Careful attention to sample collection and improved extraction methods coupled with implementation of enhanced amplification systems will greatly benefit laboratories seeking to harness the power of DNA evidence for property crime samples.
As more law enforcement agencies begin to utilize DNA technology for non-violent crimes, challenges emerge. Law enforcement officers must be trained to gather and submit the most probative evidence from a growing number of crime scenes, while crime laboratories must streamline and refine existing workflows to accommodate an increased number of challenging samples. These requirements necessitate close collaboration between the law enforcement and scientific community to successfully embark upon a new era of criminal investigation.
Law Enforcement Experiences
DNA is a powerful law enforcement tool. Less than ten years ago, in major cities such as New York, crime scene investigators recovered DNA only in high profile violent felonies primarily associated with homicide and sexual assault investigations. Other felonies, such as assaults where the victim was not likely to die, robberies, criminal possession of a firearm, grand larceny auto theft, possession of a controlled substance, and property crimes including both residential and commercial burglaries were only routinely forensically processed for the presence of latent and patent fingerprints.
In September 2003 the New York Police Department (NYPD) implemented a pilot program titled “Biotracks” that was funded by the President’s DNA Initiative Program administered through the National Institute of Justice and New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services to solve no suspect burglary cases. The NYPD recovered the DNA evidence from no suspect burglary scenes, vetted the cases, and forwarded them to selected private vendors for analysis. The vendors then forwarded their analytical reports to the Office of The Chief Medical Examiner’s Biological Laboratory (OCME) for technical review. Applicable DNA profiles were uploaded into the CODIS system by the OCME. Match results were then forwarded to the NYPD for investigation. By generating DNA profiles from evidence collected at burglary scenes and uploading them into the local, state, and national DNA databases, perpetrators of no-suspect cases were identified and links between otherwise unrelated burglaries were established.
The Biotracks program, which expanded in September 2005 to include all areas of New York City, continued with tremendous success until its conclusion in 2008. During this period, over 3,430 crime scenes were processed in which 6,391 items of DNA related evidence were recovered. Partial statistics revealed that as of April 2008, 1,558 CODIS-eligible profiles were generated, leading to 692 case-to-offender matches to 548 offenders. The vast majority of offenders pled guilty and received substantial sentences. The program revealed that many of the offenders were recidivists whose arrest records indicated the crime of burglary was a common denominator and that burglary was often a stepping stone to more serious crime. The Biotracks Program became a model for how all crime scenes are now processed. Today in NYC, all crime scenes including homicides, sexual assaults, robberies, property crimes, gun possession, and auto theft are forensically processed for both fingerprints and DNA when applicable.
In addition to the success of the Biotracks program, other studies have shown the value of expanding the use of DNA to a broader range of crimes, specifically property crimes. In fact, a previous study by the National Institute of Justice found that, when DNA was collected from property crimes, arrests and identifications doubled, as did prosecutions. Also, according to the NIJ,more suspects were identified using the FBI’s DNA database than the fingerprint database (Roman, J.K., et al. 2008. The DNA Field Experiment: Cost-Effectiveness Analysis of the Use of DNA in the Investigation of High-Volume Crimes,Urban Institute Justice Policy Center).
Transitioning to a New Era
There is little doubt that collecting and processing a broader range of evidentiary material is the right thing to do. It saves investigative time and tax payer dollars, while being more efficient than utilizing traditional investigative methods alone. However, it’s more complicated than that. A series of protocols and trainings must be implemented in order to collect, preserve, process, and store an increasing number of samples. These must be guided by the best practices of the law enforcement and scientific communities to ensure robust, quality processes are established, beginning with understanding what is most important to collect.