Saturday, June 25, 2022

NHCSO asks David Rouzer to use earmark for rapid DNA testing machine

The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office hopes the return of earmarks will yield them a rapid DNA testing machine, which can match results against an FBI database in under two hours. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Earmarks will return to the U.S. House of Representatives, giving local governments an opportunity to ask their representative for rations out of a federal money pot. 

Rep. David Rouzer has already entertained a few requests from across his jurisdiction, including a $400,000 entreaty supported by both the Wilmington mayor and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners chairwoman. The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office wants a rapid DNA machine. 

A budding tool for law enforcement, rapid DNA is said to be the potential “next frontier” of identification technology. It has the ability to quickly process suspect samples and ping matches against a database maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The machines are roughly the size of a printer, and can analyze a swabbed DNA sample in less than two hours. NHCSO is pursuing the tech through Rouzer’s purse  as part of a strategy to fulfill its dream of operating a full-service forensic crime lab for southeastern N.C. law enforcement agencies. 

NHCSO previously took control of the Wilmington Police Department crime lab in 2019, and runs blood alcohol tests and latent work in-house for a number of law enforcement agencies — a faster option than having samples sent to the state crime lab, which can take weeks to turn around. 

READ MORE: NHCSO took over WPD crime lab, increased staff and funding, but hasn’t tested any drugs. Here’s why.

The lab has still not begun to test narcotics, with Covid-19 and training delays causing a setback. Lieutenant Lauren White, who helms the crime scene investigation section within the NHCSO, said the hope is for the lab to begin testing drugs by September. Meanwhile, the City of Wilmington holds a five-year lease, signed when the lab was under its control, for an unused drug-testing device built by Thermo Fisher Scientific — the company that recently purchased PPD, Inc. 

The device sought by the sheriff’s office to conduct rapid DNA tests is also built by Thermo Fisher. It’s called the “Applied Biosystems RapidHIT ID System,” and the FBI has approved its use within accredited forensic laboratories. The FBI has not approved the machine for use with its DNA database in law enforcement booking stations. 

“We see this technology as a critical tool to reform our department, save time and keep our community safe,” Sheriff Ed McMahon wrote in a letter of support to Rouzer’s office. “The instrument allows our deputies to process DNA samples themselves with minimal training.” 

ANDE, another leading manufacturer of rapid DNA tech, has machines in use at over 45 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in the United States, according to ANDE chief operating officer John Sims. 

In an email, Sims told Port City Daily the ANDE machine is the only one of its kind approved for use at booking stations in conjunction with the FBI’s database of DNA profiles. 

“The data generated on the instrument can also be searched against any state or local agency databases, depending on State law and Agency policy,” Sims wrote in the email. 

U.S. Representative David Rouzer speaks at a Trump rally last week. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Each member of the U.S. House of Representatives can now submit up to 10 “community project funding requests.” Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and New Hanover County leadership have both endorsed the Sheriff’s Office in its request for a rapid DNA testing instrument. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

Rapid DNA machines require a relatively high amount of substance to run an analysis, leading to one major catch: Their use is only approved for swabbed samples taken from a known individual — like a person in police custody — and not for samples left behind at crime scenes. Samples obtained from crime scenes are liable to be contaminated, requiring the expertise of a lab technician, while swabs from a known individual can be easily processed by a non-scientist, according to the FBI.

In practice, these machines have been used in other jurisdictions to DNA test individuals under arrest. Approved devices internally harbor the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) — an FBI database of DNA profiles compiled alongside nearly 200 American law enforcement laboratories. 

The National District Attorneys Association supports the implementation of these devices in booking stations for tests on individuals, but not for crime scenes. Ben David, district attorney for both New Hanover and Pender counties, said he agreed.

“We want to absolutely make sure that this is used in a very limited circumstance,” David said. “I would only recommend doing that if we have a known sample that’s big enough to where it wouldn’t be consumed during testing.”

David said he understands the concern over privacy when these machines and databases come into play. He recommended that NHCSO consult advisors before taking the DNA of a suspect; he also emphasized that the technology would greatly speed up the investigation process in some circumstances.

“The current backlog at the state crime lab has an 8-month waiting period, and often longer for low priority cases (property crimes, in particular),” McMahon wrote to Rouzer. “Using the technology to create investigative leads and process samples locally, will allow the Department to save time and resources, catch more criminals and improve our community.” 

The instrument itself cost $150,000, according to McMahon, and another $250,000 is needed “for setup, management and three years’ worth of consumables.” 

NHCSO Chief Deputy Ken Sarvis said the office has known for some time that this machine could boost law enforcement productivity. 

“We always had an idea that we wanted to do this, but we just didn’t know when the timing was,” Sarvis said in an interview. “And when we found out about this money that might be out there to help benefit us in this aspect, we kind of jumped on it.” 

Now, Sarvis said, NHCSO is in talks with state authorities about how specifically this device could be used, both presently and down the road. 

“Will this machine help us if we’re able to get it? To get us a little further down that path of being full service? Yes,” he said. “What can it do currently before we become full service? I think it can help us certainly on the booking side.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concerns about the technology. A staff attorney and senior policy analyst claimed in a 2019 blog that some local police are using the machines to test samples from crime scenes, despite the FBI’s prohibition against such use. 

The ACLU warned that widespread adoption could lead to bloated government databases filled with intimate information, and that exploitative practices could stem from the product’s “cheap and easy to use” draw. 

“Our DNA is far more than a replacement for the fingerprint; it is the ‘nuclear weapon’ of identifying technologies,” the ACLU authors wrote. “It can reveal much more — and more intimate — information than simply our identity, including our propensity for certain diseases, our family members, and our ancestry. And, as technology develops, DNA may reveal even more.”

The technology would help to process sexual assault cases faster, and bring quicker resolution to property crimes, which have been on the rise amid the pandemic, Sarvis said. 

Mayor Bill Saffo wrote a brief letter of support to Rouzer, calling the chance to acquire the instrument “a critical opportunity to improve policing in New Hanover County and our region.” 

Julia Olson-Boseman, chairwoman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, submitted a letter to Rouzer that mirrored McMahon’s.

“Anything we can do to help make our community safer, by fighting crime, by getting suspects who are breaking the law, and being able to identify them in a quicker capacity, that’s what it’s all about,” Sarvis said.  

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