Nassau police find convicts so DNA samples can be taken

Nassau County police proactively collect DNA samples from people convicted of all felonies and most misdemeanors.  The DNA information is then entered into a database to be checked against DNA found at crime scenes. (Credit: Newsday / Jessica Rotkiewicz)

Nassau County police proactively collect DNA samples from people convicted of all felonies and most misdemeanors. The DNA information is then entered into a database to be checked against DNA found at crime scenes. (Credit: Newsday / Jessica Rotkiewicz)

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The Nassau police department is on the hunt for about 1,200 convicted criminals -- required by state law to provide a DNA sample -- a unique endeavor that has netted the force scores of arrests, police said.

While departments across the state take DNA from convicted criminals at the time of their next arrest, Nassau is one of the few that go out and search for those who owe DNA regardless of when the crime was committed, officials said.

In the past three years, Nassau police have collected 572 samples from those convicted of all felonies and penal code misdemeanors -- including felony DWI. Police don't track how many crimes are solved as the result of DNA collection but estimate about one of every 50 samples collected leads to an arrest.

While the majority of samples are collected at jails and through probation, the remainder falls to the police. Collecting the samples, which are entered into New York's database and the federal system called CODIS, pays off big time, police said. The efforts led to convictions in a 1989 Hempstead murder, a 2005 burglary in New Hyde Park and a 2007 sexual assault and robbery in Roosevelt, among other cases, police said.

New York State began mandating the collection of DNA from some convicts in 1996. It has been amended five times and now mandates DNA sample collection from anyone convicted of all felonies and penal code misdemeanors.

Det. Sgt. Patrick Ryder, commander of the department's Asset Forfeiture and Intelligence Unit, which oversees the DNA collection effort, said in addition to matching a sample to DNA left at a crime scene, police create computer profiles of the people on the DNA list and use the information to connect them to other unsolved cases.

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"It's another tool in our repertoire that solves crime," said Ryder, noting a recent double-digit percent decrease in crime during the first part of the year. "We are one of the most proactive and efficient departments taking samples . . . In the last two to three years, we now proactively go out and collect the DNA."

Unlike Suffolk police and many other police departments across the state, which mostly take the required samples from convicted criminals who owe DNA at the time of their arrest, police in Nassau often go out and search for those who owe DNA, officials said.

 

Gone far and wide

Nassau police, who have collected from people now living in Florida, Alabama and other faraway locales, have waited outside courthouses, knocked on the doors of homes and workplaces in their efforts. They usually meet minimal resistance from their targets, police said.

They have also mailed letters and held "DNA Saturdays," allowing people to come to the department and voluntarily submit.

"When I bring a guy in, we develop a relationship," Ryder said. "He might say, 'I know this guy Paul, he's doing stickups.' "

At the department's weekly strategy meeting this week, Ryder said commanders were tasked with a specific goal: collect samples from 19 known offenders in the next 28 days.

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The state has 500,587 DNA profiles in its database -- as of February -- and has made matches in 17,348 cases, according to state data.

For 2013, 3,175 people in Nassau committed crimes that made them eligible to have DNA collected. Authorities -- including jail, probation officials and police -- collected samples for 95 percent of them, or 3,011, according to state data. In Suffolk, officials collected 4,693 of the 4,923 DNA cases in 2013.

Suffolk police do not maintain a database of people required to submit DNA or those who have, police said. "The arresting officer is notified of the submission requirement when certain checks are routinely made while processing the arrest," a Suffolk police spokesman said in an email.

Joseph Giacalone, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired NYPD sergeant, said collecting a lot of samples helps solve more cases, but there's also a downside: a high number of samples can slow the process.

"You're gonna solve more cold cases and get more hits," said Giacalone. "You're gonna put people on notice, too. If I commit a burglary and they take my DNA, I'm gonna think to myself, 'If I do something else, I'm gonna be easily identified.'

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"The flip side is so many profiles going into CODIS, you slow down the process . . . These things aren't cheap. They create a backlog."

In response, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services referenced a 2012 statement from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo explaining that the Forensic Investigation Center can process 10,000 DNA samples from convicts monthly and the expansion "will not create a backlog."

 

3,000 convictions

Statewide, from 1996 to August 2012, DNA collections have helped prosecutors obtain nearly 3,000 convictions and has exonerated 27 people.

While DNA collection by police has become more commonplace nationwide in recent years, New York has not made any changes to state law to reflect a 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Maryland v. King that found police can collect DNA samples at the time of arrest in serious cases without prior convictions and equated the collection of DNA to fingerprinting, said a spokeswoman for Criminal Justice Services.

Patrol officers have the ability to take the DNA -- they have swab kits, access to the department's data and an instructional video -- in their patrol cars. And while officers do collect DNA, Ryder said he urges them to call his unit when possible, because the 10 detectives there have a lot of experience collecting it.

"It takes, at the most, seven or eight minutes," said Det. Michael Dunn, of the Intelligence Unit.

The state provides the packets, which consist of gloves, a swab and bar code tracking, and are mailed back to the state for processing.

In September 2012, Nassau police used DNA to close the case on three residential burglaries in Sea Cliff.

While investigating the burglaries, patrol officers interviewed Patricia Bright of Glen Cove in the area.

They realized that she owed DNA because of a prior conviction from 2007 of second-degree criminal trespassing charge.

She voluntarily provided her sample, police said, and they were able to match it to evidence found at the Sea Cliff burglary scenes.

She pleaded guilty, police said, and was convicted of three counts of second degree burglary and sentenced to three to nine years in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women.

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