Saturday, November 23, 2013
Bensalem DNA results in 90 minutes: "This is real CSI stuff"
Posted: Tuesday, November 19, 2013
A recent series of thefts from cars in Bensalem left police perplexed and wondering if they could be connected.
They had the answer Tuesday, when they confirmed the crimes are linked to the same suspect.
While Bensalem’s public safety director explained the new DNA technology that cracked the theft case at a press conference, he said police officers were serving a search warrant seeking DNA from the suspect to check for a match.
“This is real ‘CSI’ stuff,” Public Safety Director Fred Harran said.
Where fingerprints once were the gold standard for crime-solving, law enforcement has added routine DNA testing to its arsenal. A handful of Bucks County police departments that use DNA evidence with property crimes say it makes a significant difference in the clearance rates for those crimes.
But now, the Bensalem police — the first and only Bucks police department to have a private lab create a local DNA database — is taking the technology to the next step with a first-of-its-kind initiative that generates DNA results in 90 minutes.
The department is the first U.S. local law enforcement agency to participate in the rapid DNA testing through Bode Technology, a private lab in Lorton, Va., Harran announced Tuesday at Bensalem police headquarters. The free 30-day pilot started two weeks ago, Harran said, and it’s already yielding results.
Police used the rapid testing technology recently in the investigation of an attempted robbery at a convenience store, Harran said. Near the store, police found a knife they believed was used in the crime. Also nearby was a suspect who matched a store clerk’s description of the would-be robber.
Police tested DNA obtained from the knife with the suspect’s DNA. The samples matched, Harran said.
While Harran had no numbers immediately available on how many cases his department was using the rapid DNA testing on, he said there are plans to compile a report at the end of the trial period.
Bensalem police recently contracted with Bode to process, analyze and maintain DNA evidence and profiles for its 6,500-sample DNA database started in 2010. The DNA testing has played a role in 150 criminal investigations, mostly involving drugs or property crimes, Harran said.
Property crimes in the township have been steadily declining since the police department adopted more aggressive DNA testing, Harran said, citing a 47 percent drop in burglaries over the last year.
Through its private lab, Bensalem police have a 30-day turnaround for results involving property-related crimes, which is far faster than state-run DNA labs that can take a year or longer for results with minor crimes.
“That is not solving crime,” Harran said.
How DNA testing generally works is that police enter biological samples taken from evidence into a DNA database. If it generates a matching profile, that means an individual cannot be ruled out as a suspect. But police need a DNA sample from the individual to test and confirm a match.
State police use the Combined DNA Index System, better known as CODIS, a type of national DNA database that uses computer systems to store crime lab generated profiles. More than 11 million DNA profiles are in CODIS, including 300,000 in Pennsylvania alone, according to the Pennsylvania State Police.
But state forensic labs put a priority on processing samples involving violent crimes like rape and murder. Property crimes such as theft and vandalism are considered low-priority crimes, though they are far more prevalent than violent crimes in most communities.
What makes Bode’s rapid DNA testing program unique is that it can test DNA directly from a crime scene; other available rapid DNA testing, like what the FBI uses, can do only reference samples from an individual.
Bensalem’s Harran says the township will continue submitting DNA samples through CODIS and Bode through its 30-day pilot. During the pilot, all crime evidence where DNA can be obtained will be processed through the 90-minute program, Harran said.
The rapid program is also comparing all new DNA profiles to the already existing 6,500 DNA profiles in Bensalem’s local database. The goal is to make real-time DNA matches to generate probable cause arrests from active criminals in active investigations, Harran said. Suspects who are later cleared can have their DNA removed from the local database, Harran said.
With a 90-minute turnaround, Harran initially had concerns about the accuracy of the results, which is one reason he agreed to the 30-day free pilot project.
Bensalem has set up a field testing lab in its police headquarters, where the 90-minute tests are processed and analyzed. If Bensalem continues the rapid testing program, the township would pay $100,000 for the equipment and $100 per sample for processing, said Amy Jeanguenat, Bode’s director of forensic operations.
At the press conference, Jeanguenat attributed the dramatic increase in DNA turnover time to advancements over the last three years in the use of DNA and changes in chemicals and equipment.
Bensalem Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo on Tuesday pledged to continue the rapid DNA testing program after the pilot is finished if it continues to prove successful.
The technology has also garnered the attention of other Bucks County police departments, Bucks County Chief of Prosecution Matt Weintraub said.
Within the next month, Weintraub said he anticipates that 12 of the county’s 48 police departments – led by Plumstead Township – will join Bensalem’s local DNA database through the private lab. He declined to name the other departments.
Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler said the 90-minute technology would be most valuable in cases where police have developed a suspect.
“Solving major crimes, minutes matter,” Heckler added. “Having this kind of resource to develop probable cause is going to be huge.”