Bensalem’s DNA program gets national spotlight

JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTO Bensalem Director of Public Safety Fred Harran introduces a countywide DNA database for Bucks County in October 2015

JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTO Bensalem Director of Public Safety Fred Harran introduces a countywide DNA database for Bucks County in October 2015

Bensalem Public Safety Director Fred Harran took top billing in an article published by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism site. A photo of him was featured or the article, “DNA Dragnet: In Some Cities, Police Go From Stop-and-Frisk to Stop-and-Spit,” which also contains his comments about Bensalem’s DNA database.

Bensalem has been building its own DNA database since 2010. Starting in 2013, it launched a program where police can analyze DNA samples on-site within 90 minutes. The program is now part of a countywide database.

As of October of last year, Bucks County was the first county in the nation with all its municipalities contributing to a countywide database. Harran introduced the program last year, and is quoted in the ProPublica article saying:

“This has probably been the greatest innovation in local law enforcement since the bulletproof vest,” Harran said. “It stops crime in its tracks…. So why everyone’s not doing it, I don’t know.”

But the article is skeptical about programs like these. It begins with a recounting of youths in Florida who were not under arrest but gave consent to have their DNA taken under vague circumstances. Later, the article notes:

There are clear precedents for obtaining DNA from people who have been convicted of crimes and from those under arrest. Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement must have a reasonable suspicion that a person is involved in a crime before requiring a search or seizure.

But the notion of collecting DNA consensually is still so new that the ground rules remain uncertain. Who can give such consent and what must they be told about what they’re consenting to?

Harran also addresses this, saying:

“There’s no laws, there’s nothing,” he said. “We’re in uncharted territory. There’s nothing governing what we’re doing.” He wants private database programs to establish their own best practices.

As of last October, Bensalem had collected 13,000 DNA samples.

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