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Oxford police considering rapid DNA analysis system

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DNA analysis

A DNA analysis machine that might be bought for use by the Oxford Police Department is shown being tested. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)

OXFORD — It’s no bigger than a microwave oven from the 1980s, but a machine inside the Oxford Police Department can test DNA in less than two hours.

That technology could result in a safer community, according to police Chief Bill Partridge.

His department is putting the NetBio rapid DNA analysis system through a series of tests this week. If it works as intended, Partridge said, the department may buy the approximately $250,000 system. The system is a joint project between Oxford police and the Center for Applied Forensics at Jacksonville State University.  

The DNA analyzer can test samples taken from crime scenes and produce results far quicker than is currently possible through the four labs of the state Department of Forensic Sciences, said Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh.

“So you’ve got 86 minutes versus a year-and-a-half,” Partridge said.

The analyzer can quickly compare blood or other DNA evidence found at a crime scene to a sample taken from a suspect, allowing investigators to narrow their search or eliminate suspects in a matter of hours, Partridge said.

“How many crimes is that person going to commit in a year-and-a-half before you get the results back?” Partridge said. “Now, we can rule that person in or out in two hours.”

Another advantage of having such a system is that state labs do not test for samples taken from property crimes, said Mark Hopwood, senior forensic scientist at JSU’s Center for Applied Forensics. Hopwood added that burglaries where doors are kicked down or windows broken often have some kind of DNA evidence from the burglar left at the scene.

“This would not, in any way, take the place of the Department of Forensic Sciences,” McVeigh said. “We’ll still be sending items for confirmation and trial testimony, but this would aid investigators in an invaluable way.”

If Oxford buys the system, only trained forensic scientists will use the technology, McVeigh said, though policies for the system’s use haven’t been drafted.

The machine will be tested inside the Police Department for two weeks using blood and skin cell samples given by volunteers.

McVeigh said he has met with officials from the Department of Forensic Sciences to discuss the possible uses of the technology. If the analyzer works as hoped, state and local officials will work together to draft a protocol for how and when to use the equipment, he said.

McVeigh compared the system’s ability to quickly help investigators to Oxford’s recent purchase of a TruNark analyzer, a handheld device that can test for suspected drugs on the spot. Instead of a lengthy wait for drug tests from state labs — which caused a backlog of pending drug cases in Calhoun and Cleburne counties —  the device can do the same in minutes, he said. The device has since erased that backlog, McVeigh said.

There is concern among privacy advocates that the technology can be used to create local DNA databases from samples taken from all inmates, and that DNA testing could be done on people not necessarily suspected of crimes.

“One of my biggest concerns with local law enforcement use of Rapid DNA is that agencies could start collecting DNA based on little or no real suspicion of criminal activity, essentially racial or ethnic profiling,” wrote Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an email to The Star. The nonprofit promotes civil liberties in the digital world. “And that could lead to even more racial and ethnic minority DNA in local, state and national DNA databases.”

“Thanks to a recent Supreme Court case, Maryland v. King, agencies have argued that DNA is just one more form of ID that may be collected by the cops,” Lynch wrote. “This could mean that agencies will start to use DNA analyzers at mobile locations just to collect DNA from people who don’t think they have, and may really not have, the option to refuse to submit to a cheek swab.”

But Partridge said there will be no such testing or DNA data kept in Oxford.

“We’re not pulling data and we’re not holding data,” Partridge said. Instead, the system will be used to test crime-scene samples against possible suspects, he said. “We’re not going to use them to pull DNA from the jail.”

The system also won’t be used to compare DNA sampled to the FBI’s DNA database, Partridge said. The technology is still too new to do that kind of comparison. Such rapid DNA test systems aren’t compliant with the FBI’s own standards for such comparisons, according to the agency’s website.

But Partridge said that’s a possibility “down the road, when this technology gets even better.” 

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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