The Double-Helix Dichotomy | News | Miami | Miami New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Miami, Florida


The Double-Helix Dichotomy

Last year, while he was deputy commander of investigations at the Miami Police Department, Capt. David Rivera sent a memo to then-Chief Raul Martinez about fingerprinting police officers. All officers are fingerprinted as part of their background checks; those records are also used at crime scenes to discern which prints...
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Last year, while he was deputy commander of investigations at the Miami Police Department, Capt. David Rivera sent a memo to then-Chief Raul Martinez about fingerprinting police officers. All officers are fingerprinted as part of their background checks; those records are also used at crime scenes to discern which prints belong to cops and which to suspects.

With an eye toward facilitating future investigations, Rivera suggested to Martinez that the department also obtain DNA samples from all officers. Martinez rejected the idea, but word of the suggestion spread through the police grapevine. The reaction was universally negative -- no DNA from cops.

Armando Aguilar, vice president of Miami PD's union, the Fraternal Order of Police, says the FOP never took an official position on the matter because it died with the chief's decision. But he's pretty sure where the union would stand. "I don't see a need for DNA," he reports. "It's an intrusion on my privacy and my rights.... We might as well live in a communist state where the government has total control over everybody."

Those sentiments are shared by John Rivera, president of the county's largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association. "It would be horrific," Rivera says. "People tend to forget that law-enforcement officers are human beings. At no time when you put on this uniform do you forfeit your rights." The PBA, Rivera adds, would fight any attempt to extract DNA from police, arguing that it would violate constitutionally protected rights to privacy.

Among other things, police are worried that DNA might be used by health-insurance companies to deny coverage for certain disorders that could be revealed by the samples, a fear heightened by unknown future applications of the technology. University of Miami constitutional and criminal law professor Donald Jones agrees. "We can't even predict all the ways it can be used," he says. "It can reveal whether you have AIDS. It can reveal your health status. And there's no guarantee the information is safe or secure."

While firmly opposed to providing samples of their own DNA, Miami police officers have been ordered to obtain samples from anyone who bears a resemblance to the composite sketch of the serial rapist stalking West Little Havana. There are no law professors present during the sampling, and police aren't informing volunteers of their constitutional rights. The only thing a DNA volunteer sees is a release form that states the sample is for "criminal investigative purposes." The release also notes that "the specimen will be entered into a DNA database" maintained by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).

The canvassing began last month after Miami police matched DNA obtained from seven crime scenes dating from September of last year. During the first few days, officers and technicians from the department's identification unit obtained samples from about a dozen people per day. Some suspects were stopped along the street as they spoke to neighbors; others were waiting for buses or drinking coffee at cafetería windows.

The individual depicted in the composite sketch -- a thirtyish Latino with facial hair, a round face, and a thick nose -- hasn't proved to be especially helpful to police. "I hate to say it, but this composite matches a lot of people you stop on the street," observes Ofcr. Carlos Balasino, who patrols the West Little Havana neighborhood. In fact one of the three original sketches -- in which the suspect had his hat turned backward -- was removed from wanted posters because, according to Balasino, "everyone with a hat looked like that."

Today the canvassing has slowed, but potential suspects are still providing DNA when confronted by officers or implicated via the anonymous Crime Stoppers hotline. More than 600 tips have come in since DNA collection began last month, and the ID unit has taken more than 220 samples.

According to Lt. Carlos Alfaro, head of Miami PD's sexual battery unit, most volunteers cooperate "because they want to help." But apparently that spirit of cooperation is not universal. "If they realize they're going to be harassed," Alfaro elaborates, "they say, 'Let's get this shit over with.'" Still, he insists, there is no coercion, and only two people have refused.

One individual who recently provided a DNA sample was typical of the men police are getting these days. Miami PD had called him at home to say a tipster had described him as resembling the rapist. After an officer visited him at his house, the man agreed to volunteer a sample. So anxious was he to be done with the test he didn't wait for the ID unit to show up; he simply drove to police headquarters himself.

While two technicians from the ID unit prepared a DNA kit, the volunteer sat silently in the cluttered office of the sexual battery unit. The kit consists of various swabbing devices, instructions, the release form, and envelopes. The release was placed in front of him and he quickly signed it. It explained that his sample will become part of a Florida database after the state crime lab analyzes it. "As long as he signs that, that's all we care about," one ID unit technician said to the other.

Then the test began. An elongated Q-tip was removed from the kit and rubbed against the back of the man's mouth for the dead skin cells that will provide the DNA. The swab was then carefully placed in an envelope. A swab that resembled a lollipop was used for a second sample, which was smeared on a small piece of thick paper that looked like a matchbook. The paper was sealed with a fastener and, along with the lollipop, went into a different envelope. All these items were then marked for transport to the FDLE in Tallahassee.

"I'm embarrassed that someone thinks I'm the rapist," the volunteer said afterward. Not surprisingly he did bear a resemblance to the composite sketch. He admitted he hadn't read the release form before signing it and so had no idea his DNA would become part of a statewide database and remain there indefinitely.

Police officials say they are doing their best to mitigate the privacy concerns inherent in the collection of DNA samples -- concerns Lieutenant Alfaro believes were a creation of the media. FDLE spokeswoman Sue Livingston maintains that the samples are "junk DNA," meaning they can't be used for anything other than identifying someone. "The DNA profiles we gather from these samples don't have any medical information," she explains, adding that access to the database is strictly limited to law enforcement.

Such reassurances have not appeased the American Civil Liberties Union, which is calling for police to destroy the DNA samples after the West Little Havana rape investigation is concluded. "It's information that can lead to discrimination in the workplace if it gets into the wrong hands," says Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida ACLU. "And it almost inevitably does with the government."

The police themselves seem to agree.

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