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Expanding file of DNA riles Britain

An anticrime plan unveiled Sept. 1 aims to collect 3 million samples by 2004.

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 7, 2000


It may be a nation noted for quiet civility and prim bobbies who don't carry guns.

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But a 10 percent jump in the violent crime rate - and public outcry over the recent rape and murder of a young girl - has Britain moving to the controversial vanguard of law enforcement.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has unveiled plans for the most ambitious DNA database in the world: a registry of genetic fingerprints of every criminal in the country, including some merely suspected of crimes.

All European Union countries and many US states have begun keeping DNA databases on those convicted of certain crimes - usually of a violent or sexual nature - to help identify the guilty as well as exonerate the innocent. But the scale of the Mr. Blair's proposal is unprecedented.

Already, civil rights groups, forensic scientists, and even British police officers are raising objections. They say the British leader is on the edge of an Orwellian slippery slope, where rights to privacy and the presumption of innocence will be sacrificed.

On Sept. 1, Blair announced his intention to create a library of "genetic fingerprints" over the next four years. In a speech calling for zero-tolerance on crime, he said, "The Police Service must have the latest technology to help them in the fight against crime, and the government is determined to support them in this. By 2004, the database will hold over 3 million suspect samples - virtually the entire criminally active population."

But Sandy McCall Smith, vice president of Britain's government-backed Human Genetics Commission, warned that the project would be unwieldy to operate. Mary Cunneen, spokeswoman for Liberty, a leading British human rights agency, said police already were illegally holding 50,000 DNA samples, and she forecast that under the Blair plan the number would "increase dramatically." Some 900,000 DNA samples are held by British police, who are required to destroy them if a suspect is acquitted or if charges are not brought in a case.

Perhaps more worrying for Blair is police reluctance. For the program to work effectively, officers and civilian staff who attend crime scenes need to give voluntary DNA samples so that they can be eliminated from inquiries. But over the weekend it emerged that less than half of London's police officers have given samples, ahead of an end-of-September deadline. David Rogers, vice chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said, "If we don't get the take-up, the database will be no good ... because the elimination process won't be secure." He added, "There's an element of mistrust, because people think this might be used to investigate disciplinary matters."

The use of DNA profiling in the fight against crime has strong arguments in its favor. In addition to helping track down suspects, it can be used to help clear those wrongly accused or convicted. Last month, new DNA tests on crime-scene evidence resulted in a pardon for a Texas death-row inmate after 10 years in prison. Since 1989, DNA tests have exonerated 72 American prisoners.

In Australia in April, a suspect in the rape of an elderly woman turned himself in to police, after all 500 men in the small town "voluntarily" gave genetic samples.

Blair, in a bid to publicize the techniques of DNA testing, earlier this year allowed himself to be photographed having a saliva swab taken.

He says 109 million ($158 million) has been allocated to pay for the planned nationwide database. The extra money will allow police to collect samples from all those charged with a recordable offense. Until now, the 40 ($58) cost of taking and processing each sample has limited the numbers police were able to collect.