Saturday, December 29

Race, Crime, and DNA

The Inconvenient Science of Racial DNA Profiling (Wired)
A condensed version of this article (Wired)

DNAWitness, a test offered by the Florida genetics company DNAPrint Genomics, claims to be able to identify (with 99% accuracy) the ancestry of a human based on a sample of their DNA. It has been used in over 150 criminal cases to help the police narrow down their suspect lists based on race. In the case described in this article, a serial killer in Baton Rouge was only found after DNAWitness determined that he was Afro-Carribean or African American; until then, the police had been focusing exclusively on Caucasians.

Such a tool would seem to be of great utility to law enforcement, and yet it appears that this test has failed to gain acceptance in the field. Price is cited as a barrier, but a $1500 to $3000 price tag would hardly seem to be prohibitive, especially for assistance is solving a case that has already been worked on substantially. Accuracy is obviously a concern, but blind trials have apparently shown the test to be highly accurate. The real issue here is whether this test represents a type of "racial profiling" that we should use to assist law enforcement. Even using the term "racial profiling" in this context seems questionable: not only because of the highly emotional associations we all have with the term, but also because narrowing the scope of an investigation based solely upon generic assumptions about which races commit which crimes is a far cry from basing that decision upon the genetic markers contained in DNA found at a specific crime scene.

Unfortunately, I think it's unlikely that such a tool will take off in the near future given the very sensitive racial climate we inhabit, in which emotion (sometimes rightfully so) comes first and reason comes second. In the long term, however, I hope that these tests will be proven highly and consistently accurate, and will ultimately become one more tool in the arsenal of effective law enforcement.

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