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NYPD's 'Knock-and-Spit' DNA Database Makes You a Permanent Suspect

To enhance its DNA database, the New York City Police Department has not only conducted door-to-door “knock-and-spit” swab tests "by consent" in low-income neighborhoods on people who might not even be suspects, but also offers drinks or cigarettes at the precinct from which DNA can be collected.

Writing in the New York Daily News, Allison Lewis, a staff attorney for The Legal Aid Society, which provides legal services for New Yorkers at or below the poverty level, describes how the NYPD targets low-income and nonwhite neighborhoods for “the latest form of racial profiling,” building out a sprawling and unaccountable database of New Yorkers’ DNA.

In a single 2016 murder investigation, the NYPD collected more than 500 DNA samples from men living in East New York, adding them to the more than 64,000 DNA profiles now kept by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Originally collected "before they had identified a suspect," according to the news report, DNA belonging to those cleared of suspicion, including those never convicted of a crime, will now be routinely compared—thousands of times a year—to DNA collected from rapes, murders and other violent crimes throughout the city.

"It’s widely known that communities of color are over-policed in New York City, and we can safely make the inference that majority of DNA profiles in OCME’s database belong to black and brown New Yorkers," Redmond J. Haskins, deputy communications director for The Legal Aid Society, told Newsweek. "As New York’s primary public defender representing individuals in all five boroughs, we see this playing out every day with our cases."

In addition to "by consent" “knock-and-spit” DNA collection in low-income neighborhoods, the police department has protocols in place for nonconsensual collection, premised on the idea that DNA collected from cigarette butts, coffee cups and bottled water has been “abandoned” and is no longer subject to an expectation of privacy. In 2010, an NYPD memo outlined procedures for collecting uncontaminated DNA samples, including cleaning interrogation surfaces with a solution of “10-to-1 ratio of water to bleach,” offering a clean ashtray and requiring that detectives maintain “unbroken eye contact” with the sample.

Despite efforts by Corey Johnson, New York City Council’s health committee chair, to prohibit the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to retain DNA from people cleared or never convicted of a crime, there is no procedure in place to remove DNA from the database. In November  2018, a Manhattan criminal court judge ruled that the NYPD could no longer swab minors without parental consent, further arguing that state law prohibits the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner  from permanently storing the DNA of people never convicted of a crime. The NYPD has pushed back on the ruling.

“Those 17, 18-year-olds are part of the cohort that commit a lot of the crimes, so this will definitely hinder investigations into street robberies, gang activity,” retired NYPD detective sergeant and an adjunct professor at City University of New York told The Appeal, arguing minors shouldn’t be exempt from DNA collection. “After a while, what is the age going to be? 125?”

Beyond the potential civil rights violations, the Daily News also outlined how DNA contamination could lead to false positives, such as in the case of Lukis Anderson, charged with murder after paramedics treated both him and a murdered billionaire in the same night, cross-contaminating the crime scene. Despite having nothing to do with the murder, Anderson faced a death sentence for seven months before he was cleared.

The possibility of crime scene contamination is further exacerbated by a notable exception to the DNA database: police officers themselves, who aren’t required to provide their own DNA under their current contract.

Newsweek has reached out to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for further comment. 

This article has been updated to include comment from Redmond J. Haskins, deputy communications director for The Legal Aid Society.

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