ST. LOUIS, MO – St. Louis police officers routinely swab the mouths of suspects for DNA samples, but what happens when the swab stick is turned on them?
Chief Dan Isom said the department has stepped up efforts in recent months to collect genetic information from officers to eliminate unknown genetic profiles collected from crime scenes and bolster the chances of successful prosecutions.
Advances in DNA technology mean that authorities in cases other than homicides and violent crimes are using genetic information as the linchpin for arrests. Crime labs also are making cases using minute amounts of DNA, increasing the possibility of inadvertent crime scene contamination by officers, local crime lab experts say.
The sample collections have not sat well among the rank and file here and in several police departments nationwide.
Several St. Louis police officers interviewed by the Post-Dispatch said their civil liberties have been violated; they worry that their DNA could someday be abused.
The St. Louis Police Officers’ Association plans to file a grievance today on behalf of its 1,200 members, some of whom have submitted their DNA to the department without being told why, said Jeff Roorda, the association’s business manager.
“These cops take care day in and day out to avoid violating the rights of citizens they come in contact with and the suspects they arrest,” Roorda said. “The department should be held to the same standard when dealing with (officers).”
The collective bargaining agreement sets forth conditions under which the department can require tests. DNA is not among them.
“It’s an attack on officers’ constitutional rights without any justification provided by the department to the union or these officers,” Roorda said.
Isom said the department has collected officers’ DNA on a voluntary basis for years. Those who work in the crime lab always have had their DNA on file, he said.
Only recently have the collections widened. Isom estimates that 400 to 500 officers, or about a third of the department, have submitted samples.
One officer who did not want to be identified told the Post-Dispatch that he and about 20 of his fellow detectives thought their supervisor was joking when he brought a bag of DNA kits to them shortly before their shift ended and told them to take their own samples, collected from their cheeks, to the crime lab.
Another officer, who also did not want to be identified, said his supervisor sent an email asking his unit to submit DNA samples.
“We have a system to protect individual liberties, and when it comes to the police, that’s lost,” the officer said. “When you intrude on someone’s rights, you need a clear system in place, and you need to allow officers to make an informed decision.”
He said he believed there would be consequences had he not submitted a sample.
Isom said that the department lacks a policy on collecting DNA from officers and that probably contributes to officers’ concerns. He said the submissions are voluntary, but he acknowledged that refusal to do what a supervisor asks could be viewed as violating a direct order — a disciplinary offense. To his knowledge, no one has refused.
“We’ve got to do a better job of communicating why we’re doing this … to make sure people understand that this is in the betterment of our community and nothing to do with trying to infringe upon the rights of police officers,” Isom said.
Law enforcement officers are exempt from the 2008 federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which prohibits employers from requesting, requiring or buying genetic information. But that exemption is “Only to the extent that such genetic information is used … to detect sample contamination,” according to the act.
Louisiana appears to be the only state with a law requiring officers to provide genetic samples.
Connecticut state police officials tried requiring officers to provide DNA samples in 2009, but the bill died after union leaders opposed it.
In Chicago, officers initiated a work slowdown in 2008 because of resentment over issues that included a DNA collection policy for those working at crime scenes.
In Los Angeles, the police union and top brass are clashing over requiring officers involved in shootings and other use-of-force incidents to submit DNA samples.
Concerns are generally the same: Beyond the civil liberties issue, officers worry that their DNA could be used in paternity disputes, as well as that management could use it to screen for diseases and predict future health problems.
“It’s a new area full of slippery slope arguments,” said Terrence Dwyer, an assistant professor in the Justice and Law Administration Department at Western Connecticut State University. Dwyer is a lawyer who represents a law enforcement union.
“For them to keep a database of officers’ DNA on file somewhere creates a Pandora’s box of future litigation issues,” he said. “DNA is a wonderful tool, especially for catching criminals and solving cold cases, but it should not come at the expense of a police officer’s civil rights.”
The DNA profile collected from officers contains the same DNA information collected from criminals. It is not believed to reveal sensitive medical or biological information, according to an August analysis of DNA databanking by the Congressional Research Institute.
In the forensic world, it’s called “junk DNA.”
“Proponents of expansive DNA collection argue that any privacy intrusion resulting from DNA storage or analysis is minimal at most. However, … this assumption might change if scientists discover new uses for junk DNA,” the report states.
Dwyer, who retired in 2007 after 22 years with the New York State Police, said he believes DNA collection from officers is justified in some cases but should be destroyed after it has served its purpose.
He proposes better training of officers to prevent crime scene contamination.
But Anne Kwiatkowski, biology DNA section supervisor at the St. Louis police crime lab, counters that no matter how careful officers are, advances in DNA technology make it more difficult to prevent contamination.
“To get DNA profiles in the past, we needed a quarter-sized blood stain,” she said. “Now we can get it from a drop the size of a head of a pin.”
Mary Beth Karr, assistant director of the crime lab, said the officers’ DNA is being kept in an internal portion of the Combined DNA Indexing System database, which is accessible only to the St. Louis Police Department. It’s the same database in which the DNA profiles of criminals are kept.
Karr said officers’ DNA profiles will be stored in perpetuity and could be useful in cold cases.
“Technology may change down the road, and it will be important that we understand who that person is and verify why they were at the crime scene,” she said.
Isom said the mere chance that an officer’s DNA could help bolster a case justifies its collection, in his mind. The chief said he would like to see DNA collection become a condition of employment, but that would have to be approved by the Board of Police Commissioners.
“I have to question an officer’s commitment to serve and protect his community who would refuse to do it,” Isom said.