Putting the cart before the horse

Published: Sunday | December 8, 2013 Comments 0
Mark Sheilds
Mark Sheilds

Mark Shields,  GUEST COLUMNIST

DNA database more important than anti-gang legislation

No trade secrets to clearing up crime

In a recent article in another local newspaper, Deputy Commissioner Carl Williams, the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) head of the crime portfolio, was interviewed about his intention to embark on initiatives to improve the clear-up rate for murder but would not say what these measures are, referring to them as "trade secrets".

With the greatest respect to DCP Carl Williams, I am struggling to think of any measures that can be legitimately employed to improve the clear-up rate which cannot be shared with the public under the pretext that they are "trade secrets".

Although I would never expect the DCP to discuss covert or operational tactics that would undermine police operations, the overall JCF strategy to improve clear-up rates should not be a secret.

Indeed, the basic principle behind improving rates of detection is likely to include engaging the community by sharing whatever measures are being taken to improve the reduction and detection of crime. Ensuring those strategies are affordable, transparent and measurable goes a long way in determining how effective and acceptable they are, and are part and parcel of today's drive towards an accountable police service.

For the benefit of your readers, here is a short, but not exhaustive, list of just some of the tried and tested strategies that I assume the JCF are using - all of which are utilised by police organisations throughout the world to increase clear-up rates and reduce crime:

Providing sufficient resources to the JCF Criminal Investigation Branch.

Providing visible leadership and improving the management and supervision of investigating officers.

Reinforcing the crime review policy to ensure that unsolved crimes are not forgotten but are re-examined regularly.

Establishing more Major Investigation Task Forces (MITs) in areas where murder and gun crime rates are high.

Ensuring that thorough criminal investigations remain a priority. (In my experience, they are frequently treated as the poor relation to operational policing).

Continuing to develop effective intelligence-led policing strategies.

Continually developing the scene-of-crime and forensic science capabilities of the JCF and the Forensic Laboratory.

Providing effective victim support and communication by police for the victims of crime.

Re-engaging other stakeholders. Crime is not just a police problem, and the responsibility for crime reduction and detection must be shared.

Developing an effective media strategy whereby the public is frequently updated and thereby assured that there is an ongoing plan to improve the reduction and detection of crime.

Openness with the media encourages people to both support and cooperate with the police, thus building trust and confidence.

However, to really make a difference to DCP Williams' objective of improving the clear-up rate, perhaps the most fundamental initiative that Jamaica needs immediately is the introduction of the national DNA database and the legislation to put this in place.

For years, successive governments have dithered and failed to provide the JCF, and by extension the country, with one of the most revolutionary methods of detecting crime since the discovery of fingerprint identification.

The DNA legislation should have been the number one priority for the Government, giving Jamaican law enforcement and the criminal-justice system a tool that would effectively identify offenders more readily. That would have been a massive step forward in the prevention and detection of crime.

Indeed, to have introduced the contentious anti-gang legislation prior to the DNA law is in itself inept and a clear case of putting the cart before the horse. Surely, the DNA legislation would have been the bedrock upon which other laws, such as the anti-gang bill, could have been built.

Where a person is arrested under the anti-gang legislation, he or she could have been required to provide a DNA sample for comparison with the thousands of unidentified DNA traces left at crime scenes that are stored at the Forensic Laboratory.

With DNA legislation in place and the national DNA database established, all persons arrested for criminal offences and ALL convicted criminals serving custodial sentences could have a simple mouth swab taken and the DNA profile compared against all those unidentified traces recovered from crime scenes. Imagine what effect that would have on DCP Williams' clear-up strategy!

The evidence worldwide is that the use of DNA analysis in improving clear-up rates is overwhelming. Here is an extract from a UK Police Foundation report on how dramatically detection rates can be improved:

The usefulness of DNA is, however, most prominent in certain types of crimes, such as burglary. The normal detection rate for burglary is around 17 per cent, but this rises to 40 per cent when DNA is detected at the scene. The equivalent figures for theft from motor vehicles are even more impressive at nine per cent and 60 per cent, respectively. (UK Police Foundation Report, 'The use of DNA in forensic policing', April 2009).

To drive home my point, I can share with you a recent incident where a friend of mine was robbed in south London. While walking in the street, she was attacked by a group of youths and robbed of her handbag and engagement ring. During the attack, one of the robbers smothered her face with his hand to prevent her from screaming. Immediately after the police arrived, a scene-of-crime officer swabbed her face for DNA and the attacker was subsequently identified.

This robbery occurred at night and there was only a faint chance that she would have been able to identify the perpetrator in an identification parade - even if the police had been able to arrest him. Along with other evidence recovered at the time of his arrest, the national DNA database gave the police a clear-up and gave the victim some comfort that the criminal had been arrested and charged.

Anecdotes of successful identifications of offenders through DNA analysis run into the thousands, as do incidents where innocent people have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit.

High rates of homicide and gun crime remain part of life in Jamaica. If the Government is taking crime seriously and wants to do something positive to assist DCP Williams' efforts to improve the clear-up rate, I suggest it get its priorities right and fast-track the DNA legislation.

Mark Shields is managing director of SHIELDS Crime & Security and a former deputy commissioner of police with the JCF. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and mark@shieldscsc.com.


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