By JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN
Slowly, and largely under the radar, a growing number of local law enforcement agencies across the country have moved into what had previously been the domain of the F.B.I. and state crime labs — amassing their own DNA databases of potential suspects, some collected with the donors’ knowledge, and some without it.
And that trend — coming at a time of heightened privacy concerns after recent revelations of secret federal surveillance of telephone calls and Internet traffic — is expected only to accelerate after the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding a Maryland statute allowing the authorities to collect DNA samples from those arrested for serious crimes.
These local databases operate under their own rules, providing the police much more leeway than state and federal regulations. And the police sometimes collect samples from far more than those convicted of or arrested for serious offenses — in some cases, innocent victims of crimes who do not necessarily realize their DNA will be saved for future searches.
New York City has amassed a database with the profiles of 11,000 crime suspects. In Orange County, Calif., the district attorney’s office has 90,000 profiles, many obtained from low-level defendants who give DNA as part of a plea bargain or in return for having the charges against them dropped. In Central Florida, several law enforcement agencies have pooled their DNA databases. A Baltimore database contains DNA from more than 3,000 homicide victims.
These law enforcement agencies are no longer content to rely solely on the highly regulated network of state and federal DNA databases, which have been more than two decades in the making and represent one of the most significant developments in the history of law enforcement in this country.
The reasons vary. Some police chiefs are frustrated with the time it can take for state crime labs to test evidence and enter DNA profiles into the existing databases. Others want to compile DNA profiles from suspects or low-level offenders long before their DNA might be captured by the state or national databases, which typically require conviction or arrest.
“Unfortunately, what goes into the national database are mostly reference swabs of people who are going to prison,” said Jay Whitt of the company DNA:SI Labs, which sells DNA testing and database services to police departments. “They’re not the ones we’re dealing with day in day out, the ones still on the street just slipping under the radar.”
The rise in these local databases has aroused concerns among some critics, worried about both the lax rules governing them and the privacy issues they raise.
“We have been warning law enforcement that when public attention began to focus on these rogue, unregulated databases, people would be disturbed,” said Barry Scheck, a co-director of the Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners. “Law enforcement has just gone ahead and started collecting DNA samples from suspects in an unregulated fashion.”
For their part, law enforcement officials say that the crime-solving benefits of local databases are dramatic.
“Our take is that it’s good for law enforcement and good for the community,” said Doug Muldoon, police chief of Palm Bay, a city of about 100,000 in Central Florida, about its database, which has produced 1,000 matches. He said his officers could now use DNA to address the crime conditions “in our community — property crimes and burglaries.” State crime labs can take months to analyze evidence from low-level felonies like that, he said.
As local authorities devise their own policies, they are increasingly taking DNA from people on the mere suspicion of a crime, long before any arrest, and holding on to it regardless of the outcome. Often detectives get DNA samples simply by asking suspects for them.
Other times, investigators take DNA surreptitiously, from discarded trash. Or the DNA might originate from a warrant issued in a specific case, authorizing the authorities to compare it against crime scene evidence — with the resulting profile then stored in a database for future use.
In some jurisdictions, it is not only suspects whose DNA goes into the database, but occasionally victims, too.