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St. Louis police chief, officers at odds over DNA samples

Monday, November 14, 2011 | 8:47 a.m. CST; updated 9:40 a.m. CST, Monday, November 14, 2011

ST. LOUIS — Suspects in St. Louis aren't the only ones being asked to provide DNA samples. Increasingly, the city police department is collecting genetic information from its officers in an effort to eliminate unknown genetic profiles collected from crime scenes and improve chances of successful prosecutions.

DNA evidence has become vital in violent crime cases, including homicides and rapes. Crime labs make cases using minute amounts of DNA, and that increases the chance of inadvertent crime scene contamination by officers, according to crime lab experts.

That's why St. Louis police officials said they've stepped up obtaining DNA from officers. But many of the rank-and-file don't like it.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the St. Louis Police Officers' Association plans to file a grievance on behalf of its 1,200 members. They said some have been asked to submit DNA samples without being told why.

"These cops take care day in and day out to avoid violating the rights of citizens they come in contact with and the suspects they arrest," said Jeff Roorda, business manager for the association. "The department should be held to the same standard when dealing with (officers)."

The collective bargaining agreement with police does not reference DNA testing.

"It's an attack on officers' constitutional rights without any justification provided by the department to the union or these officers," Roorda said.

Police Chief Dan Isom estimated that 400 to 500 officers — about one-third of the department — have submitted samples. He said the department has collected DNA samples from officers for years on a voluntary basis.

Isom said DNA submissions remain voluntary, but he acknowledged that refusal to do what a supervisor asks could be viewed as violating a direct order. To his knowledge, no one has refused.

"We've got to do a better job of communicating why we're doing this ... to make sure people understand that this is in the betterment of our community and nothing to do with trying to infringe upon the rights of police officers," Isom said.

Louisiana appears to be the only state with a law requiring officers to provide genetic samples. Connecticut state police tried requiring officers to provide DNA samples in 2009, but union opposition helped kill a bill that would have required it. DNA collection concerns have also been raised in Chicago and Los Angeles.

The concerns are typically the same — civil liberties worries and concerns by officers that their DNA could be used in paternity disputes or by management to screen for diseases and predict future health problems.

"It's a new area full of slippery slope arguments," said Terrence Dwyer, a law professor at Western Connecticut State University and a lawyer who represents a law enforcement union.

"DNA is a wonderful tool, especially for catching criminals and solving cold cases, but it should not come at the expense of a police officer's civil rights," Dwyer said.

The DNA profile collected from officers contains the same DNA information collected from criminals. It is not believed to reveal sensitive medical or biological information, according to an August analysis by the Congressional Research Institute.

Anne Kwiatkowski, biology DNA section supervisor at the St. Louis police crime lab, said that no matter how careful officers are, advances in DNA technology make it more difficult to prevent contamination.

"To get DNA profiles in the past, we needed a quarter-sized blood stain," she said. "Now we can get it from a drop the size of a head of a pin."

Isom would like to see DNA collection become a condition of employment, but that would require Board of Police Commissioners approval.

"I have to question an officer's commitment to serve and protect his community who would refuse to do it," Isom said.


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