Reuven Blau, THE CITY
When 22-year-old German police officer Michele Kiesewetter was fatally shot in the head while sitting in her patrol car, DNA evidence captured at the scene led to a shocking discovery.
The DNA profile indicated the murder was committed by a female serial killer dubbed “The Phantom of Heilbronn,” after the town where the murder occurred on April 25, 2007.
The same DNA makeup, also dubbed “The Woman Without a Face,” was tied to at least seven other murders, a series of break-ins and multiple other crimes in Germany and throughout Europe over a 15-year stretch.
Investigators had no clue how someone could be involved in so many seemingly random and variant crimes.
In March 2009, they figured it out: The DNA actually belonged to a woman who worked at a factory where the evidence-collection cotton swabs were made.
Now, a new federal report entitled “DNA Mixture Interpretation” wants to prevent a similar mixup in the United States. But it’s unclear whether the NYPD — or cop unions — will go along with the feds’ recommendations.
Experts at the National Institute of Standards and Technology concluded that so-called “elimination databases” with DNA profiles of possible offenders should also include laboratory staff and “police who go to crime scenes,” according to the 250-page draft report.
“It’s helpful if you have the ability to confirm that this portion of the sample in the mixture could have come from someone else that wasn’t involved in the crime portion of the sample,” John Butler, the report’s lead author, told THE CITY.
The comprehensive review, which took four years to complete, has garnered little attention so far.
But scientists hope it will serve as further ammunition for the NYPD to convince its police unions to create a database of all its officers to avoid any confusion — and possible wrongful arrests and convictions. Public defenders encourage lab directors to not analyze DNA evidence recovered from police who refuse to provide their own DNA.
Some 233 current cops have already submitted their DNA for the department’s database. Among them: crime scene detectives who directly handle evidence.
But rank-and-file cops, who also come in contact with evidence, are not part of the system — and some don’t want to be.
“Despite the fact that you see, over and over, instances where police are handling evidence with their bare hands, and then submitting it for DNA testing, they don’t do the simplest thing, which is give their own DNA samples,” said Terri Rosenblatt, supervising attorney in the Legal Aid Society’s DNA Unit.
The reluctance of officers willing to share their DNA is a stark contrast to how they handle potential suspects, some as young as 13 years old, she added.
“It’s shockingly hypocritical,” she said. “The NYPD believes that it is perfectly acceptable for them to take a sixth- or seventh-grader into custody, give them a Mountain Dew or a piece of chewing gum, in order to surreptitiously collect their DNA without their parents knowing and put that in the DNA database forever.”
Last year, a top NYPD forensic official said he supports including all officers into the department’s database.
“It makes perfect sense,” Emanuel Katranakis, a deputy chief in the NYPD’s Forensics Investigation Division, testified at a Feb. 25, 2020, City Council hearing.
Asked about the topic recently, Sgt. Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokesperson, told THE CITY, “DNA testing protocol is [handled] by the Medical Examiner.”
Likely Labor Issue
Mark Desire, a spokesperson for the ME’s Office, said the number and title of Police Department employees in the city’s DNA database “is at the discretion of the NYPD.”
“The current DNA profiles in this database do include crime scene and lab personnel,” he said. “These are members most likely to come in contact with evidence.”
The NYPD has done little to actually expand the number of officers in the database, according to labor officials and public defenders.
The issue would likely be a “mandatory subject of collective bargaining” that would need to be negotiated with the NYPD’s four main unions, according to multiple labor leaders.
If necessary, the unions can plead their case before the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining, which adjudicates labor disputes.
Even if the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining ruled that the NYPD could unilaterally begin to force officers to submit their DNA the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) would likely sue to block the move, said Joshua Freeman, a professor of labor history at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Judges typically defer to OCB’s ruling, but any litigation could slow the implementation of the new policy.
The PBA did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment.
The union is in the early stages of a binding arbitration process for a new contract but the DNA issue has not come up, according to multiple sources.
As part of any new policy, the NYPD would have to decide what to do with officers who refuse to submit their DNA, a former top city labor official said. The department would likely need to negotiate with the unions if it wanted to make that a fireable offense.
Currently, only detectives who are willing to let their DNA be submitted are promoted to the crime scene unit.
Butler, the report’s main author, said it would be helpful to have DNA samples of all officers, not just detectives, who could potentially come in contact with a crime scene.
“This would enable confirmation of any potential contamination through inadvertent contact with the crime scene sample,” he said.
‘A Real Problem’
Many DNA labs already have genetic profiles of all their staffers but few police departments throughout the country do it.
The Bensalem Police Department in Pennsylvania includes officer profiles in its massive database. In 2017, officers there became the first in the country to use controversial rapid DNA machines to investigate all kinds of crimes. They get the results in 90 minutes, but some experts say the process is faulty.
The NIST report cited research papers conducted by two European countries that looked into how common it was for police officers to contaminate DNA at crime scenes.
A 2017 study conducted in Austria found over the past 17 years “a total of 347 contamination incidents caused by police officers in approximately 46,000 trace samples.”
A similar study in Switzerland showed that “between 2011 and 2015, a total of 709 contaminations were detected.”
In New York City, Rosenblatt stressed the NIST report makes it clear that DNA results can’t be considered accurate unless there are elimination samples.
“It’s a real problem,” she said. “Until police officers who collect evidence provide DNA samples, labs should not be analyzing the samples and courts should not be admitting DNA mixture evidence at trials.”
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