This time last week I was sitting at the Interpol Headquarters in Lyon, France listening to the Chief of the USA FBI CODIS Unit talk about International DNA Exchange methods. This was only one of approximately 35 fascinating presentations delivered by representatives from over 50 countries. As you may well imagine, participating in a conference of this magnitude was extraordinary, and the value of being able to interact with the other representatives: priceless. A special mention of thanks needs to go to our generous sponsor, The Open Society Foundation for South Africa, which enabled us to attend this incredible conference.
The keynote speaker was a highly respected Australian Forensic Scientist by the name of Dr Simon Walsh. Dr Walsh is the Co-ordinator of the Australian DNA Database who spoke about, amongst other topics, ‘New Technologies & Techniques in the 21st Century use of DNA‘. We heard about what he termed “the triumvirate of interests” which is the critical interplay between the police, forensic scientists and the justice system. If you absent one of these 3 critical components when trying to implement a DNA Criminal Intelligence Database, the success of any DNA Database will fail to reach its expected outcome. This needs to be considered in great detail in a country such as South Africa where both our justice system and SAPS are fraught with problems. These challenges however are not unique to South Africa, and the way in which other countries have dealt with this, is by the implementation of a DNA Expansion Board or body of people, represented by the various departments as well as ethicists and parliamentarians and any other group relevant to that administration who collectively oversee the development of the DNA Database. I have spoken about this type of overseeing body on many occasions in the past and still believe that this approach would work well in South Africa, which in fact has the benefit of an already established DNA database as well as a functional forensic laboratory. Whether the Portfolio Committee reviewing our current legislation recognises this critical requirement however, is yet to be seen….
On a more complex level, and probably more relevant to countries such as the UK, Australia and the USA who have developed and utilised their DNA Databases successfully as criminal intelligence tools, Dr Walsh’s presentation went further to explore an inferential model for DNA database performance using data from major national DNA database programs. The parameters that optimise desirable database outputs (matches) were isolated and discussed, as was his approach for maximizing financial efficiency and minimizing ethical impact brought about by the successful implementation of DNA databases. Dr Walsh’s research takes important steps toward identifying measures of performance for forensic DNA database operations and should you wish to know more about his formulas he has developed to measure DNA Database outcomes, feel free to email me at email@example.com and I will send you the paper he has recently written on this subject.
What struck me most at the conference was the extent to which the majority of the countries government’s represented at the conference, were willing to put in whatever resources were required to establish and maximise the effectiveness of their respective DNA databases. It was also sobering to see how seriously they took crime and in some countries a stolen car was considered to be headline news and worthy of 24/7 resources to catch the perpetrator. You can just imagine the reaction that followed my presentation where I described the current situation in South Africa, spoke about my experience when my father was murdered and ended off the presentation with the VUKA ad which highlights the severity of crime in our country. To say that the audience was left in stunned silence at the end of my presentation, is perhaps an
understatement. I think we all know how de-sensitized we are to crime in South Africa, but when people came up to me afterwards and told me they had literally choked-up during my presentation, I realised how far removed we really are and how dangerous this can be as it moves us into a place of acceptance of an absolutely, unequivocally unacceptable situation. And people kept asking me – but WHY doesn’t your government do something about this and WHY is it taking so long to pass this legislation which will convert all those unprocessed rape kits I had shown them, into a DNA profile which may lead the CSI’s to the perpetrator to STOP them from re-offending. And the best question: but WHY doesn’t your government or your parliamentarians RESPECT these victims and future victims of crime enough in your country to do something about this? Yes, WHY indeed?
On the other end of the scale we heard from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) how they have been given 1 BILLION US$ to implement a population database in their region – their crime rate, I recall, is something in the region of 950 reported crimes over 10 years?! The reason – to prevent future crime from occurring! Whilst this is not a realistic option in most parts of the world, it sparked serious debate amongst the audience in respect of the value and ethical considerations a population database would bring about. For those not familiar with the term ‘population database’, it simply means that instead of focusing on putting the criminal population on the DNA database, it puts the entire country’s DNA profiles on the database which creates a larger reference pool for matching purposes when a crime occurs and a DNA profile is uplifted from a crime scene. Theirs is going to be the first population database in the world, and what I found most significant was that legislation was not listed as a ‘requirement’ for its implementation! This is because, and I quote, “Legislation will be taken care of by the Minister of Interior”! No questions asked.
We thoroughly enjoyed listening to some fascinating case studies presented by different countries over the course of the 3 days, all of which obviously showed how DNA was used to track the perpetrator of the crime, and in some cases, from as far back as the early 1970’s and throughout the world using Interpol’s International DNA Database.
We were also shown a very exciting new website called the “Forensic DNA World Map Project “. The World Map Project provides forensic scientists, criminal justice professionals and lawmakers with access to the policy, legislative, legal and technical knowledge-base of the countries throughout the world that have operational DNA database programs. It is a free service but is limited to those individuals pursuing the information for the purpose of developing and refining forensic DNA policy. One can apply for a password and if given, those Users may request additional country-specific information, such as enabling legislation, DNA database reports, presentations, statistical data, technical standards and media. The WMP can also connect users with forensic DNA databasing leaders throughout the world. I am going to suggest to our Parliamentary Researcher that she apply for a password to access this database and that she disseminate same to members of our Portfolio Committee – this is probably what they really need to look at to inform themselves of International Best Practice (IBP) – in other words, an armchair tour of the World’s DNA Policies may be all they need to learn the most about how this technology is being implemented internationally and the issues and challenges each of those countries has had to deal with!! I have looked at the site and it is arguably one of the most informative portals when it comes to looking at IBP in this arena.
There was also a lot of discussion around familial searching, which is used mostly for DVI (Disaster Victim Identification) but in a more regulated way, to establish a link to the perpetrator when they pick up a familial link on the DNA database between a crime stain and a profile which already exists on the database. Judge Arthur Tompkins presented some very sound and objective arguments on both the legal and ethical issues surrounding the use of familial searching. Having listened to these discussions I think it would be prudent for South Africa to consider inserting a provision in our new DNA legislation to regulate this area of the database.
Judge Tompkins also provided us with very valuable insight into the lessons learned from the outcome of the contentious S & Marper cases which reached the European Human Rights Courts. I so wished even ONE member of our Portfolio Committee could have been there to participate in these discussions, as they have stated on more than one occasion that they are considering the outcome of this case in the review of our legislation. This case you may recall, centres around the retention of ‘innocent’ profiles on the database where the person is subsequently acquitted or the case is dropped. What you may find interesting, is that “S” is a person named Smith who was a minor at the time of his DNA profile being loaded onto the database. Smith was not subsequently convicted. But how ironic is this: Smith was recently linked to a crime he was found guilty of committing – how? Because his DNA profile found on the crime scene matched his ‘innocent’ profile on the database….
Carolyn and I left the Interpol Headquarters last Friday with our heads full of new information and new ideas; new friends and allies and more importantly renewed motivation. We received such wonderful support for the work we are doing in South Africa – everyone found it completely unique (and not surprisingly, somewhat strange!) that a non-government organisation was necessary in a country like South Africa where we provide DNA awareness, grass roots training, skills development and most importantly a public voice to try and convince the relevant governmental powers of the value of a criminal intelligence DNA database. Be that as it may, we will continue with our mission to ‘fight crime with science’, and whilst we are not advocating that this is the ‘silver bullet’ to resolve crime, it certainly remains a mystery as to why South Africa has not leapt at the opportunity to more fully use this phenomenal technology where accountability for crime has not yet been achieved.
Should you wish to know anything further about the conference, feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org