NIJ studies DNA use in minor crimes
In 2005, President Bush developed a five-year, $1 billion commitment to improve the nation's capacity to use DNA evidence by eliminating casework and convicted offender backlogs, funding research and development, improving crime lab capacity, providing training for all stakeholders in the criminal justice system, and conducting testing to identify the missing. In addition, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) tagged $13.6 million to improve criminal justice forensic services.
In this initiative, the NIJ awarded $2 million in 2005 to selected jurisdictions as part of a pilot program to help solve high-volume property crimes. The department selected five sites to participate in this 18-month pilot project evaluating the cost effectiveness of expanding DNA collection to property crimes. The five sites are: Denver, Colorado; Orange County, California; Los Angeles, California; Phoenix, Arizona; and Topeka, Kansas.
The study, which is focusing on cost-effective ways to analyze DNA evidence and the best ways to ensure involvement of the entire criminal justice process from investigation and evidence processing to court trials, strives to answer two questions:
- Is it feasible to use DNA on these types of cases?
- Is it cost effective to use DNA on lesser crimes?
"We're more than halfway through the study now, and I can honestly tell you the answer to both of these questions is 'yes,' " says Dean Gialamas, the director of Forensic Science Services for the Orange County (California) Sheriff's Department.
Also being reviewed is how each jurisdiction handles evidence collection and processing. Some departments use officers in the field to collect evidence, others rely on crime scene investigators. The NIJ report recapping the study's key findings will include the best practices of all the participants.
This is one aspect of the study that Gialamas, who served under the President's DNA Commission, is looking forward to. "We feel comfortable doing with what we're doing because that's what we're used to doing, but maybe there are gems out there from other agencies' processes," he says. "There likely are bits and pieces of other agencies' processes that we can learn from and incorporate into our own processes so that we can achieve greater success in our area."
An administrator's perspective on DNA
When it comes to initiatives such as processing DNA in high-volume serial crimes, cost is always an issue, says Sheriff Michael Carona of the Orange County (California) Sheriff's Department. Administrators must weigh the cost-benefits of each new program to determine whether it's feasible for their agency.
"Every business analyzes return on investment," he says. "Law enforcement is no exception. We have to look at the return on every initiative we put forth, whether it's in patrol operations, SWAT or forensic science."
When it came to making the choice to process DNA in lesser crimes, Carona says he was fortunate to follow some forward-thinking sheriffs who were on forensics' cutting edge. One sheriff created the county's crime lab, the other developed the DNA processing side. "I had the luxury of building upon an already established platform," he says. "But for other agencies that question may be more difficult."
Bud Stuver, laboratory manager in the Miami-Dade Crime Lab's forensic biology section, questions whether administrators have a choice. "Burglaries are such a common occurrence," he says, noting it's good PR to do what can be done to solve these crimes, giving victims closure and in many cases returning their property to them before it winds up in the local pawn shop.
"If you have an aggressive program to solve these cases and get these people off the streets and away from their opportunities, you send a message out to the community that your police department is very proactive," he says. "There's a great deal of public appreciation for this type of initiative."