Anytime 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 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, Director of Public Safety for Bensalem Township in Pennsylvania, was presented with the idea of using DNA and a local database to solve property crime. Like most police executives, Director Harran 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 had huge benefits. The faster he used DNA to solve his property crime cases, the faster he removed thieves and burglars from the streets of Bensalem. The sooner he did that, the more crime he prevented.
When Director Harran and I first talked about property crime DNA testing in the fall of 2009, I proposed the idea of applying to the National Institute of Justice for a grant which would complement the important work already done by the NIJ. The NIJ funded Urban Institute report, “The DNA Field Experiment:Cost-Effectiveness Analysis of the Use of DNA in the Investigation of High-Volume Crimes,” had established the benefits of DNA testing over the use of fingerprints, but there is clearly more to be done. My thought was to apply to the NIJ for a grant which would continue that analysis.
Director Harran had a different and, quite frankly, much better idea.
Recognizing that, for all its valuable work, federal government grants take time and that there are no guarantees that, after a painstaking application process is completed, the request will be successful, that was not the path forward. To Harran, the data was too clear and the opportunities too great to risk spending time on an application that could be rejected. There was a much better way. To his property crime program, he added narcotics cases.
Bensalem 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 at DNA SI Labs and for the creation of a local database to solve property crimes, car thefts, and drug cases. Not just any drugs cases, but 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 the 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.”