Worries over DNA and racial profiling

Worries over DNA and racial profiling

Written by: Fizza Qureshi

Black men are four times more likely than White men to be on the national DNA database and there is growing concern about racial profiling in criminal investigations.

The police national DNA database (NDNAD), launched in 1995, now contains almost three million profiles. The prospect of everyone providing a DNA profile for the database is unlikely because of concerns put forward by civil liberties groups about such a system undermining the presumption of innocence. However, recent legislation has made it simpler for the police to input DNA profiles to the database and it is now lawful to retain DNA profiles for the NDNAD from those arrested, even when a person has neither been charged nor convicted.

The over-representation of Black and Minority Ethnic men on the database, which Professor Alec Jeffreys, inventor of the DNA fingerprinting technique, has recently described in the New Scientist as ‘highly discriminatory’, is increasingly likely to spill over into racialised policing. Currently, 32% of all Black males within the UK are on the database, compared to only 8% of white males. While DNA forensic evidence is often presented as having near-perfect accuracy, in fact there is potential for error and mismatch.

It is common practice for forensic science laboratories to retain samples, although the technology, at present, is limited to a small non-coding portion of the DNA, which does not unveil any information besides the person’s identity. The Forensic Science Service (FSS) claims that it keeps samples to ensure a mistake has not been made in the database. Yet, a researcher at the NDNAD has already confirmed that any retained samples may be subject to full DNA analysis in the future. This would reveal a person’s ethnicity and other personal characteristics. The database is already being used for research projects authorised by the Home Office and the NDNAD; one study is extracting statistical information on ethnicity. The dangers lie not only in using the database as a policing tool but also in its use as a wider ethnicity-profiling tool.

Operation Minstead

Last year, an operation in South London was criticised for its racial bias. According to allegations made to The Voice by Nathaniel Braithwaite, a Black policeman involved in ‘Operation Minstead’, officers had been ordered by their superiors to stop Black men in South London and ask them to provide DNA samples. Braithwaite was instructed to stop light-skinned Black men, between the ages of 25 to 40, between 5 foot 8 inches and 6 foot one inch. He was told to ask them to provide a DNA sample to assist with an investigation into a spate of burglaries. This action was taken as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into a series of rapes across south London thought to have all been perpetrated by a Black man, who had come to be nicknamed ‘the nightstalker’.

According to Braithwaite, if people objected to giving a voluntary DNA sample, they were to be arrested on suspicion of rape; a compulsory DNA swab could then be taken at the police station. Their DNA would be stored on the national database indefinitely along with those who gave ‘voluntary’ samples.

An article in the Metropolitan Police’s own newspaper, The Job, in December 2003, advised all police officers to support Operation Minstead by taking DNA swabs from even those people arrested who ‘may not fit the profile’ given in the description of the perpetrator but who still ‘give you concern’.

Braithwaite objected to the nature of the DNA swabbing operation and this led to meetings with his superiors. He was subsequently asked to provide a DNA sample himself. After his initial refusal, he consulted the Police Federation, which backed his objection to provide a sample, on the grounds of it being a racially discriminatory policy. However, after discussions with colleagues, Nathaniel Braithwaite reneged and did provide a sample.

In April 2004, investigators decided that all Black officers in the Metropolitan Police should submit DNA samples. Having to provide yet another DNA sample prompted Braithwaite’s resignation from the Met. (He is awaiting a tribunal hearing on his case of unfair dismissal and racial discrimination.)

The Braithwaite case drew attention to the discriminatory potential in database creation. But it also revealed the limitations of such large DNA trawls. For Operation Minstead had already provided officers with enough detail about the suspect’s physical profile and family origins through ancestral DNA. Yet, after twelve years, no suspect had been discovered.

The fear for individuals, particularly those from Black and Minority Ethnic groups is not just the action of DNA profiling for specific cases, but the misuse of this information when it has been retained. By inputting as many Black and Minority Ethnic people onto the system as possible, the expanding, but unrepresentative, database is poised to form the basis for further ethnicity studies, and remains as a permanent tool for racial profiling.

Related links

Swab Squad – news report in the Voice newspaper

Operation Minstead – report in the Metropolitan Police’s newspaper, The Job

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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