Los Angeles County Uses DNA Tracking Database to Solve Cold Cases

DNA tracking database monitors the collection of arrestees' genetic material to identify who must provide DNA samples.

by / January 22, 2010

John Floyd Thomas -- the so-called Westside Rapist in California's Claremont area -- was charged in April 2009 with murdering two women in the 1970s, later was linked to five more murders. Nearly 40 years after the women's deaths, Thomas will stand trial, thanks to DNA evidence obtained by the Los Angeles Police Department's Cold Case Homicide Unit.

Another L.A. case was solved in November when a DNA sample from the murder scene of Hazel Hughes matched Victor Alvarez, according to the Los Angeles Times. The 27-year-old mystery was solved and another cold case was laid to rest.

DNA evidence is heating up cold cases because of a 2004 initiative passed by California voters. Proposition 69 -- the DNA Fingerprint, Unsolved Crime and Innocence Protection Act -- authorized DNA collection from all felons, including those with previous felony convictions and individuals arrested for or charged with a felony offense, beginning in 2009.

According to Wired.com, the new law is expected to add the genetic material of more than 1 million people to California's DNA and Forensic Identification Database and Data Bank within five years, making it the nation's largest state-run databank.

To provide its 47 law enforcement agencies with the tools to comply with the law, the L.A. County Information Systems Advisory Board (ISAB) created a Web-based DNA Offender Tracking System (DOTS) that identifies arrestees who must provide a DNA sample.

"In [2009], it was important to have DOTS in place because all felony arrests require that a DNA swab be taken at the time of arrest," said Richard Barrantes, Court Services Division chief for the L.A. County Sheriff's Office. "For us to facilitate that, we knew we had to have a system in place. Years ago, we started working on DOTS so that once we make an arrest, we can check, using technology, to see if a DNA sample has already been taken for that arrestee or if one is required based on the current charge."

Turning Up the Heat

In July 2006, the ISAB began developing DOTS -- which uses Global 360's case management solution, Case360, as its application platform -- to improve the DNA collection tracking progress. According to Ali Farahani, director of integration services for ISAB, approximately 1,200 arrests are made daily in L.A. County, so police officers must check each record to determine if a DNA sample must be collected.

"The No. 1 driver was to improve efficiency by creating a centralized system to track the collection of DNA," Farahani said. "And the second driver was to make sure law enforcement officers had accurate information as to whom they should collect DNA from."

The first phase rolled out in October 2007, providing all county law enforcement agencies with a Web-based system that supplies an offender's Record of Arrest and Prosecution (RAP) sheet, which usually includes arrest dates and charges, and the arresting agency.

DOTS automates the DNA collection process and lets officers know if an offender's DNA is already in the system.

"Prior to [2009], DNA was required on all arrests that had qualifying charges like murder and rape. Those kinds of things required DNA be automatically taken," he said. "So regardless of whether or not it was on file, we would take the DNA sample, and if their sample had already been taken, the new sample wouldn't be needed anymore."

After a DNA sample was collected, officers completed an accompanying paper card, which took 30 minutes and might have inconsistent or illegible information. The sample was then sent to the state, where it sometimes took a month to process and update the criminal history system.

The lack of a centralized system led to duplicated work by officers and multiple DNA samples from suspects. Although officers make the same number of arrests, they're finding they

take fewer samples because of DOTS.

As the DNA databank is being populated, crime scene evidence is being connected to samples in the system. "We're starting to clear some cold cases -- old cases that had DNA samples that were taken at crime scenes but there was nothing to check them with," Barrantes said. "Now as the database is being created, matches are being made on old cases at a higher rate."

According to Farahani, DOTS cost $700,000 and was funded by a county grant.

Photo: Los Angeles County DNA Offender Tracking System kiosk/photo courtesy of LiveScan

Real-Time DNA Info

DOTS was integrated into more than just the criminal history system. By connecting it to multiple reporting functions, checking for DNA sample eligibility will be further streamlined.

The project's second phase connected it to the system that tracks an arrestee's movements in and out of the jail systems. This helps authorities determine if inmates arrested before the law took effect are eligible to have a sample taken. Once someone is brought into a county jail, DOTS checks the person's criminal history record and determines if officers should take his or her DNA sample. An electronic queue tracks inmates who should give a sample, streamlining identification of eligible inmates.

"This is a heavy-volume transaction processing system that monitors thousands of transactions per day to see if someone who was just moved to the county jails, based on their criminal history, qualified for DNA collection," Farahani said.

ISAB plans to integrate DOTS with the county's electronic fingerprint booking system, called LiveScan. So while an officer is inputting an arrestee's information, DOTS will run in the background and notify the officer if a DNA sample is needed.

"We are having LiveScan call DOTS because when they start the fingerprint process, within minutes usually they'll have an ID for the individual that's biometric-based," Farahani said. "We thought that the system, at that point, could call DOTS and say, 'For this subject, do I need to collect DNA or not?'"

At press time, phase three -- the integration of DOTS and LiveScan -- was being piloted, and Farahani expects it will go live in June 2010. He ISAB used technology that's robust and open; standards-based technology leaves options open for expansion and change. "When it comes to selecting technology, go with standards and products that support standards," he said. "Stay with the mainstream and technologies that are based on industry standards."

Implementing New Technology

There are always obstacles to overcome when adding new technology. In DOTS' case, Farahani said the county's daily volume of transactions posed a challenge. ISAB wanted to ensure DOTS could handle those thousands of transactions, and testing the transaction variations was difficult.

To help the learning curve for officers, a focus was placed on training. "We trained the trainers and, for some locations, sent technicians to train people onsite," Farahani said. "I believe that no project can be successful without good training. You can have the best system in the world, but if you don't train people the right way and make sure that they can use the system, you won't be successful."

Regional classes were held for hands-on training, and ISAB ensured that representatives from every agency were involved. A training manual was also developed, but Farahani said in-person training and contact is more helpful in educating end-users.

He also cited the inclusion of law enforcement agencies in DOTS' development and implementation as one of the project's most important milestones. A steering committee was created at the start of project that was headed by Barrantes and included

the L.A. Police Department, L.A. County Sheriff's Office, Long Beach Police Department and a number of smaller agencies. Farahani said Scott Pickwith, chief of the La Verne Police Department, also acted as a business sponsor for the project. Like Barrantes, they helped coordinate interaction with all of the police agencies.

"Our steering committee was a key factor in making sure we were able to resolve issues," Farahani said, "When there are so many different law enforcement agencies, you want to have people at the top to support the initiative."

DOTS' Destiny

When DOTS is integrated with LiveScan, the project will be complete and ISAB will for maintain the system. Although it will be fully integrated with L.A. County's law enforcement systems, Barrantes sees the future as moving toward mobile devices. He said some agencies can process fingerprints if officers in the field use PDAs outfitted with a fingerprint scanner.

"I think someday we'll also have the capability to do a DNA sample via a swab remotely using some kind of wireless technology," he said, "which will make it even more effective than what we have today."

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.