) Accessed on April 17, 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/222318.pdf

U.S. Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. National Institute of Justice. “DNA in ‘Minor’ Crimes Yields Major Benefits in Public Safety.” In Short: Toward Criminal Justice Solutions. (November 2004) Accessed on April 17, 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/207203.pdf


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