Everyone knows that DNA can play an important role in criminal investigations—we see that every day on the numerous police procedurals that crowd our television line-up. Many people who work within the criminal justice system are also aware that backlogs for processing DNA evidence can make the reality of working with crime scene DNA very different from the experience portrayed by their fictional counterparts. But did you know that the National Institute of Justice has been working for many years now to support forensic science research and development efforts and help improve the ability of state and local agencies to eliminate their DNA backlogs? We reached out to NIJ Deputy Director Kristina Rose to find out more about their work and their resources.
Can you tell our readers a little about the role of the National Institute of Justice in DNA work? A lot of our readers probably associate NIJ with social science research, not forensics.
Great question. NIJ has actually funded DNA and forensic science research and development projects for over a decade now. NIJ provides hundreds of millions of dollars in grants for a variety of programs, including grants to state and local crime labs for building in-house capacity and reducing DNA backlogs, for DNA and forensic science research, for training DNA analysts, for cold case investigation, and to manage the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, which matches unidentified decedents with missing persons.
NIJ relies heavily on the DNA Technology Working Group, made up of practitioners and experts in the field, to help shape our research solicitations and the focus of the projects we fund. The TWG meets and decides where the gaps in knowledge are and what areas need more research done, and the NIJ Research and Development program managers take this into account when putting out solicitations and determining which research projects to fund. Again, this Technical Working Group is only involved in helping us shape our research solicitations, not monetary awards for capacity building.
We often hear in the news about DNA backlogs at crime labs: stories about how a perpetrator may have been caught sooner except for a “huge backlog” at the crime lab. What really is the DNA backlog?
My colleague here at NIJ, Mark Nelson, addressed this question in a terrific NIJ report he wrote called Making Sense of DNA Backlogs, 2010 — Myths vs. Reality.
There is no industry-wide agreement about what constitutes a backlog; NIJ defines a backlogged case as one that has not been tested 30 days after submission to the crime laboratory. Many crime laboratories, however, consider a case backlogged if the final report has not been provided to the agency that submitted the case. Which definition one uses naturally affects the count of cases backlogged.
In addition to the definition of a backlog, identifying the type of backlog is also important. There are two types of DNA backlogs found in crime laboratories: those of forensic DNA evidence, and the backlog of DNA samples taken from convicted offenders and/or arrestees pursuant to state statutes. There can also be untested forensic DNA evidence in storage in law enforcement agencies.
We most often associate DNA testing with rape or homicide cases, but it is also vitally important to missing person’s cases. What can you tell us about the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System?
We call it “NamUs” for short. NamUs is an online clearinghouse for missing persons and unidentified decedent records. Law enforcement agencies across the country are increasingly using NamUs as their primary source for storing, managing, and comparing missing persons and unidentified decedent cases. NamUs is the first system that enables state and local law enforcement agencies, medical examiners and coroners, advocate organizations, families, and the general public to work collaboratively to solve missing and unidentified persons cases.
I should note that NamUs is free to use, and is open and available for search by the public as well as law enforcement. It is regularly updated with data from other systems such as the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.
It is important to note that NamUs has both a public-facing side, where anyone interested in finding a missing person can create an entry using identifiers such as physical features, dates, age, sex, and geographic location, as well as a more restricted side that can be accessed by the appropriate law enforcement officials, medical examiners, and coroners. This is where any available forensic evidence, such as DNA, fingerprints, or dental records, would be retrievable.
NamUs has been getting a lot of recognition for its good work lately. The program has just won the 2011 August Vollmer Excellence in Forensic Science Award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and is a finalist for a 2011 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal—“the Sammies.”
NamUs is an important tool that can help bring closure to family and friends searching for a missing loved one. You can learn more by visiting www.namus.gov.