The Los Angeles Times has an interesting story about a fight between the Los Angeles Police Department and the police union over the collection of officers’ genetic data. The opinions stated by the police union are similar to arguments (pdf) that have been consistently made by civil liberty groups when discussing collection of DNA from individuals.
For nearly a year, the union representing officers has sparred with the Los Angeles Police Department over the department’s refusal to set limits on its practice of collecting DNA samples from officers involved in shootings and other incidents involving serious force. Although rarely done, officers can be required to submit a saliva swab as part of the investigations the department conducts into such incidents.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents the department’s roughly 9,500 rank-and-file officers, warned its members about the issue in an open letter this month, telling them it could lead to invasions of privacy and misuse of the information.
“The privacy issues here are very real,” said union President Paul M. Weber in an interview. “Who is to say where the samples will be stored and who will be able to access them? There is nothing more private than DNA.”
The union has been asking the LAPD to “sign a binding agreement that would have established rules limiting when and how samples can be taken and stored,” but the department has refused citing concerns that such rules would hamper investigations. The department also states that it has privacy-protective procedures in place, such as the destruction of officers’ DNA samples after investigations are completed.
The union echos numerous privacy experts when it “expressed concern that the department’s restraint today could give way to more widespread testing in the future. [Union officials] also said that despite assurances from the department, they do not trust the LAPD to safeguard officers’ DNA from mistakenly being uploaded to state and national databases kept for criminal investigation purposes.”
Increasingly, DNA information is being collected and stored. Federal and state legislatures have passed broad legislation to gather genetic data. The Kyl Amendment to the 2006 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act authorized the collection of DNA from anyone arrested or charged for a felony or crime of violence, and from any non-U.S. citizen detained by a federal agency. Non-U.S. citizens who are detained for any reason will have their DNA collected. Twelve states, including California, have passed laws authorizing DNA collection from arrestees. These laws mean that U.S. citizens who are arrested or charged but not convicted of specified crimes will have their DNA collected.
Public (and now law enforcement union) support for regulations and numerous scandals concerning DNA evidence collection and reliability make clear that there needs to be more transparency and oversight of the collection, testing and retention of DNA data. Examples: Carelessness in DNA evidence processing in Maryland crime labs; mishandling of DNA evidence in the Massachusetts State Police crime laboratory; coverage by the Los Angeles Times on questions surrounding the reliability of DNA evidence; and, DNA errors that led to Australian police re-opening 7,000 cases.
Some laws have been passed to protect genetic data, but more needs to be done. Mark Rothstein had a good article in September’s Scientific American, “Tougher Laws Needed to Protect Your Genetic Privacy.”