Monday, April 21, 2014
Bensalem: DNA pilot added nearly 600 profiles to database
Posted: Thursday, April 17, 2014
The burglary suspect who broke into a Bensalem home in November didn’t leave police much to work with. The only evidence was the blood droplets near a broken window.
The case appeared unsolvable — that is until the blood sample collected at the scene was run through the Bensalem Township Police Department’s burgeoning DNA database.
The sample matched the DNA of Croydon resident John Sobolewski, who Bensalem had arrested two months earlier on an outstanding warrant. Bensalem had taken a sample of Sobolewski’s DNA when he was in custody and entered it into its private DNA database. He is now awaiting trial in the burglary in Bucks County Court.
Sobolewski is what police call a “blind hit,” when a suspect is developed based solely on DNA. He was among six "blind hit" criminal suspects Bensalem was able to connect with unsolved crimes last year while piloting a first-of-a-kind initiative that generates DNA results in 90 minutes.
“Anytime you can stop a criminal from committing a crime that much earlier is a good day in law enforcement,” Bensalem Director of Public Safety Fred Harran said Wednesday.
While fingerprints once were the gold standard for crime-solving, law enforcement has added routine DNA testing to its arsenal. Police enter biological samples taken from crime scenes into a DNA database. If it generates a matching profile, an individual cannot be ruled out as a suspect. But police still need a DNA sample from the individual to test and confirm a match.
The Bensalem Police Department was the first in Bucks County to contract with a private lab to generate a local DNA database in 2010, but now 15 Bucks police departments are poised to join them soon.
“We’re jumping on their coattails and following them right in,” said Warminster police Chief James Donnelly Jr., whose department is among those participating.
The towns, which represent about 25 percent of Bucks’ 48 police departments, formed the Central Bucks County Special Response Team consortium to defray the costs of the private lab DNA analysis, Donnelly said. The consortium has contracted with Bode Technology, the same private Virginia forensic lab Bensalem Township Police Department uses. The DNA samples collected will be added and compared to Bensalem’s DNA database, which has more than 7,000 samples.
Police officers in the participating departments are undergoing training on DNA collection at crime scenes, and Donnelly anticipates that as soon as May 1 the first consortium DNA samples could be sent for processing.
“We would love this to be a county initiative in conjunction with the (District Attorney’s) office,” Donnelly added. “The same people who do property crime in Warminster do the same type of crime no matter where they go.”
The Bensalem Township Police Department added nearly 600 new DNA samples — as many as 56 samples a day — to the database started in 2010 during a 30-day DNA testing program through Bode. Bensalem was the first U.S. local law enforcement agency to participate in the Bode pilot.
The 587 samples analyzed during the month-long pilot broke down to 342 samples taken from crime scene evidence and 245 reference samples from people, Harran said. The samples assisted in 15 criminal investigations that were cleared to arrest, Harran said, adding that one investigation could involve multiple crimes.
Eight suspects arrested were connected to multiple unsolved crimes dating back to early 2012, Harran added.
A unique aspect of the rapid DNA program is that it can test DNA directly from crime scene evidence while other available rapid tests can process only reference samples from an individual.
While Harran is calling the rapid 90-minute DNA testing program a success, for now the township will stick with its 30-day turnaround program through Bode. He added that the department is evaluating and researching potential funding to implement the 90-minute turnaround model.
In November, Harran estimated the cost of creating a testing lab in Bensalem headquarters, where samples could be processed and analyzed, at $100,000 for equipment and $100 per sample to process.
The 30-day turnaround time is still far faster than DNA tests run by state labs, which can take a year or longer to process results involving minor crimes, such as burglary or theft.
State forensic labs put a priority on processing samples involving violent crimes such as rape and murder. Property crimes such as theft and vandalism are considered low-priority, though they are far more prevalent than violent crimes in most communities.
State police use the Combined DNA Index System, better known as CODIS, a type of a national DNA database. More than 11 million DNA profiles are in CODIS including 300,000 in Pennsylvania alone, according to the Pennsylvania State Police.
In Bensalem, DNA has played a role in more than 150 criminal investigations, most involving drug or property crimes. Since the township initiated its more aggressive DNA testing program, property crime has steadily declined, including a 47 percent drop in burglaries between 2012 and 2013, Harran said.