Nov 09, 2008

DNA and NIJ Go After Burglars

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If only from watching TV shows like "C.S.I.," most of us know that police agencies often rely on DNA analysis to identify the perpetrators of a crime. Of course, TV programs typically focus on bloody, violent crimes; how many viewers would tune in to watch police officers track down jaywalkers?

TV images notwithstanding, in everyday life property crimes such as burglary are far more prevalent than violent ones. The good news, according to a report funded and recently released by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), is that DNA analysis can also be an effective tool for solving  property crimes.

The NIJ study focused on 5 different police agencies and compared the results of burglary investigations that used only traditional police practices like fingerprint comparisons with the results of investigations in which the agencies also collected and analyzed DNA evidence. DNA emerged as the big winner. For example, when police agencies relied only on traditional methods of investigation, they identified the perpetrators in only 12% of the cases. When they also used DNA analysis, the agencies were able to identify perpetrators in 31% of the cases.

Part of the study's good news was that police officers were just as good at collecting evidence suitable for DNA analysis as forensic technicians. This means that police agencies thinking about expanding the use of DNA analysis to burglary may not have to spend as much money on white lab jackets as they feared.

Nevertheless, the obstacles to using DNA evidence to solve property crimes are considerable. Existing forensic laboratories aren't sufficiently funded to meet the demands for DNA analysis that have already been placed on them. For example, the LAPD has acknowledged that it has a massive backlog of unexamined DNA evidence from violent crimes and that it was uncertain of its ability to find the funding needed to reduce the backlog. And DNA analysis isn't cheap. According to the NIJ report, the average cost of using DNA analysis to arrest burglars who would not have been arrested through the use of traditional police methods was $14,169 per case.

Unless governments are willing to make huge increases in police agency budgets, any use of DNA analysis to solve property crimes will mean a reduction in the use of DNA analysis to solve violent crimes. Thus, while the report's findings were impressive, there's little likelihood that DNA analysis will become a major tool for solving property crimes anytime soon.