I attended the Biometrics Consortium Conference in Tampa, Florida, in September. I went because there was a special session in which the developers of prototype rapid DNA analysis (RDNA) devices were going to report on their progress. I figured that, even though the realization of a machine and process that could return DNA profiles within ninety minutes to an hour was many years out, it would be good to get a sense of where we are going. Well, put your seatbelts on. We are moving a lot faster than I thought. While the estimates for exactly when police will be taking DNA from suspects at the police station range from sooner (the developers of the devices looking to head to market) to later (the representatives from the FBI charged with ensuring the reliability and CODIS compliance) we are much closer than I would have imagined.
I don’t think it is a stretch to say that R-DNA testing, when fully implemented and integrated into CODIS, will be the most transformational event in the use of forensic DNA since the advent of PCR. As law enforcement begins to be part of the DNA process, and that process gets closer to the actual time of the criminal event, police will finally begin to change the way they investigate. DNA as an intelligence tool will finally start to become a reality. DNA will become an immediate and driving part of the investigation, not a component of the investigation that they have to wait for while they look elsewhere for leads.
As these devices and systems develop, they will provide a number of broader benefits to the system. Aside from the obvious benefit of finally moving the time of DNA testing closer to the actual commission of the crime, rapid DNA analysis will free laboratory time and resources to perform tests on the kinds of cases for which rapid DNA will not be appropriate. Labs will be able to focus on those complex, sensitive cases that are probably why analysts went into forensic science in the first place. Not running 16 or 64 offender samples at a time, but rather culling through evidence looking for that hidden speck of blood or semen—those cases where the human being truly makes the difference.
But I think that R-DNA testing placed in the hands of police will also have the positive effect of “flattening” out the universe of who pays for DNA testing in the first place. Enabling police to be an active part of the process means placing the responsibility of paying for it in their hands too. Chiefs will have to find creative sources of funding, fill out the grants applications, or make the sacrifices—maybe one fewer police car—in order to reap the benefits. But they will do so because DNA analysis will genuinely be an investigative benefit.
No doubt there will be concerns about who gets the money. I am sure that laboratory directors will have concerns about losing state and federal DNA funding to local departments. But local departments will have a broader range of options from which to choose. Local governmental budgets, drug forfeiture funds, and again resource reallocation—choosing DNA over something else—will be available to fund DNA, not just the Debbie Smith Act.
The other potential uses for R-DNA are exciting in both number and application. Aside from the “booking station” model and the fact that police will finally have results quickly enough to qualify as “investigative,” many other government agencies are eager for concept to become reality and “prototype” to become “commercially available.” Border Patrol sees an opportunity to get reliable identifications quickly with a bodily substance that can’t be distorted like the subsequent burning off of fingerprints when an illegal is detained for the third, fourth, or fifth time. And a broader, futuristic vision sees a Mexico with a functioning database against which we will someday be able to compare those profiles and determine if the individual detained is simply looking for a better life or has convictions in that country (or elsewhere) for serious and violent crimes.