Friday, December 09, 2022

NYC Seeks to Cut Testing Time Related to Gun Crimes in Half with Dedicated DNA Unit

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Diving summary:

  • New York City is creating what it calls the nation’s first firearms crime unit at a public DNA crime lab. Employees will focus exclusively on testing and analyzing evidence of firearms crime in the city.
  • The recently announced $2.5 million DNA Weapons Crimes Unit is expected to speed evidentiary turnaround times to expedite weapons crimes through the criminal justice system. Test turnaround time is currently 60 days, and that should drop to 30 days when the new unit is fully operational, officials said.
  • The city will hire and train 24 forensic scientists, or criminalists, to work in the firearms crimes unit, nearly half of whom have already been selected, according to officials. The new hires are expected to be in place and ready for training by this fall, and the unit should be fully operational within a year.

Diving information:

Like many American cities of all sizes and even rural areas, New York City has seen an increase in violent crime, especially gun crime, during the pandemic. Although overall crime continues to rise in New York City, police department data released in June shows a decline in shooting incidents this spring compared to the same period last year. Still, a series of shootings in New York City in recent weeks has intensified public outcry for action to curb gun violence.

Gun arrests are at their highest point in 28 years in New York City. Mayor Eric Adams said last week that while he believes his crime reduction strategy is working, he and residents would like to see quicker results. The DNA Weapons Crimes Unit is a strategy to accelerate results.

Adams noted that the city is constantly changing its crime reduction strategy. More changes could follow the recent US Supreme Court decision that struck down a New York state concealed carry law. Although the court said the scope of its decision is limited and will not prevent states from imposing gun license requirements, opponents say similar lawsuits could spring up elsewhere and fear public safety could be negatively affected.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul called the court’s decision “terrible in scope” and an obstacle to protecting citizens. She this month enacted a series of gun safety measures, including a controversial regulation that requires people who want to carry concealed weapons to submit their social media accounts for review. This comes on the heels of several mass shootings, including in Buffalo, New York, carried out by suspects who revealed manifestos or glorified gun violence on social media before the attacks.

The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office says it operates the largest public DNA crime lab in North America. Each year it tests 50,000 pieces of evidence from criminal cases. It boasts that the current 60-day trial turnaround time is faster than 90% of jurisdictions across the country.

The city’s chief medical examiner confirmed at a news conference that the new unit’s process for investigating firearms crimes will be no different from the existing process. Rather, the criminalists hired for this unit will be dedicated solely to firearms crime cases rather than the current practice of processing DNA evidence for a variety of cases, including property crimes and sexual assaults. Adding resources and creating a dedicated gun crimes team will help prosecute gun cases more quickly and set a new standard, according to the chief medical examiner.

“The expedited results will help the criminal justice system resolve cases as quickly as possible. These procedures can result in the exoneration of someone who is innocent or the conviction of someone who is guilty,” said Jason Graham, New York City Chief Medical Examiner, during the press conference. “Faster response times also speed up responses for victims, families and our communities, which are affected by the gun violence epidemic.”

The city will use much of the funds to hire and train the 24 new criminologists. Part of the money will also go towards updating laboratory software and purchasing new equipment. The mayor referred to the new team as the “modern CSI.”

“This is how we strengthen public safety and how we fight gun violence,” Adams said at the news conference. “We tell those who have committed crimes with firearms that science is going to find them and we are going to use this science to get them off our street.”

DNA from gun crimes is no more difficult to process than from other crimes, Graham said. However, all cases involving DNA evidence present challenges such as DNA degradation from weather, heat, or other contaminants such as blood. The new unit supports the medical examiner’s role in blending public health and public safety, he said.

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