Expanding file of DNA riles Britain

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

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

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.

Efforts are under way in the US to determine how DNA testing can best be used to track down and prosecute criminals. The National Institute of Justice, at the request of Attorney General Janet Reno, in 1998 began a study on the use of DNA technology in the operation of the criminal justice system.

In July, the Justice Department convened a "DNA summit" of state and local police from around the US. Officers reported that criminals are getting smarter about DNA evidence. Police in Waco, Texas, detailed a case of a suspected rapist caught wearing protective shoe covers and gloves, and carrying a condom. Jailers in Salt Lake County, Utah, said they overheard prisoners talking about spreading blood and semen samples from other people around crime scenes to confuse DNA analysis.

All EU countries have some form of DNA database, although some are rudimentary. Germany, for its part, has maintained a DNA database since 1998, and along with fingerprints, DNA has become the second leg of identifying suspects. Convicted criminals that state prosecutors believe are in danger of repeating offenses are obliged to give a DNA sample. Most cases involve sex crimes, such as rape or child abuse, but can be crimes such as robbery or blackmail. By July, the database contained more than 50,000 entries, which have been used to solve more than 400 crimes.

There is no European-wide DNA database, nor is there likely to be one any time soon, given the delicate nature of the subject, and European sensitivities about personal privacy.

A national police force investigating a crime in one country can approach another national police force for assistance, including DNA tracing if it exists, but this is an entirely bilateral matter.

By the middle of next year, Europol, a nascent Europe-wide police institution, hopes to establish a general database that could, theoretically, hold DNA samples if national governments are legally empowered to send them to Europol headquarters in Holland. But this database will be used only for cross-border crimes, such as trafficking in drugs or humans.

"It would be logical, for example, in pedophile cases, which are often cross-border crimes, to have a common DNA database," says Leonello Gabrici, spokesman for the European Commission's Justice and Home Affairs Directorate. "But it would have to be limited to very specific crimes."

In Britain, Blair and his advisers have been impressed by a pilot program in Scotland, where a local police force introduced automatic DNA tests for all crime suspects. A spokesman for Lothian and Borders Police calls the plan "a massive success," with detection rates "up by 150 percent."

Ray Waters, a DNA expert at Swansea University, Wales, says DNA testing is now highly accurate, but concedes that tests "may fail to make an accurate match if a sample is contaminated at the scene of a crime." His worries about greatly expanding the DNA database are shared by Ian Shaw, a forensic scientist at Central Lancashire University. "The more samples you get, the greater the chance that you find two samples that look the same but are not actually from the same person."

Mr. McCall Smith says his commission supports the fight against crime, but he questions the extent to which a database should be expanded. He wonders, "Should the DNA of people who commit traffic offenses be put on a database?" He adds, "It might be asked: How long should DNA information from convicted criminals or suspects remain on the database?"

*Staff writer Peter Ford in Paris and Lucian Kim in Berlin contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.