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DNA Checks for Law Enforcement

There are certain rights we must willingly give up if we wish to be hired on for certain jobs. It is not uncommon for employers of various industries to request a criminal background check before we are hired. Few would argue that this is unreasonable for a company. Banks should not be hiring bank robbers and real estate companies would be clearly negligent if they failed to do their due diligence and hired someone convicted of fraud. This is an inconvenience that most of us have come to accept as part of living in a civilized society.

The same is true for those of us who wish to become cops. When I hired on with the U.S. Border Patrol in June of 1995, I was required to submit my fingerprints and personal information for criminal and financial records checks. The investigation into my past was even more invasive than I was used to. Interviews with my school instructors, past boyfriends, parents, siblings, friends, a medical exam and even a polygraph were all part of the deal.

It was a deal I was willing to accept though. In exchange for giving up some of my rights to privacy, I was in turn given extraordinary authority that came with a badge, a gun and the weight of the entire U.S. government behind me. That’s a powerful concept when you think about it. The federal government was willing to entrust in me the power to make decisions based in the enforcement of its laws. This most often resulted in me taking away people’s rights and freedoms, an extremely impactful action not afforded to just anyone. I had to prove to the government that I was worthy of that power, and I had to prove it every five years afterwards by resubmitting myself to the same examination.

With the advent of DNA testing and technology, one might expect that DNA collection of current and new police officers would be a natural progression in the hiring process. Just as fingerprints are taken for employment purposes and labeled differently than those taken for criminal violations, the same can and should be done for police officers at every level. But this common sense approach has been fought at every level of policing by unions who have suggested that management would be inclined to use the information for more nefarious reasons.

Past union arguments against police DNA collection have mostly been unfounded though. Originally, representatives of officers feared that agencies could prevent the hiring of some if they had a genetic predisposition for certain diseases. This fear was laid to rest in 2008 with the passing of the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act that specifically addresses these concerns. The only other arguments made concerned officers being framed for crimes they did not commit simply by someone collecting a discarded cigarette butt or drinking straw. To be fair though, this could be done whether an officer’s DNA was collected or not.

Some police unions have even argued that officer DNA should not be held in the same database as the the criminal one known as CODIS. This reasoning is absurd. Police fingerprints are held within the same database as criminals, and if the intent of DNA collection from police is to screen out possible criminals, which it is, then this is not an issue. Besides, police departments from around the country have been collecting non-criminal DNA and entering the results into CODIS for years.

Today, some departments who have officers engaging in evidence collection do require those officers to submit DNA. It is not unreasonable that as they collect crime scene evidence, they may in fact leave behind DNA or hairs that another analyst will then pick up as evidence. With their DNA and fingerprints on file, they can be excluded from the case. Without their DNA on file, the DNA tested would come back as coming from an unknown source further complicating the case.

The United Kingdom and Australia have been collecting the DNA of their officers for years. To date, the state of Louisiana is the only known state that requires new recruits to submit DNA samples. This needs to be national standard for law enforcement officials just as fingerprint submissions are. It is a basic, common sense check that could help weed out bad cops like these who were charged with over 400 rapes in 9 years. This statistic and other evidence of police violence suggests that the real argument that unions have over their members’ DNA being collected is that they fear many will be ineligible for employment. If that’s the case, then so be it.

All that is needed is for a congressional member to submit a bill and take some votes.


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