Austin police using DNA to solve thefts

AUSTIN, TX DNA evidence such as saliva or drops of blood have helped Austin police crack otherwise hard-to-solve cases.

"When we first started hearing about DNA, I didn't expect it would be used on crimes like this," said Detective Michael Sanford in a story Sunday in the Austin American-Statesman. "But we are always looking for as much evidence as we can get."

Detectives say that in several of the rare instances when they collected DNA evidence at property crime scenes, it led to arrests or more clues in cases that probably would have remained unsolved.

Police say they have submitted DNA evidence from about 50 property crime scenes in the city this year -- a tiny percentage of the roughly 38,000 property crimes reported -- and identified 10 suspects by comparing it with DNA profiles in a national database of criminals.

Although police have found DNA evidence in everything from baseball caps to gloves and other clothing left at crime scenes, they say it is too early to know how DNA evidence might affect conviction rates in property crime cases.

But a recent U.S. Department of Justice and Urban Institute study that promotes the practice said authorities in selected cities identified twice as many property crime suspects when officers collected DNA. Police officials in Los Angeles; Denver; Phoenix; Topeka, Kan.; and Orange County, Calif., participated in the study.

John Roman, one of the authors, said he knows of no organization that tracks the number of U.S. law enforcement agencies that use DNA evidence to solve property crimes but that he thinks probably fewer than 100 agencies among 17,000 nationally do so.

Experts suggested that one possible reason is that many departments are struggling to reduce backlogs of DNA testing in violent crime cases.

Among major Texas cities, Austin has the only department collecting and testing DNA samples in property crime cases. The city opened its new crime lab in 2004 and has a small case backlog.

"The people in Austin invested in what I believe to be one of the best crime labs in the nation," Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said. "We are doing everything we can to maximize its use."

Experts expect departments nationwide will continue to embrace the trend as more federal grant money becomes available for expanded DNA testing, more workers become trained to do the testing and the tests become less expensive. Austin police estimate that a DNA test costs about $2,000 and takes about 60 hours of employee labor.

Ed Harris, chief of field support services for the Austin police, said the department recently received more federal grant money to pay overtime to DNA analysts and to purchase more equipment, including refrigeration units, that make more testing possible.

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