NYPD, city council spar over controversial DNA database

Council members want to merge the city's controversial database with the state's larger one, while the NYPD argued for retaining the current database


Rocco Parascandola and Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — Critics charge the city’s controversial DNA database is used as a “genetic stop-and-frisk,” but the NYPD argues the data is “vital” way to ensure justice.

At a contentious hearing at City Hall on Tuesday, City Council members and NYPD officials sparred over changes or elimination — of the massive trove of individuals arrested, but not necessarily charged with a crime — including teenagers.

NYPD Chief of Detectives Rodney Harrison speaks to city councilmembers about the department's controversial DNA database. (Photo/TNS)
NYPD Chief of Detectives Rodney Harrison speaks to city councilmembers about the department's controversial DNA database. (Photo/TNS)

“Certainly a lot of the details we heard today are disturbing, involving genetic stop-and-frisk and no real accountability pertaining to race and geography for people without any convictions," said Councilman Donovan Richards.

"We want to see the database aligned with the state database. And I want an apology for the men caught up in the (Howard Beach) dragnet. The Medical Examiner also has a responsibility to make sure they are upholding transparency.”

The Daily News reported in May 2019 that during the investigation into the 2016 murder of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano, detectives fanned out and took DNA samples from hundreds of largely black and Hispanic people who ultimately weren’t implicated.

At the hearing, police officials claimed 75% of the 32,000 people in the database are also in the more regulated state database, and said a given case dictates whether someone will be included. The other 25%, or about 6,800 people — including teens — not convicted of a crime, aren’t in that state database.

Though Oleg Chernavasky of the NYPD Legal Bureau insisted the NYPD doesn’t do dragnets or random DNA collection, the five officials from the NYPD and Medical Examiner’s Office couldn’t produce a demographic breakdown of just who is included.

“The use of DNA to solve and prosecute crimes is one vital way we advance justice," Chief of Detectives Rodney Harrison insisted. "It is a tool that protects the communities we serve.”

But Richards, chair of the Public Safety Committee, argued taking the DNA of people at random and without convictions alienates the very people who the NYPD wants to help them with investigations. And Councilman Rory Lancman noted 13 states require some kind of hearing before DNA is uploaded to a database — a process that doesn’t exist in New York.

Both council members advocated for the city to at least adopt the state standards and pass legislation to ensure no one will be included in the database without being convicted of a crime. They also suggested the city’s database should simply be merged with the state database and then discontinued.

“If we allow an unregulated government database, who knows what today’s complicity will be used to justify tomorrow,”said Teri Rosenblatt, supervising lawyer in the DNA unit for the Legal Aid Society. “I don’t think any of us want to live in a society where the government can just decide to take something like your DNA without even telling you what it’s doing.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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