"Rapid DNA" machines are a new phenomenon in criminal justice. Able to process a DNA sample in just 90 minutes, they're often called "the magic box." The machines are small enough to be used by police departments. Until now, DNA testing has been performed exclusively by forensic scientists in neutral, accredited labs.
When Rapid DNA was tried in Sweden, the Swedish Forensic Center shut the program down before the trial was over. For one thing, almost a quarter of the blood samples tested didn't result in a usable DNA profile -- and the test consumed the sample.
More concerning, at least one faulty profile was produced without any indication that something had gone wrong. That could have meant a faulty profile being accepted in court and uploaded into a DNA database to cause havoc later.
Yet police departments in the U.S. are adopting Rapid DNA as if there were no question about its reliability as evidence. They're even using it to develop leads by testing crime scene evidence. The machine was never designed to handle crime scene evidence, according to numerous scientists interviewed by the New York Times, because it often contains the DNA of more than one person.
Last January, the National District Attorneys Association stated it "does not support the use of Rapid DNA technology for crime-scene DNA samples unless the samples are analyzed by experienced DNA analysts," but the practice continues.
Another troubling aspect of Rapid DNA machines is that police can use them after just a few hours of training, and there are no rigorous protocols for handling samples as there would be in an accredited lab.
"There really are no actual rules written anywhere," one detective told the Times.
Currently, DNA samples tested by police only end up in county DNA databases, but that could be changing. The FBI is currently setting up a process for select departments to upload DNA profiles gathered via cheek swab directly to the national CODIS database. If these samples aren't as reliable as those tested by forensic scientists, police could be uploading shoddy data that could later be introduced as evidence in criminal cases.
Beyond the technical issues, the entire idea of having police gathering and testing DNA samples is deeply problematic. We shouldn't be starting from the standpoint that everyone is a suspect to be matched with a crime, according to Erin Murphy, a New York University law professor. Moreover, police may focus their sample gathering on people of color and the poor, who are often unjustifiably thought suspicious due to bias.
"You have nothing to fear if you're not going to be a criminal," said a spokesperson for one police department.
Really? With all of the problems revealed in recent years about the unreliability of law-enforcement authorized crime labs and numerous high-profile cases of crime lab analyst misconduct affecting tens of thousands of cases in Massachusetts, New Jersey and elsewhere, do Americans really want even less trained and unqualified police officers producing DNA evidence profiles?