The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 2 | Issue 12 | December 2009

Using DNA to Solve Property Crimes

Brief History of the 2003 and 2008 DNA Projects

In 2003, a Presidential Initiative was launched “To Advance Justice Through DNA Technology,” and the University of Illinois Center for Public Safety and Justice (CPSJ) was one of the institutes involved in the development and national delivery of a COPS Office DNA curriculum.

DNA Strand In 2008, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (the COPS Office) awarded a grant to the CPSJ (formally the Regional Institute for Community Policing). The overarching goal of this grant was once again to develop an increasingly robust DNA instructional program and outreach strategy. This training would be presented during a series of four regional summits to educate stakeholders. The regional summits were hosted in partnership with the Texas, Tennessee, and New York/New Jersey Regional Community Policing Institutes.

Today, the spirit behind the 2003 and 2008 projects continues to aid criminal justice professionals in the identification, collection, and preservation of DNA evidence. Ultimately, both initiatives reduced the mishandling of cases involving DNA evidence and produced positive outcomes with an increase in the number of cases resolved.

As part of the ongoing DNA initiative, the CPSJ conceptualized and developed a series of summits titled DNA Trends and Issues: A High Impact Summit for Law Enforcement. The 2003 curricula and 2008 summits each emphasized the utilization of DNA as a tool for solving nonviolent, property crimes.

COPS continues to support these efforts. In September 2009, the Police Executive Research Forum hosted a COPS-funded executive session titled DNA: Challenges and Opportunities. Discussion included use of DNA to solve property crimes, the recent National Academy of Science report on forensic science, and the need for better dialog among investigators, forensic scientists, and prosecuting attorneys.

Should DNA Be Used on Nonviolent/Property Crimes?

Studies have shown that using DNA on property crimes is effective. In Great Britain, DNA has been used for nonviolent crimes since 2001,1 raising the clearance rate for burglaries from 16 percent to 41 percent (when biological evidence is found at the scene).

In the United States, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) funded a study to determine the effectiveness of using DNA on property crimes.2 In this study, evaluated by the Urban Institute, five agencies tracked evidence from nonviolent crimes from crime scene to prosecution. Targeted crimes included residential and commercial burglaries and theft from auto. The study compared burglary investigations using traditional investigative methods (to include fingerprints) to burglary investigations where DNA technology was used in addition to traditional investigative methods.

In the study, a DNA profile was identified in more than half (55 percent) of those cases in which biological evidence was found. Of those cases uploaded and searched in the DNA database, 41 percent yielded a hit that helped to identify a suspect.

When DNA was added to the investigations, suspects were identified more than 2˝ times more frequently than when traditional investigative methods only were used. Arrest and prosecution rates were also doubled when DNA was added.

Graph of Traditional Methods versus DNA

There is also data indicating property offenders may not stick to committing nonviolent offenses.3 DNA databases are demonstrating a significant number of hits for violent offenses to offenders who were placed in the database for nonviolent offenses. For example, in February 2009, Virginia reported 502 hits to their arrestee database.4 Approximately 80 percent of these hits would have been missed if the databank was limited to only violent offenders. Approximately 40 percent of the violent crimes solved were perpetrated by individuals with previous property crime convictions.

Using DNA to identify burglary suspects can have a profound effect on crime rates. The Denver District Attorney, along with the Denver Police Department and the Denver Crime Laboratory, has successfully implemented the Denver Burglary Project.5,6 Prior to the project, property crimes in Denver had increased by 5 percent annually. With the implementation of the project, the burglary rate in Denver dropped 26 percent. How is DNA Implemented on Property Crimes?

How is DNA Implemented on Property Crimes?

A successful program requires a unique working relationship among prosecutors, police, and DNA laboratories. Police must work to change how burglaries are viewed and processed. Laboratories must analyze evidence and provide results in a timely manner. All agencies must be committed to following up on DNA hits. Shared responsibilities, good communications, and a commitment from the highest levels are all necessary elements of a successful program.

Agencies with successful programs have implemented policies to maximize DNA resources. For example, some samples are more effective than others when used for investigating property crimes. In the NIJ study, touch samples were least likely to provide DNA results. (A touch sample is one that a suspect has handled or touched.) Blood collected from a property crime was the most effective, providing a DNA profile 8 times more often than a touch sample. Likewise, oral samples (e.g., cigarette butts) and worn samples (e.g., shirt collars, hat brims) were also more effective. Agencies have developed policies that specify which samples should be collected and submitted for analysis.

Effective DNA Samples

The NIJ study also demonstrated that the likelihood of obtaining a DNA profile was not increased when evidence was collected by crime scene technicians. This means that with appropriate training, police agencies may implement policies for evidence to be collected by police officers or detectives.

For more information about using DNA to solve property crimes, check the references listed and/or go to

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