Op-Ed: Harvesting more DNA from low-level offenders could result in fewer crimes solved

Los Angeles Police Department crime lab
A criminalist processes evidence at the LAPD’s scientific investigation division at Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center.
(Los Angeles Times)

As someone who has devoted his life to law enforcement, it pains me to see that some prominent voices in the law enforcement community are using their platforms to mislead and frighten the public.

California, for example, is getting safer, even while a small group of fearmongers continues to insist that the sky is falling. Take the issue of DNA. Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) has been on a crusade to expand DNA collection in California to include people convicted of nonviolent, low-level offenses. He is a former Sacramento deputy sheriff with a controversial record, and one of the chief opponents of justice reform in the state. Without evidence, he’s been telling Californians that thousands of crimes are going unsolved because of Proposition 47, which reduced certain offenses to misdemeanors and removed a handful of offenses from mandatory DNA collection. He claims that hundreds of rapes and murders will go unsolved unless the Legislature passes his initiative, when actually more crimes are being solved because of recent reforms.

The problem with this thinking is it relies on a common fallacy — that collecting more DNA from more people will mean catching more criminals and solving more crime. But collecting mountains of DNA from people who are unlikely to have been involved in serious crimes won’t get more hits on cold cases; it will only overwhelm the crime labs.

Our DNA investigations are actually working more efficiently in the wake of reform. In May 2014, mere months before Proposition 47 was enacted, California had more than 30,000 DNA samples in its backlog. When Proposition 47 dropped testing requirements for low-level cases, it meant the labs were no longer flooded with unnecessary jobs, allowing them to focus on the important jobs.


In fact, more cold cases are actually being solved since the passage of Proposition 47. The backlog has been reduced by two-thirds. As a result, we’ve gotten more effective. According to the California Department of Justice’s own statistics, DNA collection averaged about500 hits per month in the fiscal year prior to Proposition 47 but averaged nearly 700 hits per month between February 2018 and January 2019 and reached an all-time record high of 992 hits in October 2018. Samples tested following the passage of Proposition 47 are more likely to result in a hit than samples tested previously. There is little doubt that expanding DNA collection would cause lengthy delays and reduce the likelihood that more crimes will be solved.

More enforcement doesn’t always mean more safety. Heavy enforcement of low-level offenses will often actually reduce public safety by diverting our limited resources away from higher priorities. Sweeping, careless changes may make good sound bites, but they are not smart on crime.

Unfortunately, Cooper’s wrongheaded initiative to expand DNA collection, the “Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act,” will be on the 2020 California ballot. California’s voters, who should make decisions based on evidence, must not be taken in by appeals to fear.

Stephen Downing is a retired deputy chief of police with the Los Angeles Police Department. He is a speaker with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.