DNA has been the driving force in developing investigative information in all types of crimes across the country. New techniques such as forensic genealogy coupled with the legislatively driven sexual assault kit testing requirements are challenging the forensic community to meet these increased testing needs while maintaining high quality standards. Fortunately, the forensic laboratory community thrives in challenging situations.
Forensic DNA laboratories are seeing an increase in demand for testing which is presenting many challenges, most of which they have never before faced. Most will agree that 2020 has exacerbated these challenges and created unpredictable strains on our ability to operate. The global pandemic we are currently facing, which has impacted the ability of many of us to work safely and has required rapid adaptation to minimize the risk of spreading infection. Bode Technology and other crime laboratories have found new ways to work within our organization, and together, to ensure we are meeting the public safety demands to our law enforcement and community partners.
The Demand for DNA Testing
DNA analysis remains a critical element in many criminal investigations and technology is evolving quickly, driving the demand for testing. Rapid DNA instruments, for example, enable law enforcement and attorneys to have fast and hands-on access to DNA. To further fuel the demand, federal funding and public awareness of forensic genealogy resulting in high-profile DNA match successes are enabling investigators to utilized DNA to solve cases that were previously thought of as unsolvable.
Newly enacted sexual assault kit testing legislation is driving more cases to the labs, often with mandatory turnaround times. This legislation is often doubling or tripling the submission rates of these kits to laboratories. The impact of managing both a backlog and an influx of new cases can strain laboratory operations.
According to the End the Backlog website, more than 100,000 sexual assault kits have been identified either in backlogs or unsubmitted by law enforcement. Additionally:
- 29 states, including DC, have sexual assault kit audit laws
- 34 states, including DC, have mandatory testing for new kits
- 9 states require the testing of old kits
- 25 have tracking laws, including DC
- 24 have victim right to know the status of their kit
While these legislative improvements are taking steps to creating safer communities, they are also increasing the demand and strain on public/ state laboratories. This has led to an increase in outsourcing to private laboratories like Bode and further strengthened partnerships between the public and private sectors.
Driving Workflows and Improving Processes
Faced with the unprecedented demand for the testing of current cases, combined with the visibility of the testing status resulting from requirements for tracking and victims’-right-to-know legislation, it is critical to identify ways to meet the demand on testing while maintaining a high level of quality. Sometimes, out-of-the-box thinking is necessary.
Traditionally, the approach for the DNA analysis of sexual assault kits has been to perform manual slide searches for spermatozoa. While this provides valuable information for investigators and attorneys regarding the source of the biological material, it can be a bottle neck in the laboratory. This has been one of the drivers for implementing male DNA screening (Y-screening, Y-marker screening, etc.) in sexual assault cases.
At Bode, we initiated a Y-screening approach while supporting one of our clients in clearing their backlog in the mid-2000s. Through the elimination of the burden of manual searching, we were able to quickly increase capacity and reduce costs. Unfortunately, this shifted the bottleneck and provided strains on DNA analysis and technical review. To address this, Bode has focused on implementing automation, along with extractions utilizing DNase, an enzyme that breaks down DNA, to help create cleaner profiles. These procedures have saved thousands of hours of analyst time annually, where we are now reporting approximately 15,000 kits per year.
The focus on developing these technologies has enabled partnerships with laboratories across the country that are faced with the burden of managing a backlog and an increase in cases. Some have recognized that the spike in testing best managed by partnering with a private laboratory. In doing so, cases will be reported sooner and the impact of reducing the backlog will be felt by those involved much more quickly when compared to the cost and process of hiring and training internally. The forensic community is a close one, and the partnerships and relationships we have developed to accomplish our goals will continue to have a positive impact on public safety.
Why Are We Testing
The importance of testing sexual assault kits cannot be understated. Sexual assault is a very violent and personal crime. Statistics have shown that 8 out of 10 perpetrators of sexual assault know their victim¹. Additionally, many suspects in these cases have significant criminal histories². Most of us got into forensics to help solve crime, but if we can use science to identify perpetrators before they commit a subsequent crime, the impact to our community is that much more significant.
Beyond the personal impact our work has on victims, a recent study demonstrates the significant economic impact of the use of DNA in investigations³. Research shows that testing backlogged rape kits produces a positive return on investment (ROI) of up to 65,000% to society.
In addition to the positive support of the community on clearing backlogs, the economic impact of preventing crimes is significant as well. Researchers have estimated that testing every rape kit could save states more than $400,000 per averted assault. As more kits are tested, more serial offenders are identified which, assumedly, prevents future sexual assaults.
Over the past several years, the increase in legislation has often been balanced with increased investments from the federal government to create programs that will clear and prevent backlogs. These programs will help prevent future crimes, protect the would-be victims and have a positive economic impact to the communities.
The Emergence of New Technologies
Forensic genealogy has taken the industry by storm since the very public, and high-profile, identification of James DeAngelo as the suspect in the Golden State Killer case. Since then, forensic genealogy has been instrumental in developing investigative leads in cold-case homicides and rapes, as well as identifying unknown remains across the country. Almost every case is highlighted in the media and it is conceivable that this technology will become more mainstream in the future.
Through Bode’s forensic genealogy program, we have thoroughly documented the use of both microarray single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) and whole genome sequencing (WGS) technologies to generate genetic profiles that can be searched against public entries in genetic databases such as Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) and GEDmatch. Bode strives to protect the confidentiality of both the investigation and the genetic witnesses identified in the databases throughout the course of the investigation while simultaneously enforcing strict protocols and training for our analysts and genealogists in order to ensure all evidence, documentation and communication is being handled properly.
For crime laboratories, it is likely that as these technologies are brought in-house, there is far more to consider than just sending out samples to be tested. It also adds additional burden to already maxed out laboratories to perform research, develop protocols and policies and train staff on communicating with law enforcement. As we collectively manage the rise in demand, the key to success likely lies within the continued collaboration of our communities.
The Pandemic Tipping Point
Considering everything that we are dealing with, it is easy to see that there is very little time to stop and observe the significant impact that forensic DNA laboratories, analysts and technicians, are having on our communities.
The global pandemic, which has impacted the ability of many of us to work in a safe environment and has required rapid adaptation to minimize the risk of spreading infection. In order to determine a way to continue to provide quality results while protecting the health of our scientists, the forensic industry has done what we have always done, adapted.
CLEAR Cases Initiative and Testing Cases ASAP
As we continue our mission in making the world a safer place, Bode has recently introduced our CLEAR Cases Initiative. The CLEAR Cases Initiative is more than just a clever acronym for Current Law Enforcement Analysis Requests. Traditionally, Bode’s work has been focused on backlogged or unsubmitted cases. The CLEAR Cases Initiative eases the increasing burden of the current caseload on our clients and reduces turnaround times of current cases. The program creates a customized approach to priority casework and enables our clients to respond to their communities by developing investigative leads quickly in the violent crimes that are making the biggest impact on public safety.
The CLEAR cases initiative is available to laboratories managing their current casework demand, or potentially putting in contingency plans in the event they are impacted by the pandemic, or whatever else 2020 may throw at us.
In addition to the CLEAR Cases Initiative, Bode continues to offer our Accelerated Sexual Assault kit Processing service – Bode ASAP. Through this program, Bode works with clients to receive sexual assault kits on a weekly basis and report results in as fast as two weeks in-order to meet legislative and investigative needs. This program is focused on current casework and is already having an impact in helping solve cases across the country. Like the CLEAR Cases Initiative, this program enables our clients to have a solution, or a back-up solution, in place and ready to go if needed.
Unprecedented Times Call for New Solutions
At Bode, we have spent the past 25 years developing relationships within the forensic science community which have allowed us to meet our clients’ needs for DNA testing, CODIS upload, and investigative support. This support has also enabled us to develop layers of back-ups and contingency plans.
We have seen the impact that domestic policy, advancing technologies, and global catastrophes can have on our livelihood. While we cannot predict the future, we can certainly consider where we are today and how we can best prepare for the future. At Bode, we are working to do this through strategic partnerships within our community and continuing to encourage communication through our networks. We invite all of you to work with us and to be a part of these solutions as we look ahead to unprecedented times. No lab, public or private, is immune to the impact of this virus, but we can do our best to prepare and respond to any challenge that we are faced with.
For more information visit https://www.bodetech.com/pages/clear-cases-priority-dna-testing-current-casework or email Bode.Service@Bodetech.com.
¹ Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2010-2016 (2017).
² Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties, 2009 (2013).