Gotham Gazette

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DNA Redux

As reported in the Gotham Gazette last month, NYPD Police Commissioner Howard Safir has said DNA testing, which uses samples of genetic material to identify potential suspects, could revolutionize law enforcement, if only legislators would catch up to the technology. He's just gotten his wish. On February 23rd, Governor Pataki proposed new laws that would broadly expand the use of DNA in solving crimes. These proposals, the most aggressive measures in the country, would eliminate the statute of limitations on sixteen felonies and allow police to collect DNA samples from anyone convicted of a crime.

As in most U.S. states, current New York law restricts the use of DNA testing. Only those convicted of the most serious felony cases (about 65% of all felonies) must provide samples, and, with the exception of murder, crimes can only be prosecuted up to five years after they're committed. But DNA samples can reliably identify or clear a suspect well after five years' time, and can link an inmate convicted of one crime to others.

DNA testing has been a hot media topic in recent weeks. In a long piece for City Journal, Commissioner Safir championed DNA testing as a crime-fighting tool. In the pages of Newsweek, the founders of the Innocence Project, a legal center that seeks to overturn mistaken death row sentences, argued that making testing more accessible could help free many inmates who have been wrongly imprisoned. And in an article the Governor said influenced his decision to submit his proposals, the New York Times reported on rape cases in which DNA had identified suspects who could no longer be prosecuted under the statute of limitations.

It's not yet clear how the State Legislature, controlled by Democrats who have rejected some of the Governor's previous criminal justice initiatives, will vote on the new proposals. But with DNA on a fast track from obscurity to the top of New York's criminal justice agenda, don't be surprised to see DNA crime labs getting a lot of funding and attention.

Jerome Sounds Off:

"Verdicts do not send messages," defense attorneys in the Diallo trial told jurors, but of course we know better. The acquittals jurors handed out in Albany last Friday may have been based on sound legal judgment, but they still send a terrible message, especially to those living in the City's minority neighborhoods: no one was at fault in this case. What other response can you expect from the thousands who marched in demonstrations this past weekend? You feel either sadness or terrible rage.

What we need, then, is someone to step forward and deliver another message. Where do we go from here? The Reverend Calvin Butts, no stranger to political opportunism, called on his congregation to work against Mayor Giuliani's probable Senate run. Al Sharpton, who so effectively galvanized protestors last year, suggested a vague, untargeted boycott. Both men fanned their audiences' anger and resentment.

They've got that part right. But now's the time to turn heated emotions into something lasting, a way to change police practices in the City. We can expect the Mayor and Police Commissioner will do nothing until something forces their hand, as protesters did last year. There's no end of specific proposals that public pressure could highlight. Provide more funding for the CCRB and demand a commitment from the Commissioner to disclose how he's punishing officers guilty of abusing their power. Take former Commissioner William Bratton's suggestion to reduce the size of the force by 5,000 officers, allowing more training for those remaining. Curb the Street Crime Unit (a long overdue change that Comissioner Safir began last October when he shut down the infamous squad's headquarters and created eight separate units).

Community leaders could also take on a very unglamorous, time-consuming, and painstaking mission: working with community residents to hold their local precincts accountable. As Eli Silverman, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice wrote in the Gotham Gazette last year, "Like most citizens who hold Congress in low esteem but highly value their own Representative, many New Yorkers...resent the [NYPD] but seek more contact with their own beat officer." If the NYPD wants to win back some trust, and residents want to gain some sense of control over how their neighborhood is policed, one place to start is in community meetings with the precinct commander.

Normally, the precinct meetings held regularly across the city are a charade between self-appointed community VIPs and precinct commanders who play good cop for the evening. But a strong, coordinated group can put legitimate issues on the table and give residents and officers a chance to interact with each other outside of traditional roles.

Admittedly, it takes a little wishful thinking to imagine that people all over the city could be mobilized to improve the performance of their local police precincts. But after the painful unfolding of events this past weekend, I think we're entitled to it.

Jerome Chou is a freelance writer. He works part-time interviewing recently released ex-offenders about their re-entry into society.

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