Police chiefs association seeks changes in DNA laws

Group wants right to test suspects after arrest

March 20, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The nation's police chiefs are going to Congress today to push their legislative agendas, including the right to take DNA samples from people arrested on suspicion of violent crimes.

The proposal has alarmed some civil libertarians, but the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police says it is no different from the routine practice of fingerprinting suspects.

"We're not talking about sticking a needle in somebody and drawing blood," Bruce D. Glasscock, the association's president, said in an interview as more than 100 fellow chiefs and police superintendents began assembling yesterday to fan out across Capitol Hill.

"The procedure involves taking a swab of saliva from a suspect's mouth. It's no more invasive than a fingerprint, and it would help police determine who committed many crimes while clearing those who did not," Glasscock said.

The police chiefs are pressing their case early in the 107th Congress and to the new Republican administration. Founded in 1893, the IACP is the world's oldest and largest organization of police executives, with members in the United States and 95 other countries.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil libertarians object to mandatory DNA sampling as a violation of innocent people's privacy. They say the creation of a national DNA database could lead to mass screenings of innocent people in a hunt for criminals.

Glasscock - the police chief of Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas - said law enforcement officers can get DNA samples if suspects allow them to be taken. In some cases, officers have obtained court orders to get the samples.

"With the new technology, if you walk into a crime scene and find a toothpick or a cigarette butt, a trace of saliva can provide a valuable clue," Glasscock said. "But you have to match it with a suspect. Law enforcement, in some respects, is just catching up with the new technology."

Two years ago, the Justice Department's National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence decided to oppose mandatory DNA testing for people charged with crimes. But it urged federal and state prosecutors to use genetic evidence that could exonerate convicts. Glasscock believes the Bush administration may pave the way for a new look at mandatory testing.

The police chiefs want Congress to create a commission that would recommend ways to adapt technology for police work. The Johnson administration created a similar group in the mid-1960s.

That commission's report led to numerous innovations, including improved radio-communications systems for police and the establishment of now-familiar 911 emergency telephone numbers. Glasscock said it is time for an updated look at "the technological changes in police work. ... There's been an erosion of public confidence in our efforts."

Glasscock said his members also are concerned about racial profiling, the practice of targeting minorities for traffic stops and other enforcement actions.

"This is occurring, unfortunately, in many parts of the country," the chief said. "But we don't believe it's widespread. Good agencies won't tolerate it."

Glasscock, who has spent 32 years doing police work in Florida, Colorado and Texas, said his members also are urging Congress to renew the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program.

"We're concerned because this program is expiring," he said. But the nation's police chiefs would also like more flexibility to spend COPS grants for technology and hiring additional officers, Glasscock said.

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