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Will Private DNA Services Replace State Crime Labs?

New technology may give local police more ownership quicker processing of DNA evidence collected from arrested individuals.

The days of police sending genetic evidence to state crime labs for DNA processing could soon be over.

A new cloud-based DNA service has been specifically designed so local law enforcement officials can better access, search and reference DNA profiles collected from their agencies. Instead of using state labs, police can take a genetic sample, run it against a private database and find out if there’s a match — all in in roughly 90 minutes.

Called Local Entry Accessible DNA (LEAD) and created by Sorenson Forensics, the technology works with Rapid DNA tools — instruments where genetic samples can be taken from the inside of a person’s cheek. Existing DNA profiles from genetic evidence can be manually uploaded to the LEAD database via a secure Internet connection by a local state crime lab, or samples can be sent to Sorenson Forensics’ laboratory to be analyzed and added to the system.

Tim Kupferschmid, executive director of Sorenson Forensics, explained that the benefit for local police departments is that they don’t have to rely on state agencies or worry about any of the backlogs in DNA processing at the state level in order to get DNA profiles completed.

The technology allows an agency to cut out the middleman only to an extent, however. Using Rapid DNA is still limited to cheek swabs, meaning genetic material taken from other sources at crime scenes would still need to be processed by a traditional laboratory.

Kupferschmid added that police would benefit by having quicker access and control over profiles associated with cases in their jurisdiction.

“The power of this database and the Rapid DNA instruments are, as you’re booking a person, you can get a DNA profile, search it against the database and almost instantaneously know if the person is connected to another crime,” Kupferschmid said. “Whereas if you had to send the sample to the state, it could take months, maybe even a year before the information would come back.”

LEAD is not connected to the FBI-controlled national DNA database that state crime labs use. So while the private system may make it easier for some law enforcement agencies to get some DNA evidence processed, hitting on a match from a previous crime depends on that person’s genetic material already being in the specific agency’s database.

Law enforcement agencies can share their databases with one another if they choose to, which could increase the probability of a DNA match if a suspect committed a crime in another location. The databases are owned by the individual agencies, not Sorenson. The agencies would have to establish a memorandum of understanding among them to do so.

But Kupferschmid wasn’t sure that sharing is worth the effort. He said that the percentage of crime committed by those who travel from jurisdiction to jurisdiction is very small.

The technology made its debut last month at the 2012 International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in San Diego, Calif. Kupferschmid didn’t reveal what the database would cost to use, but he indicated that the service would be marketed as a subscription service.

In an email to Government Technology, Zach Friend, press information officer for the Santa Cruz, Calif., Police Department, said no one in his department was aware of a previous attempt at creating a private DNA database service.

But Friend noted that one of the first concerns his department would have about LEAD is its ability to meet state and federal data privacy and security protections. In addition, he wasn’t sure smaller departments would get great value from the service.

“Most small-to-mid-sized departments like ours rely on state [Department of Justice] labs for this processing,” Friend said. “We have relationships with regional labs that don’t have much, if any, cost impact on agencies of our size. Because of that … I can't see how it provides a great benefit for us.”


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.