Law Enforcement News

Vol. XXIX, Nos. 611, 612 A publication of John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY December 15/31, 2003

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In this issue:
DNA sometimes makes for bad-fitting genes.

Alarming developments.

Wheel-y big news.

Drunk as a skunk.

Another fine meth.

Stirring the pot.

Violence is all in the family.

Sex meets violence.

When good cops go bad.

Looking for warm bodies.

Wolves in cops’ clothing.

Crime’s ups & downs.

A few good anti-crime ideas.

Research looks for answers.

Facing up to profiling.

Order in the court.

Banking on ill-gotten gains.

Taking advantage of high-tech advances.

Changes at the top.

That’s just too weird.

Justice by the numbers.

2003, the year in review:
Biological reactions from coast to coast

     ¶ At least 1,300 cases tried by Harris County, Texas, prosecutors will be reviewed in the aftermath of a scathing audit that found technicians at the Houston Police Department’s DNA lab to be poorly trained and their work shoddy. The audit also says that samples were contaminated by a leak in the roof. A report issued by one of two grand juries investigating the troubled facility concludes that no wrongdoing occurred, but officials had committed ethical and moral violations by failing to take action when they learned of problems. Nine employees of the lab are disciplined with punishments ranging from suspensions to forced retirements or resignations.

     ¶ Virginia becomes the first state to adopt a policy requiring suspects charged with violent crimes to submit a DNA sample, or else forfeit their right to be released at their booking…. Anyone who pleads guilty to a felony must submit a DNA sample under a new policy enacted by the Jackson County, Mo., prosecutor.

     ¶ DNA samples from juvenile offenders and those who have been arrested, but not convicted, would be added to a national database, under a proposal from the Bush administration.

     ¶ Inmates who ask for DNA tests that subsequently reaffirm their guilt once completed would be billed under legislation sought by a St. Louis, Mo., city prosecutor. Those cleared by the tests would be able to sue for compensation for their time behind bars.

     ¶ Budget constraints hamper the Washington State Patrol’s efforts to staff its new crime lab… Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent upgrading DNA lab facilities in Washington, D.C., New York City and in Los Angeles…

     ¶ A state Senate Committee on Criminal Justice in Texas passes a bill that requires all DNA crime labs to meet accreditation standards.

     ¶ A McDowell County, W.Va., circuit court judge sets aside an attempted aggravated robbery conviction after finding that testimony given by discredited former State Police chemist Fred Zain “was not harmless error.” The defendant served more than seven years in prison before being released in 1990.

     ¶ Problems are found in forensic laboratories in Orlando, Fla., where an analyst with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement admits falsifying tests designed to check his work… In Phoenix, technicians use the wrong statistical computation to inflate the likelihood of a suspect’s genetic material being a match in nine criminal cases… A Fort Worth senior forensic scientist is fired and lab operations are suspended after an outside review.

     ¶ The director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation apologizes for the mislabeling of a blood sample 12 years ago that led to the release of a man subsequently charged with a murder and a string of rapes…. Authorities in Montana and Washington plan a review of the work of a forensic scientist who served as director of the Montana crime lab for 20 years and as a forensic scientist for the Washington State Patrol for 13 years, after DNA evidence cleared a Billings, Mont., man who spent 15 years in prison for the rape of an 8-year-old girl.

     ¶ Investigators in Baton Rouge, La., anger civil libertarians and are slapped with at least one lawsuit after conducting a DNA dragnet that fails to help them catch a serial killer responsible for the murders of four women. What ultimately helps is the use of a genetic profile that uses a new process to identify an individual’s ethnicity. [See related item, Page 7.]

     ¶ Defense attorneys in Florida scramble to meet an Oct. 1 deadline set by the state legislature for submitting requests for the retesting of prisoners’ DNA. Prosecutors are resisting the notion that DNA can prove whether a defendant committed a crime, claiming it is only one piece of evidence among many in a case. But attorneys claim that a double standard exists where DNA evidence is deemed infallible when used to prove guilt, but not to prove innocence.

     ¶ Baltimore County police begin the review of 480 cases that Concepcion Bacasnot, a chemist at the department’s lab, worked on during the 1980s, after the release of a transcript in which she describes to a public defender her incompetence in performing blood tests that led to a defendant’s life sentence for murder.

     ¶ Confidence in the accuracy of the FBI’s DNA lab should not be undermined by shortcuts taken by a technician who was fired for not performing control tests on samples, says Director Robert S. Mueller III. More than 100 cases are being retested; none of the work performed by the technician was used in a prosecution.

     ¶ Using a cunning ruse to obtain a DNA sample, Seattle police arrest a New Jersey man who they believe raped and strangled a 13-year-old girl in 1982. Police mailed the suspect, John A. Athan a letter on city stationery along with documents they asked him to complete and mail back. Athan filled out the forms and licked the envelope closed. A DNA profile from Athan’s saliva matched one from a semen sample left on the body of Kristen Sumstad. Athan, now 35, has been charged with murder.

2003, the year in review:
Cause for alarm

     ¶ Experts contend that the alarm industry is sowing fear among system owners and thwarting the implementation of a strategy known as verified response, which has been successful in reducing false alarms in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and a number of other jurisdictions. The approach requires alarm companies to confirm something suspicious at the alarm site before a patrol unit is dispatched. In Salt Lake City, the department reduced the number of bogus alarm calls from 8,200 in 1999 to just 793 in 2002 — two years after a city ordinance mandated verified response.

     ¶ Los Angeles police officers will continue to respond to all burglar alarms at homes and businesses unless there have already been two false alarms at the address in a year. The Police Commission’s decision is a reversal from a verified-response plan that would have given the department discretion over whether or not to respond. The verified-response proposal was defeated by neighborhood councils, alarm-industry lobbyists and some City Council members.

     ¶ New software and a change in policy are expected to sharply reduce the number of bogus burglar-alarm calls responded to by the Montgomery County, Texas, Sheriff’s Department. Deputies will only answer calls from county-permitted alarm systems. The software will enable dispatchers to distinguish between those systems that have a county permit and those that do not.

     ¶ A fee of $25 to $35 to register a burglar alarm, along with fines of up to $200 for multiple false alarms, helps to reduce false alarms in Omaha by nearly half during a three-month period…. South Bend, Ind., officials increase fines for a fourth false alarm from $25 to $100, and up to $200 for any subsequent offense.

     ¶ Officials in Washington County, Ore., propose that deputies ignore alarm calls from businesses and homes with an excessive number of bogus alarms, and cut service to those who do not pay fines or renew annual permits…. Missouri Valley, Iowa, Chief Jason Smith asks that fines ranging from $25 to $200 be levied against businesses after four false alarms.

     ¶ Pleasant Grove, Utah, Chief Tom Paul wants his jurisdiction to make registration of alarm systems a requirement, and to establish punitive fines for repeat offenders…. Madera, Calif., officials accept a proposal that would charge business owners and residents a $50 fee for three years of police service. The money would enable police to assign one person full time to monitor alarms…. Bullhead City, Ariz., police want to enforce a law that would hit alarm owners who generate more than five bogus calls in one year with fines of up to $45.

     ¶ A presentation by Fort Pierce, Fla., police shows officers responding to 4,142 alarms in 2002, with only 15 of those turning out to be valid calls. The city already charges owners a $100 fine after the sixth false alarm.

2003, the year in review:
Police auto-motives

     ¶ Police departments in states including Michigan, Ohio, Missouri and Idaho try to ease their fiscal woes by permitting advertising on squad cars. Deals are struck either directly with local corporate sponsors, or with Government Acquisitions LLC of Charlotte, N.C., for new vehicles at the cost of $1 each. Not all states buy into the idea. Mississippi attorney general vetoes the proposal for agencies in that state.

     ¶ The Martin County, Fla., Sheriff’s Department’s 13 gas-electric hybrid cars save the agency an estimated $103 per month each in gasoline, and need to be refueled only twice a month. Nine Toyota Priuses and four Honda Civics are assigned to detectives, victims’ advocates and community relations officers. Pursuits and other enforcement duties are still carried out by the department’s fleet of Ford Crown Victorias.

     ¶ In a continuing effort to reduce the risk of fires and explosions caused by rear-end collisions, the Ford Motor Company offers a fire-suppression technology on the Crown Victoria. Dallas officials accuse Ford of developing technology that would protect the Crown Victoria’s gas tank from rupture, but not making it available at prices police agencies can afford. These include self-sealing fuel tanks, and trunk kits that keep heavy objects in place during an accident. Crash test results in Dallas show the Crown Victoria to be unsafe even when equipped with the trunk packs. A videotape of a 75-mph crash shows the kit splitting the car’s tank. Ford officials accuse the city of loading gear in such a way as to ensure failure. A fleet of Crown Victorias is sidelined by New York State Police Superintendent James McMahon after the head of the troopers union urges members not to drive the vehicles.

     ¶ The Memphis Police Department puts a hold on payment for 140 Dodge Intrepids after tests in Nashville show the vehicle’s brakes catching fire during high-speed stops. Nashville officials try to return the cars.

     ¶ More than 1.5 million Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers made between 1998 and 2001 are recalled by Ford because of a bolt that could fracture and cause the driver’s seat to fall back.… The town of Vail, Colo., says it will begin using the Ford Explorer instead of renewing its lease with the Swedish car maker Saab.

     ¶ San Diego Police Department cruisers get their body work done by auto-shop students at a local high school. The program saved the agency $3,000 for work done on three cars.