Have the police hijacked our DNA?

September 18, 2003

Creating a DNA database of all UK men to assist in criminal investigations may sound extreme; however this week's editorial proposes that there has been no more rational option to date in an attempt to use DNA profiling to assist in the identification of violent offenders in the UK, 80% of whom are men.

The over-reliance by police and governments on DNA fingerprinting is discussed: '...the use of DNA evidence in criminal cases, in particular the use of so-called cold hits to identify perpetrators, is worrisome.

This technique involves attempting to match a DNA profile obtained from a crime scene against a DNA database. Police forces across the world claim that this technique has allowed them to solve many cases, some years old.

In New York City police are going one step further. To prevent sex-offenders from using the statute of limitations to escape prosecution, where no match can be made to a person, the DNA itself will be charged with the offence. But this approach ignores the fundamental reason for a statute of limitations-in very old cases it is hard for defendants to defend themselves properly.'

The matching of an individual's DNA to that of DNA recovered from a crime scene does not necessarily mean that that person is the criminal: 'First, a DNA profile can be generated from very few cells that can be left by innocent means-the amount left on a drinking glass or a door handle. Second, although the number of DNA repeats used to compare profiles means it is very unlikely that any two individuals will have the same profile, it is not impossible. Third, at least in the USA, the standard of work in many laboratories that handle DNA evidence is not consistent; despite several cases where laboratories mishandled DNA evidence only three states, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas require accreditation to specified standards.'

The editorial concludes by discussing whose DNA should most usefully be available from national DNA databases: 'The UK database comprises (in perpetuity) not only convicted criminals, but also anyone charged, and even simply arrested, for a recordable offence.

Hence the database is skewed towards those that the police believe are likely to have committed a crime. The publicity stunts by members of the government in having their DNA taken are simply a distraction from the discriminatory nature of the current database; the white middle-classes are not those whose profiles are being preferentially accumulated.

Perhaps we should make a database of all men-according to the UK Home Office statistics for 2001, in 80% of violent incidents the perpetrators were male. This suggestion might seem ludicrous, but so far no-one, even civil liberties groups who complain that the government wants to make a universal database, has devised a more rational alternative.'
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