New DNA analysis technology made available to local police agencies will speed up the testing process in criminal cases, which could lead to identifying suspects much faster, law enforcement officials said.
The Tucson Police Department and Pima County Sheriff’s Department are using the new testing equipment for some cases, officials said earlier this week.
“To me, it’s the most exciting thing in forensics” since traditional testing of DNA, said TPD Assistant Chief John Leavitt at a recent meeting of the Citizens Police Advisory Review Board. “What you already think we can do, now we can do it.”
Law enforcement agencies in Arizona began training to use the equipment in April 2014. Tucson police officers were trained in October. Two police detectives and two Pima County sheriff’s detectives have been trained to operate the RapidHIT 200 testing equipment.
Typical DNA analysis can take anywhere from days to months — even to years, causing significant backlogs, said Jelena Myers, DNA technical leader at the Tucson police crime lab. There is a larger need for DNA analysis than there are people to perform it, she added.
As of Tuesday, Tucson police had 584 backlogged cases where the DNA needs testing, according to Officer Kristopher Goins, a police spokesman. DNA samples are tested based on priority, with violent crimes, including homicide and sexual assault with unknown suspects, as highest-priority items. Not all of those cases need the DNA testing now because they’ve been solved or otherwise closed.
The new technology, simply referred to as “rapid DNA,” can produce results in about two hours. The testing equipment is manufactured by California-based IntergenX.
“Rapid DNA is fully automated,” Myers said. “It requires very little intervention by the operator or the user.”
The Arizona Department of Public Safety purchased three RapidHIT 200 machines, which cost about $270,000 per unit, to place in its facilities in Flagstaff, Phoenix and Tucson. The only other agencies in the United States to have rapid DNA technology for forensic testing are the Palm Bay, Florida, Police Department and the crime lab for Orange County, California.
Local law enforcement agencies have access to use the machines and training resources — though openings to be certified as operators are limited — at no cost other than detective time used to process the samples.
It’s being used exclusively in cases where there are large samples of DNA from a single source, such as blood from a homicide scene, said Vince Figarelli, superintendent of the DPS’s scientific analysis bureau. The department is not looking to replace traditional lab testing with rapid DNA technology, but rather to give officers an edge in violent-crimes investigations.
“It gives (officers) the ability to generate an investigative lead within two hours of collecting a sample from the crime scene,” he said.
While it speeds up DNA testing, there are several drawbacks to the new technology — it’s less sensitive than regular testing devices, it can’t use the FBI’s national DNA database to seek matches, and it could face legal challenges under certain circumstances when used in court proceedings.
As of now, investigators submitting DNA samples for processing through rapid DNA equipment also submit it to laboratories for traditional analysis to ensure consistent results, Figarelli said. But the goal is to eventually eliminate that need.
TPD has used it in 10 cases with 12 DNA samples, Myers said. The Sheriff’s Department has used it in about 15 cases, said Deputy Tom Peine, a department spokesman.
For TPD, rapid DNA technology came in useful in tracking a man who had stolen a car and fled the scene, according to Myers. At first, police had sought another person as a suspect, but the actual thief had left behind blood from when he was shot by an officer before fleeing, which detectives collected to analyze using rapid DNA technology.
Within a few hours, police found a match in the Arizona DNA database for the suspect.
“You can’t beat those kinds of results,” she said.
The system also allows for on-demand processing, she said. Law enforcement agencies operate around the clock, while the crime lab does not. Rapid DNA, since it does not require lab technicians’ expertise and manual processing, can be used as needed by certified operators.
But the quick automated technology comes at a price.
The RapidHIT 200 equipment has a lower sensitivity, Myers said.
It can test DNA samples only from a single source, meaning samples like vaginal swabs in a sexual assault case, which would contain more than one person’s DNA, could not be tested using rapid DNA analysis.
The equipment also has a higher failure rate, at about 10 to 15 percent, compared to 1 percent for traditional lab testing, she said, though Figarelli of the DPS said that conclusion may be based on outdated studies. Myers said of the 12 samples tested using it so far, five of them turned out “inconclusive.” In those cases, samples were sent to the lab for reanalysis via traditional methods.
The high cost of the equipment and the cartridges required to process samples are also a concern, she said. Each cartridge, which can test up to five samples, costs $1,750, meaning testing each sample would cost $350. But that’s comparable to how much a private lab would charge per sample, she added.
As of now, the DPS pays for it as part of the state’s budget allocation. But if that funding were to get cut in the future, Tucson police and other local agencies using the equipment would have to find the money elsewhere.
There is also a chance that DNA evidence analyzed through rapid DNA technology may not be able to serve as stand-alone evidence against a defendant. Figarelli said he does not believe the technology should undergo legal scrutiny under a scientific validity and reliability standard, as the equipment uses the same processes of traditional lab testing — it’s just automated.
“It’s a matter of who’s pushing the ‘go’ button,” he said.
But cases may come up where the technology is challenged in court. If DNA evidence analyzed through a rapid-DNA instrument is the only evidence in a case, a hearing would likely take place that determines whether it can be used.
For now, TPD is using rapid DNA as part of the probable cause to make an arrest.
The FBI does not allow forensic samples analyzed using the rapid DNA device to be entered into the federal agency’s Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS, which tracks convicted offenders and arrestees.
Most law enforcement agencies use this national database when searching for DNA matches in cases. The rapid testing uses a state DNA database to search for matches.
Leavitt, the assistant Tucson police chief, said he hopes that within two years, DNA evidence analyzed through the new technology would be widely used and accepted in the criminal justice system, and for more officers to be trained in using it and collecting samples for it to make the best use of the quick processing time.
TPD hasn’t gotten to the point where all officers in the agency know exactly how to utilize the technology, Leavitt said. It has been rolling out this new technology slowly as training resources become available.
“It’s been a hard push to get people to understand this technology as revolutionary even within our own department, but as people see the value of it, it will grow exponentially,” he said.