Opinion: Processing Burglary Scenes for DNA
Written by Ralph Barfield   

Processing Burglary Scenes for DNA:
Too Expensive for Many Agencies?

Many law-enforcement agency chief executives and managers believe they are caught between a rock and a hard place. Most feel pressured to make tough choices on where to expend their limited resources. Too often, in an effort to save money, agencies are not processing burglaries due to the sheer volume of incidents and the drain on manpower.

Crime-scene processing is a normal function of a law-enforcement agency’s responsibility. A 2008 National Institute of Justice (NIJ)

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study report, “The DNA Field Experiment,” pointed out clearly the effective results of recovering and processing DNA from burglary scenes. Every law-enforcement chief executive and manager should read the study and analyze the results. The study should be an encouragement to all agencies to aggressively process burglary scenes—especially for DNA.

Some chief executives are quick to point out they simply cannot afford to use this new technology. This is an indefensible position for any agency to take and offer the community. This argument is heard from agencies of all sizes and permeates all areas of law enforcement. What is actually occurring is a lack of interest and desire to enable an agency to effectively search crime scenes for DNA evidence. If the agency is set up to process routine burglaries, then the next logical step is processing for DNA. This requires a minimal amount of additional supplies. It will also require some additional specialized training in DNA recovery, obtaining control samples, storage, and laboratory submissions. This training is neither lengthy nor expensive! There is a higher cost to be paid by small and medium size agencies that make little or no effort to aggressively process crime scenes for DNA, especially burglaries.

As forensic hype in popular media begins to wane, many agencies have been quietly abandoning the processing burglaries and some never began processing burglaries to begin with. Between 1999 and 2003, a mid-sized Virginia agency proved beyond all doubt it was possible to effectively and aggressively process crime scenes for DNA. At the time, they were operating on limited resources. What they did have were crime-scene investigators, officers, supervisors, and managers that bought into the new DNA-processing program.

Some agencies honestly believe they need expensive forensic equipment and highly trained forensic specialists—“as seen on TV”—to recover DNA. In some cases that may be true. However, the majority of the time that is simply not the case. The routine day-to-day cases that small and mid-sized agencies generally face are larceny, burglary, and auto theft.

The key elements are training, knowledge, and aggressiveness in the approach to recovering DNA from crime scenes. Some managers have been heard to say, “We’ll just call the state if we have one of those cases.” The problem with this line of reasoning is that state and federal agencies are stretched to the financial breaking point. Smaller agencies can and should take more responsibility for processing their own routine, day-to-day scenes for DNA.

Four basics are needed in most cases: 1) training; 2) collection and packaging materials; 3) desire; 4) common sense. Assessing what suspects may have done at the scene can be very effective. Determinations such as How did he get in? or What did he touch, eat, drink or leave behind? can yield valuable DNA evidence. Teaching crime-scene investigators to work quickly and effectively can pay huge dividends in costs. However, as the 2008 NIJ DNA Field Experiment revealed, regular police officers can just as effectively collect DNA evidence as crime-scene investigators. The key is a basic four- to eight-hour basic training class on identification, documentation, and collection of suspected DNA evidence. All agency personnel, including supervisors and managers, should receive the training. The steps are not complicated and the results can be tremendous.

Normally, agencies get one opportunity to process a scene or collect a vital piece of evidence. Equipping all vehicles with latex gloves, paper envelopes, paper bags, sterile cotton swabs, collection boxes for the cotton swabs, and perhaps small amounts of distilled water is all that is needed.

A mid-sized Virginia agency had patrol officers, detectives, sergeants, and lieutenants who collected items on their own initiative. This later proved critical because they knew what to do in those situations where the items with potential DNA could have been lost or destroyed.

Here’s an example: A female police patrol sergeant who had received training on potential DNA identification and collection responded to the foot pursuit of two armed robbery suspects in a heavily traveled downtown area. While traveling the escape route, she spotted a ski mask matching the description worn by one of the suspects. She immediately stopped, obtained a clean paper bag, and collected the ski mask. Later, DNA analysis of the mask identified two of the suspects involved in a string of armed robberies in the downtown area. Both suspects were later convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Supervisors and managers should not be expected to routinely process crime scenes. However, as anyone with extensive street experience knows, those situations can and will occur in which it is critical that they act to prevent the loss of valuable evidence.

The DNA databases available to agencies nationwide offer an opportunity to identify suspects previously unknown to law enforcement. A mid-sized agency was amazed at the number of suspects identified as the state’s DNA database of known offenders continued to grow. The results of identifications in burglaries, sexual assaults, homicides, and auto thefts convinced even the most critical skeptics in the agency. Granted, initially Virginia had the first and one of the largest DNA databases in the country, but numerous states have steadily grown their databases and many have passed Virginia’s volume. The increase of blind DNA database hits has resulted from the education of law-enforcement management and personnel, improved training on DNA collection, states adding additional known and suspected felons, and laboratory improvements in DNA processing.

These tough financial times will improve in the future. Those agencies that have processed scenes for DNA will reap the benefits when state laboratories begin lifting current submission restrictions due to manpower cutbacks.

The cost of failing to aggressively process burglary scenes for potential DNA is far greater than the cost of training and supplies. The citizens in many communities often display amazement and frustration with small agencies’ obvious lack of interest in processing crime scenes. Criminals in too many jurisdictions are getting a free pass from law enforcement agencies. The agency must put forth at least a limited effort if nothing else. The agency’s personnel are admitting defeat in combating the continual problem of burglary. This is a major hurdle many small agencies face. The issue is psychological, and until addressed, this will not improve. Officers and management share the responsibility of changing an agency’s attitude toward processing burglaries.

The cost of not processing burglaries shows up in a continual higher rate of reported incidents. Often the arrest of one or more burglars will have an immediate impact. Many burglars ply their trade in strings of thefts and will often be responsible for numerous incidents. Through the use of state DNA databases, previously unknown burglars from other states or jurisdiction have been identified. As more states enter juveniles into DNA databases, agencies are surprised by the number involved in burglary, larceny, and auto theft. By processing burglaries for DNA, agencies will often inadvertently identify suspects involved in numerous and more violent crimes such as rape, robbery, or murder.

Laboratories play a major role in cooperation with local law-enforcement agencies in analysis of submitted potential DNA items of evidence. The list of items from which laboratories can now recover DNA is almost limitless. Many laboratories have begun requiring agencies already effective in DNA collection to initially sift through items and submit those items of the highest probative value. This requires officers to become well-versed and knowledgeable on the laboratory’s DNA capabilities. Someone within the agency must be ready and willing to communicate openly with laboratory examiners. That person then becomes essential to educating and training agency personnel on updates, new techniques, requirements, policies, and procedural changes.

Burglary is sometimes referred to as the training ground for criminals and crime-scene investigators. Just as it often provides a gateway to other more serious crimes for the criminals, burglary aslo provides for the police officer and investigator the a high level of scene and evidence diversity in its sheer volume.

Law-enforcement agencies often fail to realize that criminal elements are watching and are aware of how much or how little processing is conducted. Agencies that neglect to utilize DNA and fingerprint processing of burglaries, larcenies, and auto theft are actually helping the criminals. This can become a serious problem in resort and college communities. Simply relying on old investigative techniques is occurring in amazing volumes much too often in a period of improved forensic technology.

Those small and medium size agencies that currently process scenes for DNA must be commended. Communities have a right to expect their law-enforcement agency to take the necessary steps enabling them to properly document, collect, and submit physical evidence that could identify criminals and protect their citizens.

The actual cost of processing DNA must be considered—no one disputes that. However, the cost of training, equipment, and supplies is not excessive. It can be done without enlarging facilities, hiring additional personnel, or purchasing expensive equipment. Agency size is not a deterrent to effectiveness. Current officers or civilians can be trained in the proper methods of DNA processing. The majority of law-enforcement agencies in the United States are small; yet they, mid-sized, and large agencies are reluctant to embrace this effective technology.

There are some bright spots among law-enforcement agencies. However, much remains to be done. Contrary to what many in law-enforcement management contend, the cost of not processing burglaries for DNA is far greater than the cost of conducting the processing.

About the Author

Detective Sergeant Ralph Barfield served with the Charlottesville (Virginia) Police Department for 27 years, the last ten as Forensic Unit Supervisor. The unit was recognized in 2003 by the National Institute of Justice for their success with DNA crime scene processing, DNA identification & elimination and use of DNA Data Banks. The unit’s success with DNA was featured twice on CBS and on NPR. He has instructed police officers across the country and taught at local colleges. He is also an author, writing the article “Small Police Department Forensics and DNA”. He can be reached at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

 
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