Monday, December 07, 2009

DNA could solve burglaries if crime labs were bigger, better, more trustworthy

DNA evidence is still mostly used in violent crimes, and even for that purpose crime labs have large backlogs. San Antonio, for example, has more than 5,000 untested rape kits in storage regarding unsolved sexual assaults. But DNA potentially could be used in many other types of offenses. Indeed, with the development of tests to match so-called "touch DNA" means you don't even need blood, hair or other more traditional types of biological evidence.

In today's Houston Chronicle, James Pinkerton has a story ("DNA not just for homicides anymore," Dec. 7) explaining that resource shortages prevent Houston PD from using DNA to solve burglaries and other nonviolent offenses, despite success with the tactic in other jurisdictions. The article opens:

A cigarette butt caught the attention of Denver detectives investigating the burglary at the home of non-smokers, and the police crime lab quickly matched DNA from saliva to a prolific husband-and-wife crime team.

The couple is among more than 150 burglars nabbed in Denver by a DNA project launched with a $500,000 Justice Department grant that trained police in DNA collection techniques, hired a prosecutor and an analyst.

Houston is experiencing a 4.4 percent increase in burglaries this year — with 21,212 break-ins through September.Yet a similar initiative to use DNA testing to catch burglars and other non-violent criminals languishes on a list of police department projects for which Chief Harold Hurtt said he cannot get funding. The city's understaffed and underfunded crime lab is perhaps still years away from adopting techniques being successfully used in Denver, officials said.

“I'm so frustrated with this whole process,” Hurtt said Friday. “We find a problem, we find a solution, and ... everybody says, ‘This is important. We have to do it.' However, it doesn't seem to be a priority. And we're not going to be able to do this for free.”

It would cost $8 million to upgrade the current HPD crime lab to process DNA evidence from non-violent offenses in addition to violent crimes, Hurtt estimated.

“To tell you quite honestly, it's a resource issue,” said Irma Rios, director of the HPD Crime Lab. Processing DNA collected during burglary investigations is a “lower priority. It's going to be months before we get to those — we're going to work the homicides and other violent crimes first.”

A recent op ed in the Houston Chronicle suggested, "To really fight crime, raise [the] number of investigators" instead of hiring more patrol officers, but this story emphasizes that more resources need to be focused on investigation generally. Burglaries in particular are probably where the biggest unmet DNA testing need lies. Burglaries tend to have clearance rates in the single digits, and a single professional burglar frequently may be responsible for dozens or even hundreds of offenses.

District Attorney Pat Lykos insists that money should be no object:

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos said federal funding — even economic stimulus funding — should be used to help Houston clear the backlog of DNA cases and begin testing evidence in property crimes as quickly as the next six months. She advocates setting up temporary quarters in the Medical Center until a regional crime lab can be built.

“It is an issue of money,“ Lykos said. “You have competing interests between getting more police officers on the street, or you're going to fund additional resources in the crime lab. That's a choice that shouldn't have to be made.”

But if we're to be honest, she's dead wrong that officials "shouldn't have to" make such choices. In fact, that's why we elect public officials - to make hard decisions about maximizing benefit to society using scarce resources without taxing us all into oblivion. Despite the federal example, government can't spend endlessly on everything - choices must be made, even in the criminal justice field.

It's highly likely that expanding crime lab capacity to focus on burglaries would do more in the short-term to boost public safety than hiring more officers or spending a quarter-billion dollars (plus staffing costs) on a new jail. In Denver, reports Pinkerton:

“Some of these burglars we caught in this project are good for 200 to 250 burglaries a year,” said Morrissey, adding that the city council picked up funding for the DNA burglary unit after the federal grant expired.

“We did a monetary study and in the first two years we saved over $25.6 million in lost property,” he said. “We figured we freed up 150 hours of time of each officer on the Denver police department to work on other crimes because we were eight times more likely to bring charges where we had DNA evidence than we were if we didn't.”

Unfortunately, Houston's crime lab notoriously has witnessed many problems of its own, starting with the DNA lab but also including fingerprints, ballistics and a general problem with biased lab workers who lie about results and suffer from a "team spirit" mentality. So there's a risk taken if the lab merely expands capacity without more focused efforts to professionalize and weed out bad apples. Still, improving the crime lab and expanding forensic capacity is probably a much wiser investment on behalf of taxpayers than most other big-ticket criminal justice items on Houston law enforcement's wish list.


gravyrug said...

From what I've seen recently, it sound to me like Houston should completely overhaul its crime labs, not just expand them. I'm pretty sure the same applies many other places in the state as well.

Texas Maverick said...

"nabbed in Denver by a DNA project launched with a $500,000 Justice Department grant" As a taxpayer I am always disappointed when civil servants whine instead of using their heads. Hire someone to go after grants and get some of our tax money back into Texas and at the same time bring your departments into the 21st century. Fight smart. You might just be able to implement some of the things highlighted by this blog instead of always trying to CYA.

Anonymous said...

Texas Maverick,

HPD has been doing that for years. Heck, they probably could give a seminar on applying for grants. Had a capt who is now an assistant chief that's an expert at it. :~)

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

My neighborhood in Denver saw a 50% drop in burglary rates after the serial burglars in the neighborhood were caught using DNA evidence.

DNA evidence based burglary convictions also usually end up involving much longer sentences, because multiple burglaries are linked to a single offender, while previously, most burglary convictions involved individuals caught in the act in a single burglary. Those multiple burglary cases also have much less risk of wrongful conviction since physical DNA evidence at multiple different burglary crime scenes is very unlikely to be a coincidence. Frequently, suspect identification is followed by execution of a search warrant that shows possession of stolen property, providing additional certainty.