In 2008 the Palm Bay Police Department, under the leadership of Chief William Berger, received the prestigious August Vollmer Award for Excellence in Forensic Science from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.The award was for leveraging the power of DNA and DNA databases in the way it was envisioned but has not yet been achieved—to solve crime quickly and efficiently enough to actually prevent future crime. By turning DNA profiles around quickly and by putting hit information into the hands of all officers immediately, the Palm Bay Police Department, with its local DNA databasing system (LODIS), has effectively implemented DNA technology and databasing as an investigative tool. It’s an impressive system that has driven crime down in Palm Bay and saved its residents $6 million in property loss; a 50% reduction in one year.What’s unfortunate is that this program is considered innovative.
So what’s so different about the Palm Bay program? Most important, this database is local. Chief Berger is acting on a basic tenant of crime, particularly property crime—most criminals don’t make the effort to travel far. One hundred profiles in his local database are more likely to solve a case than five thousand profiles in California, Pennsylvania, or any other state.
They also take DNA voluntarily from suspects, a lot of suspects. And as more departments understand the potential here and begin to actually investigate cases with DNA—not through a CODIS based NDIS system, but through a local system with quick turnaround times—there will be challenges and fear mongering about “rogue” databases. Let it come. Most of the objections will be rather hypocritical. Last month, as I read a CNN article on ACLU lawsuits about wrongful arrests in Denver and elsewhere, I could not escape the irony. This is the same group filing class action lawsuits in several states challenging arrestee databasing. By its very nature, a DNA database exonerates more people than it will ever implicate. This isn’t complex calculus. It’s really pretty simple, more effective and efficient investigations lead to fewer wrongful arrests. And the faster the testing, the faster the exoneration.
Thus, the key component to this program is a commitment to quick turnaround time. Their laboratory has results tested and in the database in thirty days. And 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 thanDNA.This isn’t CODIS and the data isn’t uploaded to CODIS. And the project manager, John Blackledge, Major of the Investigations Unit, doesn’t really care. It is more important to be local and fast.
For all its successes, its hits, investigations aided, cases solved, even unexpected exonerations, CODIS has yet to reach its potential as a time and resource saving investigative tool. Any process that involves investigators waiting for six months to a year for forensic test results is not an investigative tool. It hasn’t saved police any time. It hasn’t saved themanymoney. And common, everyday property crimes, the bulk of most police departments’work,will be closed out “unsolved” to make room for next month’s onslaught.
From a law enforcement perspective, let’s look at what CODIS has generated and what it hasn’t. Importantly, the explosion of “cold case” units, institutes, programs, and protocols are primarily the result of CODIS. 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 prevented. But here’s a tough question: How many cases were active when evidence was sent to the laboratory but went cold waiting for results from the state crime lab or waiting for technical review of private lab profiles?