Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Real crime fighting is NOT like CSI

As I was waiting to have my oil changed this afternoon, I did something unusual: I read USA Today. The front page article, "Many DNA matches aren't acted on", caught my eye.
The FBI calls the DNA database CODIS, for Combined DNA Index System. It has cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars to build and has proved adept at making matches in "cold cases" in which police had no leads and little hope of finding a suspect. Its dozens of successes include clearing innocent suspects, bringing rapists to justice 30 years after their offenses, and linking burglars to murders, rapes and other violent crimes in which they never were suspects.
The FBI has counted more than 39,000 matches of DNA evidence since 1990. But, of course, there is a catch. The FBI does not keep track of how often the DNA evidence leads to an arrest, or whether the evidence is even acted on at all. According to USA Today's investigation there is often no followup after a DNA match . The reasons vary from the overload of "cold case" files to unusable hits (with the victim's DNA, for example) to simple incompetence. In some cases, the matches weren't acted on until after another crime had been committed.
In Oakland, in June 2004, the DNA of convicted child molester Kalonji Lee matched DNA from an attempted sexual assault of a 10-year-old Oakland girl the previous January. Police did not contact Lee until after he had molested another Oakland 10-year-old in December 2004, deputy chief Howard Jordan confirms. Lee was caught for the second assault after the victim's parents spotted his picture on California's "Megan's Law" website and alerted detectives.
Part of the problem seems to be that there is no coordination between the FBI, prosecutors and cops. CODIS churns out the data, whether it will be useful or not.
In Oakland, in at least 20% of the rape cases in which CODIS has identified a potential suspect, the victim had previously told police that she would not press charges, says Rockne Harmon, an assistant prosecutor who specializes in DNA cases.

The evidence was analyzed anyway, Harmon says, because crime labs received state and federal funding that paid for the analysis. Police and prosecutors were not consulted, Harmon says.

"All the money (to build CODIS) has gone to the lab side," Harmon says. "Nobody ever asked the cops what they wanted or how (CODIS matches) would affect what they do."

In both the UK and Canada police are required to report what happens after they are given the DNA match data. Since both money and manpower are limited, I think it makes sense for the US to implement some sort of accountability system as well.

On a lighter (but related) note, Cocktail Party Physics has an interesting post on the history and future of fingerprinting.

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