Friday, March 30, 2012

Cincinnati Police Using Data Driven Policing To Predict Where Crime Likely

The Cincinnati, Ohio media outlet WKRC had a short story on Cincinnati Police and their use of data driven policing to predict where crime is likely to occur. 
According to the crime calendar this week, in Corryville there will be an increase in thefts from autos, because the students have back from spring break. The crime calendar has more police patrolling around campus this week, and more warnings about keeping valuables out of sight. According to the crime calendar this week, in Corryville there will be an increase in thefts from autos, because the students have back from spring break.

The crime calendar has more police patrolling around campus this week, and more warnings about keeping valuables out of sight. "With intelligence that we have, and technology we've developed over the years, we now have the ability to be one step ahead."
More and more agencies are using crime data to try and predict where crime is more likely to occur. I'm seeing lots of stories of agencies using predictive policing to improve their effectiveness. Here's another story to add to the list.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Convenience Store Robberies A Difficult Problem

There was a story in one of our local news outlets about what appears to be a series of robberies at a restaurant and a couple of convenience stores recently. This brings up the thorny problem of responding to these types of crimes.

Many times, a bandit will be successful in knocking over a convenience store and then become emboldened by his success and begin a series of these crimes until he is caught. While the dollar value lost due to these robbers is often low, they nearly always make the local news and occasionally turn deadly.

There's a POP Guide for responding to Robbery of Convenience Stores over at the Problem Oriented Policing Center that covers this crime.

Convenience store robberies account for approximately 6 percent of all robberies known to the police. Although this comprises a relatively small percentage of total robberies, the problem is persistent. Over the last 30 years, there has been little change in the proportion of convenience store robberies. Nevertheless, convenience stores in particular locations can be vulnerable to repeat victimization, especially those types of retailers that have large amounts of cash, low security, and few staff and customers likely to resist.

This POP Guide has a great section on Specific Responses To Reduce Convenience Store Robbery that covers effective strategies to reduce these types of crimes, many of which are environmental changes by the store operators that can reduce the likelihood the business will be robbed.

What is your agency doing to combat robberies of convenience stores? Have you had success in convincing store operators to change their practices to make these types of crimes less likely?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

If You're Gonna Steal, You Might As Well Try One Of The World's Richest Men

This is a weird one: Wired magazine had a story about some very audacious social engineering. It seems a thief tried to victimize former Microsoft executive Paul Allen, who is one of the world's richest men. 
In a complaint unsealed Monday, federal authorities allege Brandon Price, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, obtained the billionaire’s debit card from CitiBank via a telephone call to the bank’s customer service bureau in January. At Price’s request, the bank changed Allen’s address to Price’s Pittsburgh house, and overnighted him the card.

“An individual identifying himself as Paul Allen called the customer service department of CitiBank. The caller stated that he had misplaced his debit card at his residence, but did not want to report it stolen. The individual then successfully ordered a new debit card on the account of Paul Allen and had it sent via UPS,” FBI agent Joseph J. Ondercin said in a legal filing.
I bet the thief was a bit disappointed when his newly minted debit card was declined. I wonder if it was due a lack of funds?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

1961 Rape Victim To Testify In Serial Killer's Trial

This is a weird twist to an even weirder serial killer: Yahoo News had a piece on the accused California serial killer believed to be responsible for killings dubbed "The Alphabet Murders". Authorities found a woman he's allegedly raped 50 years ago and plan on using her testimony during the trial.
Authorities said they began investigating Naso in connection with the Northern California slayings of four women after a 2010 search of his Reno home by probation officers turned up evidence tying him to the 1977 slaying of Roxene Roggasch.

The 18-year-old's body was found in a rural area near the Marin County town of Fairfax, and police say DNA from her pantyhose was matched to Naso.

Investigators also linked Naso to the murder of 22-year-old Carmen Colon, whose body was found in 1978 near the Northern California community of Port Costa. He also is charged in the 1993 killing of Pamela Parsons, 38, and the 1994 murder of Tracy Tafoya, both in Yuba County, California. All four women were prostitutes, prosecutors said.
The story also indicates that the suspect kept a journal of his activities going back to the 1950's.

I always find these kinds of cases fascinating. It's also heartening to know how much police procedures have changed in dealing with rape victims.

Monday, March 26, 2012

How Best To Count Your Crimes

This is a bit of an odd one. There was a story this weekend out of the Galveston Daily News that had this interesting tidbit buried in it:

Some of the figures might not reflect an exact number of crimes reported, as Galveston police changed the way it reports crimes to the state and FBI. The department used an incident-based reporting system for half of 2011, police Lt. Bryon Frankland said.

When compared to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, however, the numbers would be different because the FBI excludes multiple offense data derived from the same instance of a crime. For example, if a person is killed during a burglary, the FBI lists only the homicide in its Uniform Crime Report.

I think there is a couple of things worth noting, one I'm a little puzzled why Galveston Police would change from reporting crimes using the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) to Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) mid year. I'm not puzzled about why an agency would switch from NIBRS to UCR. NIBRS is generally seen as more complicated than the much older UCR system.

Of course, the UCR system which was designed in 1929 has it's share of faults. NIBRS which was designed in the late 1980's is probably a better system but given it's additional complication, there is no compelling reason for law enforcement agencies to adopt it.

I'm interested in why an agency would make the switch from NIBRS to UCR or what reasons are there to switch from UCR to NIBRS?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Real Time Data Mining And The Future Of Policing

There was a recent discussion over at the IACA mailing list that kicked around the topic of predictive policing. One of the posts that started it included an article from The Atlantic Cities that discussed Memphis Police and their effort at real time data mining of crime data.

About seven years ago, researchers from the University of Memphis approached the city’s police department with the idea that they might be able to detect patterns in local crime – geographic hot spots on the city’s map and moments in time when they’re most likely to flare up – if they could just have access to the department’s crime data. Police departments produce reams of this stuff: arrest warrants, crime-scene reports, traffic citations, mug shots, dispatch transcripts and incident times. But that data has traditionally been painstaking to cross-reference, to mine for connections and even future trends.

The researchers ultimately turned the department onto an analytic software called SPSS, which had for years been used to crunch data in a host of disciplines not necessarily connected to crime. The department launched a pilot program with it to analyze trends, as part of a strategy of fighting crime by real-time data-mining.

I have been quite intrigued with being able to mine the crime data at my agency for meaningful information. We really do warehouse vast amounts of data. The tools to mine the data are getting more accessible all the time. Even your trusty Microsoft Excel is capable of some very sophisticated analysis.

Today I was working on a project to analyze over a half million Calls for Service records with Excel. I have also been experimenting with using the open source statistical software R, and a data mining GUI interface for it called Rattle.

I think that the future of crime analysis lies with technologies like data mining and predictive policing. Thankfully, there are lots of folks out there working on this very thing. What are you doing to become a data miner?

A tip of the hat to crime analyst Tom Scholten for posting the Atlantic Cities story.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

If Your Projections Are Based On Hypotheticals Should You Consider Them Real?

This isn't necessarily about police, but it brings up an interesting topic. There was a piece over at the Los Angeles Times that looked at a controversy that developed after the Los Angeles Fire Department admitted that they were using "projections" based on "hypothetical" staffing levels in reporting their emergency response times to their City Council. 
Using hypothetical models that assumed full staffing, the reports calculated that the Fire Department would have arrived on the scene of medical emergencies within five minutes nearly 80% of the time in 2008. The same analysis showed that after the proposed cuts the figure would decline only slightly.

In reality, officials say, the department met the five-minute goal only 64% of the time in 2008, and now meets it only 60% of the time.
It's one thing to use projections to try to determine what might occur in the future. For instance, at my department we use projections of future population growth to try plan for budget and manpower that we may need down the road. But it's a bit odd to use projections to determine past numbers, especially since all you had to do was measure and report your past performance. Apparently I'm not the only one that thinks this is weird as the story quotes one LA city official with this great quote:
"This is like 'The Twilight Zone,' " Yusef Robb said. "How do you project the past?"
The big takeaway from this is that when you fudge the numbers or use some other statistical chicanery to try to make your performance appear better than it actually is, you're going to look worse than if you just owned up to your real performance shortcomings. It would seem that in this case, their reported response time is as illusory as the imaginary firefighters they used to achieve their model's staffing levels.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mobsters On Trial For Copkilling

This story over at The New York Times reads like something out of a fictional mafia story. However, the piece on the trial of New York area mobsters accused of numerous murders including that of a New York City policeman is all too real.
Officer Dols had married a woman, Kim T. Kennaugh, who had been previously married to three men associated with the Colombo crime family. One of them, Enrico Carrini, was killed in 1987; the most recent former husband was Joel Cacace, also known as Joe Waverly, described by officials as a consigliere, or top mob adviser. Mr. Cacace is awaiting trial on murder and other charges.

Federal prosecutors have accused Mr. Cacace of ordering Mr. Saracino and others to kill Officer Dols because it was embarrassing that Ms. Kennaugh would leave a powerful mobster for someone in law enforcement. Mr. Saracino, known as Little Dino, and Mr. Gioeli, known as Tommy Shots, were among those charged with the murder of the underboss, William (Wild Bill) Cutolo Sr., who was a union official. His body was found on Long Island in 2008 after the authorities were tipped off by an informer.
 Goodfellas they ain't.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Rape Kit Testing Backlog Delays Justice

There was an AP story over at Yahoo News that looked at the backlog of testing of "rape kit" evidence collected from victims of sexual assault.
According to some estimates, between 180,000 and 400,000 rape kits remain untested nationwide, despite DNA technology that can swiftly link rapists to crimes.

Between 9,000 and 11,300 rape kits stored by Detroit police were collected two years ago by Michigan State Police.
The kits are being documented and tested in batches as part of a National Institute for Justice project. Initially, about 400 were chosen. Another batch of about 1,000 has been identified for testing so far this year.
Testing these kits is expensive, over $1,000 each. But to let these kits sit on a shelf often denies victims a shot at justice for the crime that was done to them. It's going to take grant funding for many agencies to be able to test the backlog of rape kits they have sitting in their evidence rooms.

I'm glad to see agencies obtaining grants for testing these kits. I'm hopeful that when the new UCR Rape reporting guidelines are enacted that the shocking crime numbers will bring more attention and resources to bear in combating these crimes.

Monday, March 19, 2012

If School Violence Is Decreasing Why Do We Think Otherwise?

If I were to ask if school violence was increasing or decreasing what would your answer be? The answer to that question probably would depend on the proximity to any recent high profile incident on a school campus. NPR had this interesting piece about school violence recently.
Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist and education professor at the University of Virginia, says incidents like the one in Chardon, Ohio, and the infamous mass shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and at Virginia Tech have reinforced a perception that schools can be dangerous places.
"But that's just not true," says Cornell, who has been examining school violence for decades. "I know on the heels of any school shooting, there's the perception that violence is on the rise. It's not. In fact, there's been a very steady downward trend for the past 15 years."
The piece is an interesting read and the persons quoted in the story place the blame for the public's misperception of the level of violence in schools squarely on the shoulders of the 24 hour news cycle.

So next time you get apprehensive after watching or reading a story about an "epidemic" of school violence, remember, it's probably not as bad as you think.

Friday, March 16, 2012

New York To Expand DNA Collection From Arrested Persons

DNA evidence has been revolutionary in the criminal justice system. It has led to the solving of cases that otherwise would never have been solved. It has also pointed out shortcomings in the criminal justice system when it has been used to exonerate the wrongly convicted. The New York Times had a story about an effort in the State of New York to expand the collection of DNA from nearly everyone arrested, even those arrested only for minor crimes.

“Every single time we’ve expanded the DNA database, we have shown how effective it is in convicting people who commit crimes, and we’ve also shown that it can be used to exonerate the innocent,” said Richard M. Aborn, the president of the Citizens Crime Commission.

The last system to identify criminals was fingerprint evidence. It has been standard procedure for decades to collect rolled ink prints on a ten print card (or the digital equivalent thereof) every time a person is arrested. These prints are collected even if it's from a person only arrested for a minor offense.

Up until now, most states only collect DNA samples from persons arrested for felony grade offenses or a few select other crimes. New York's effort is likely just the first of many states that are going to expand the collection and make it as ubiquitous as the collection of fingerprints.

This is a very good thing.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Yes, Virginia, Displacement Does Happen

There was a story over at NPR this week that looked at criminal street gangs moving from New York City to suburban areas outside the city. In the piece was this bit:
Back in New York City, the sheer number of law enforcement officers makes it hard for big gangs to meet openly there the way they did back in the 1980s, so many gang members who have left state prison have migrated north. Less heat, more opportunity.
I previously spoke about displacement in this post when I covered a chapter of the book Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers.  In the example NPR spoke about, these criminal gangs have undergone geographic displacement in response to sustained law enforcement activity in their traditional territory.

I have heard of people who are skeptical about how big a factor displacement is in law enforcement. More often we see short term displacement as a response to short term enforcement efforts. However, in this case the displacement is more than just a temporary problem.

The Problem Oriented Policing Center has a good publication on this subject called Analyzing Crime Displacement and Diffusion that could help you understand this phenomena.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Not Every Fallen Hero Stays Down

This is a great story. The Baltimore Sun had a piece about a Baltimore cop, Gene Cassidy who took two bullets to the head that left him unable to taste, smell and blinded. Gene overcame this adversity to become a fixture in their police academy teaching rookie police officers for over twenty years. Now Gene is facing another battle, one with hepatitis that has ruined his liver and left him in need of a liver transplant.

He is now 51 years old, retired as a sworn officer but still teaching at the academy. That's more than two decades of cadet classes, each and every member of which bears the stamp of Gene Cassidy. He taught them law; the vagaries of probable cause, the way it works on the street. And he taught them something more. For them, he's a talisman, an argument — walking, talking, living proof that what they do every day matters, that they are beholden to each other, that what they are asked to do and expected to do carries with it a fixed and constant risk.

The piece is long but very worth the read. Hit the link to read it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Minor Change Or Two Here At The Crime Analyst's Blog

I've always been told by PR people that Mondays and Tuesdays are usually slow news days. My RSS feed can attest to that. Since it seems there is a dearth of crime news to write about, I'd like to talk about a minor change to both The Crime Analyst's Blog and my Twitter feed.

I've added an "Odds And Ends" page here that pulls content from a Storify story where I have been curating tweets, posts and other tidbits on crime and law enforcement that I found interesting. I had tried using another service to automatically curate my Twitter feed and lists but didn't like the fact that it was an all or nothing deal. There was no way to selectively curate these items.

Then I found Storify. This service allows you to selectively post tweets, news stories, etc. and even comment on them. This is a lot more to my liking for social media curation. You can even embed your Storify story in a web page or blog. Which brings it back around to the new Odds And Ends page.

If you follow me on Twitter you've probably seen me post quite a number of tweets on crime and law enforcement stuff I have found interesting. This has made for quite a busy Twitter stream. By curating this content to Storify instead of tweeting it I hope to make my Twitter feed a little more useful and not quite as noisy.

If you are interested in Storify and learning more about curating social media content tech pundit Robert Scoble interviewed the founders of Storify in this video.

Monday, March 12, 2012

One Of The Best Reasons For A Cold Case Unit

There was a great piece this weekend over at the Charlotte, NC news outlet about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's sexual assault cold case squad. In the story was this great quote from a victim in one of the cases recently solved by the unit.

"The police gave me a gift I never thought I would get," the woman, now 50, told the Observer. "I was amazed that they found him. The police didn't give up. They kept at it - kept digging. It made me feel that somebody cared about what had happened to me."

In the six years that the unit has been in operation, they have reviewed over 800 cases and cleared 132 of them. That's a pretty impressive record. But it's not just clearing a large number of cold cases that make the unit worthwhile. The most important thing they are doing is giving these victims their lives back.

The entire story is worth the read. Hit the link to read it.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Just How Fast Can A Vulture Strip A Human Body?

This Associated Press story is a bit macabre but it's also pretty cool. Texas State University has a "body farm" where they study how bodies decompose. During one of the studies, the scientists assumptions were upended when vultures stripped a human body to bones in a matter of hours. 
Experienced investigators would normally have interpreted the absence of flesh and the condition of the bones as evidence that the woman had been dead for six months, possibly even a year or more. Now a study of vultures at Texas State University is calling into question many of the benchmarks detectives have long relied on. 
The time of death is critical in any murder case. It's a key piece of evidence that influences the entire investigation, often shaping who becomes a suspect and ultimately who is convicted or exonerated. 
"If you say someone did it and you say it was at least a year, could it have been two weeks instead?" said Michelle Hamilton, an assistant professor at the school's forensic anthropology research facility. "It has larger implications than what we thought initially."
I'm also not entirely surprised that vultures could strip a body so quickly. I regularly come across large dead animals such as deer when I'm out on my long distance runs. On occasion I've passed a large number of vultures working on a carcass. These birds are very aggressive in their activities and can reduce a deer carcass to bone in short order. It's not unusual for me to pass a freshly killed deer carcass one week and then when I pass by the following week to see the carcass completely stripped.

Morbid or not, I can't stress enough just how important forensic studies like this are. These types of studies improve the body of knowledge that is important for accurately interpreting crime scenes. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Texas State University Offering Crime Analysis Course

Professor Marcus Felson of Texas State University recently sent me a syllabus from a crime analysis course they are offering. What I found interesting was that this syllabus showed that a lot of the course work and materials were centered on publications from the Problem Oriented Policing Center and included one of my favorite books Crime Analysis For Problem Solvers In 60 Steps. I wrote a series of blog posts on each of the 60 Steps a while back. The course also goes through quite a number of POP Guides covering a wide variety of crimes.

You can view a copy of the syllabus here. I interviewed Professor Felson about this course. Here's what he had to say:

The Crime Analyst's Blog - Why is Texas State offering this course?

Professor Felson - We think that the occupation "crime analyst" is of central importance to for American society, and will be even more so in the future. We believe also that crime analysis as a field of description, comprehension, and policy is academically important and central to the justice system.

The Crime Analyst's Blog -This course relies heavily on materials from the Problem Oriented Policing Center. Why did you choose their materials?

Professor Felson - These materials are free to our students, easy to download, highly practical, and yet linked to tangible theories of crime. In addition, these materials reflect research findings and theories associated with Texas State University and now used around the world.

The Crime Analyst's Blog -What other types of courses are important for someone interested in becoming a crime analyst?

Professor Felson - A crime analyst should take courses covering these topics:

a. crime analysis and crime pattern analysis
b. routine activity theory
c. situational crime prevention
d. problem oriented policing
e. geographic principles and basic spatial thinking
f. computer mapping
g. Microsoft Access or data base management (basic course)
h. SPSS or a basic statistical package
i. basic statistics, especially descriptive statistics, and applied regression analysis

Study and keep up on it. Try to take some courses in a geography department, too.

The Crime Analyst's Blog -Where can people get more information about the courses offered by Texas State?

Professor Felson - Go to the criminal justice webpage, and check the degree appropriate to your needs. Both our criminal justice and geography departments are excellent.

For those of you outside Texas or unfamiliar with Texas State University, they have had a strong criminal justice program for years. In fact when I was first getting into law enforcement quite a number of my peers had been enrolled there to further their criminal justice career. 

For all those folks that ask me how to get a start in crime analysis, a course like this is a good way to get started. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Social Media's Popularity Creates Dilemma For Courts

While most judges frown upon jurors' using their smartphones while sitting in the jury box, jurors typically have full access to social media outside the courtroom. The challenge for courts, legal experts say, is enforcing social-media bans during trials—which can last for weeks—at a time when authorities can't even stop some people from risking their lives by sending text messages while driving. 
About two-thirds of adult Internet users say they use social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, according to a Pew Research Center survey last summer. Thaddeus Hoffmeister, an associate professor who researches juries at the University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio, said courts need to acknowledge that "some people just can't stop" using social media.
 There's got to be a better way that draconian jury instructions such as "stay off Facebook".

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Crime's Down In South Australia And You'll Never Guess Why

The Australian news outlet Adelaide Now has a piece that looks at falling crime numbers in south Australia. The reason for the decrease is interesting.
"Older people are less crime-prone, so in a nutshell as the population gets older, there are fewer young people in South Australia and therefore fewer being arrested, so it is a natural crime preventative," AIC research analyst Lisa Rosevear said.
One bit that really stood out in the story is while crime is expected to drop 18% by 2051 they don't expect sexual offenses to drop nearly as much even with an ageing population.
The bad news is sexual offences will drop only by 6 per cent, or 97 offences, due to the ageing population because there are few young offenders in this category and offenders often continue to repeat the offence well into their older years. 
"Sexual offences are committed by young people but it is not something people grow out of unfortunately," Ms Rosevear said.
That's not something I would have expected.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Of Broken Windows, Community Policing And Crime Reduction

Criminology is not a field that you get into if you are seeking fame and recognition. In fact, most people would be hard pressed to name a social scientist who made a contribution to the field or even to name a particularly important theory. Probably the closest to rock star status you will find in the field was James Q. Wilson who along with George Kelling authored the "Broken Windows" theory. Professor Wilson passed away at age 80 last week.

Peter Moskos, who is interesting enough in his own right, wrote a great piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education that highlighted the contribution Professor Wilson made to the field.

The goal of Broken Windows policing is to allow a neighborhood to police itself and reduce crime. The role of police is to reduce fear through foot patrol, maintaining order, and the judicious use of officers' discretion. As Wilson and Kelling ask, "How can the police strengthen the informal social-control mechanisms of natural communities in order to minimize fear in public places?" The foundation of Broken Windows is neither conservative nor liberal; it is certainly not "zero tolerance" (which remains the antithesis of Broken Windows, despite what somewhat intellectually dishonest critics often say). In truth, Broken Windows rests primarily on little more than the stout shoulders of Jane Jacobs's urban concepts of eyes on the street, diversity of public use, and identifying and encouraging what makes a neighborhood work. The goal, and this is Jacobs's word, is to keep the "barbarians" from winning.

As a criminological theory, Broken Windows came from left field. And yet when so many were saying crime couldn't go down, wouldn't go down, practitioners who liked Broken Windows got their hands dirty and, guess what, crime went down. While one must never assume that correlation equals causation, if it wasn't the latter, then a few very chosen people have an amazing ability to be in the right place at the right time. Regardless of the fundamental efficacy of Broken Windows, the concept at the least got police back in the crime-prevention game. That was a seismic shift, nothing short of a law-enforcement Scientific Revolution.

Broken Windows policing, the idea that the police and the community work together to solve the problems facing the community is or should be the foundation of every police agency's strategy. Given the number of stories about Professor Wilson's legacy in major news outlets this weekend, Wilson's legacy is hugely important.

What is your agency doing to "get your hands dirty" with "broken windows" policing?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Is Uncommitted Patrol Time The Key To Crime Reduction?

The Ventura County Star had a news story recently about a study commissioned by Ventura, California city officials that looked at how the community's police and fire services were doing. The news story had this that I thought was worth commenting on:

Pipkin's 92-page report says Ventura's crime rate is "relatively low." He determined Ventura officers' "uncommitted time" — hours not spent handling calls, making arrests or doing paperwork — to be about 40 percent. 
"A 35-40 percent overall uncommitted time level is a reasonable target/goal for a community of approximately 110,000," he wrote. 
The uncommitted time, however, fluctuates from as low as 10 percent between 8 a.m. and noon to as high as 67 percent between 4 and 8 a.m., Pipkin wrote. 
The more the uncommitted time, the more the "police force is able to provide a higher level of service to the community in the form of proactive policing," he wrote.
Each police agency and each community they serve is different. I'm not going to go out on a limb and say how much uncommitted time your officers should have. However, I do believe that it is important for an agency to maximize the amount of uncommitted patrol time your officers have.

Let's face it, the clearance rates for many crimes is pretty low. It is extremely hard to solve a crime after the fact. Preventing a crime before it happens, or interrupting it as it is beginning to occur is likely to be easier and a whole lot more cost effective. Prevention or interrupting a crime is easier if your officers are not tied up on a call.

Has your agency measured your officers uncommitted patrol time? Did you feel they need more or less uncommitted time?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

How Expansive Should DNA Crime Databases Be?

Here in central Texas we recently saw a 1978 double murder solved when DNA from the murder was matched to DNA taken from a person charged with drunk driving years later. This makes this NPR story about an effort by Washington state lawmakers to expand DNA databases all the more prescient. 
The state of Washington still waits until conviction before taking genetic samples. There, the Legislature's resistance to expanded "DNA typing" has traditionally come from self-described civil libertarians like Democratic Rep. Jeannie Darneille. In recent years, Darneille killed two bills that would have allowed sampling at arrest. 
But this year, Darneille surprised other civil libertarians when she sponsored a bill that would allow police to sample DNA as soon as they arrest someone for certain serious felonies. Darneille says she changed her mind after hearing about a serial rapist in Tacoma who might have been caught earlier if his DNA had been sampled at arrest. 
"Let's say the person goes in for that auto theft and they aren't actually convicted of that, but they've committed these prior offenses, and they're going to commit more," Darneille says. "There's a chance that we could stop them from doing those additional crimes in the future."
We take fingerprints of people arrested but not yet convicted and can use them to identify not only the arrested person but also to compare them with prints taken from crime scenes so why should DNA be any different? In the Williamson County double homicide, DNA taken from an arrested person led to solving this cold case.

Let's hope that we see more cold cases solved as DNA collection efforts expand.