Night Stalker – arrested

The news this morning that police had arrested a 52 year old, married man as a suspect in the case that has defeated them for years was of particular interest to me. The crime he has been arrested for is the rape and violence perpetrated on over a hundred older women aged between 65 and 93 over about a seventeen year period in South and South East London.

For several years I got involved in the search for the so-called Night Stalker in regard to the way the Met Police were collecting DNA samples from black men in South London. I was on the Met Police Authority for five years at that time.

I hope they have got the right man. The fear and terror perpetrated for so many years on older women who lived alone by this man was the most terrible thing in this part of London. It would put an end to a very long nightmare.

My involvement was really sparked by the police methodology used at the time when they asked for voluntary testing of the DNA of black men in the area.

As reported on Guardian on line:

The DNA trawl met some resistance in 2006 after the Met was accused of sending threatening letters to men who refused to take part.

Members of the Metropolitan Police Authority questioned its legality and warned it could inflame community tensions.

(I think their dates may be wrong – as I left the MPA in 2005)

The ask of local black men was to come in and clear themselves of any suspicion by having the DNA test – perfectly reasonable. Except that in the event if a black man refused to come in and refused the test – they were then effectively threatened into a position where ‘voluntary’ was in reality compulsory. Threatening letters were sent – I saw them.

It’s a very difficult situation where there is a real desperate need to find the person. The police knew from descriptions from witnesses that the man was a light-skinned black man. The decision was to test all black men in the area. Clearly co-ersion was not acceptble – but the frustration of the continued attacks and the years of non-success obviously took its toll.

An additional issue was that when DNA samples were taken from these thousands of black men – that DNA was also retained on the database forever – regardless of the fact these men were innocent. Of course, with the recent case in Europe, the Labour Government have been forced to agree to no longer keep information on innocent peoples’ DNA on their database. Typically, however, the Government has decided that it will keep it for six years.

DNA is the most brilliant detection tool – but it still can only be used for corroborating evidence in a court of law. So let’s hope that the man they have arrested is confirmed as the attacker by his DNA – that is the purpose of DNA evidence. 

What is less known or talked about in terms of DNA is that it was the policy of the Labour Government to collect the DNA of people who might (in their view) be likely to commit crimes in the future. This was a complete turnaround on our justice system where we have been used to being ‘innocent until proved guilty. Here was a policy that said basically that you are guilty until proved innocent. Hence the astounding position of the black community who find that around a third of the whole black and ethnic minority population of this country is held on that database . That happened – because of the high rate of disproportionate use of Stop and Search on that community. The other community over-represented on the database is the youth population.

Some years have passed now since my time on the MPA – but the issues around DNA, disproportionate use of police powers and the retention on the database of potential future suspects who are actually innocent at the point of having their DNA taken are still an issue.

I will be very interested to see why this man has taken so long to catch (if it is him) because, whilst eliminating suspects by DNA tests is a logical move, another problem with the DNA route to detection is that the police for that period were so focused on getting black men to come forward for DNA testing – they may have been distracted from perhaps more fruitful lines of enquiry.

Well – we will see when the details come out as to how and why the ‘night stalker’ was arrested and hopefully that will inform us whether DNA was the key to detection or simply to corroboration.

Ten most popular blog postings (4th quarter, 2007)

Well – happy new year everyone, and without further ado – here’s what keeping you reading on this blog over the last three months.

10. Low Copy Number DNA – a recap of my concerns about Labour’s plans for our DNA records, back in the news after this controversial new technique was criticised by the judge in the Omagh bomb case. I suspect I got a lot of traffic to this post as lots of people went searching for information on the topic after the news of the judge’s comments broke.

9. Crimestoppers caught advertising on illegal radio station – still going strong much to my surprise as the story is quite old now (see also the update if you’re new to the story).

8. Ian Blair should go – London’s top cop keeps making mistakes, and the time’s come for him to take direct personal responsibility for this record. As it turned out, only one Blair went in ’07.

7. Shadow Cabinet reshuffle – not really a blog posting because – as the news came out on my birthday – I just bunged up the news release – but nice to know so many people wanted to know quickly what post I’d got!

4. Wikipedia and its limitations – a slightly different posting from me this time; lesson noted that you dear reader like this sort of stuff!

3. Britain turns its back on more than half our Iraqi interpreters – the ongoing scandal of Labour’s refusal to protect those who worked for our armed forces in Iraq.

And of course the Lib Dem leadership contest featured – coming in at six, five, two and first in the list – no surprises there!

(Click to see the previous top tens).

Low Copy Number DNA

Picture of DNAIt’s a while since I’ve written about Low Copy Number (LCN) DNA testing, but the news today that – as a result of the Omagh bomb trial – the use of this technique is to be reviewed (see BBC story for details) is welcome.

As I wrote previously, “LCN DNA should only be used cautiously – and only with corroborating evidence”, and as I put it in an article on the dangers of DNA databases and the like, it is highly risky to place your faith in technology always working flawlessly: “As investment goes in, a commercial imperative is involved and as DNA increases its aura of infallibility – will the police (or the public, when the information is ‘conveniently’ leaked?) believe those who say they weren’t at the crime scene even though their DNA was? And how long before corroborative evidence becomes less necessary?” (read the rest of the article here).

How the DNA database threatens innocent people

I’ve written before about the dangers in the government’s rather cavalier attitude to innocent people’s DNA records – and today’s news from the Telegraph is a salutary warning that these are not just theoretical problems:

Thousands of people could be accused of a crime they did not commit as a result of errors in records on the national DNA database, it emerged last night.

In the past year, more than 100 possible inaccuracies in the documentation of DNA profiles have been discovered, and a further 1,500 administrative mistakes have been logged on the system.

The full article is over on their website.

Are your DNA records safe with the government?

Reading through last week’s newspaper articles – at last – I find that finally the cavalry is joining my campaign to stop innocent people’s DNA being stored in
perpetuity by the police on the national DNA database – and even The Sun has given the story a decent write-up. Hurrah!

And if you’re wondering – “but what does an innocent person have to fear?” – then the answer is “plenty!” as I wrote in an article titled What do the innocent have to fear from a DNA database? on my website.

DNA isn't the Holy Grail of crime fighting

So a high profile judge has come out and said that the whole country should be on the DNA database (and visitors to our country). Well – it’s more logical than the serendipity we have at the moment where if the police arrest you, regardless of innocence or guilt – your DNA is taken and kept on record. However, it’s nuts. Outside of the rights and wrongs of civil liberties and the onset of a police state – the practicalities should see that idea murdered at birth.

Only last week I blogged about the answer to my parliamentary question on the accuracy of the current 4,000,000 strong DNA database – to receive a reply admitting that something like 500,000 of the entries are inaccurate – with wrong name or wrong address.

Why oh why oh why are the government (and judges) so keen on spending zillions keeping track of the innocent rather than tracking down the criminal? Guys – spend the money on police – and on helping to prevent crime through education and youth services.

Yes – DNA is a fantastic detection tool and provides the corroborating evidence required for a conviction. But DNA isn’t the Holy Grail – and the more everyone holds it up as such – the less likely we are to have the proper professionalism applied to detecting crime. Eggs and one basket are the words that come to mind.

I'm back!

Basically, I have lain prone on a beach in France virtually immobile for the last six days. Generally, I like more active holidays – visiting cities, galleries, sites of historic interest or natural beauty – but as this was it for the summer – lying down was required. (And yes – I went there and back by train). No – I didn’t think about politics – other than four calls from the print press – I was a politics-free zone.

One of the calls was from The Independent on the back of answer to a parliamentary question I had tabled on the DNA database. Ironic really as part of my holiday reading was Michael Crichton’s novel ‘Next’ which is basically about the perils of DNA and mucking about with genes. He takes it to extreme of course – but that is what makes it a fun novel.

The media call fed into the more pragmatic side of DNA. The answer had come back to my question showing that something like 500,000 of the entries on the database had errors. Without going into the ins and outs of what I think about the dangers of the DNA database again (you can read my previous DNA article here) – at its very basic you would think accuracy was a key requirement?

You can read The Independent’s DNA story here. I will now be asking for an investigation into just how so many mistakes are not only made – but kept!

Low Copy Number DNA

After PMQs I dashed over to College Green to shoot for Spotlight – a Northern Ireland news program with a good reputation. They were tracking DNA (so to speak) and in particular Low Copy Number (LCN) DNA.

They had picked up on my track record of challenging some of the issues around this super-detection tool and apparently there is a big case in Northern Ireland concerning DNA. The thing about LCN DNA in particular is that it can use something as small or infinitesimal as a single cell found at a crime scene – which sounds great at first because you think, “that means it’s much easier to track down criminals as you don’t need as much evidence to identify them.”

But – my argument is that I shake hands with people all day long and therefore my LCN DNA will be in their clothes, houses, offices etc. It will end up all over the place, on people and in places I haven’t had anything to do with. So LCN DNA should only be used cautiously – and only with corroborating evidence.

I also met up with World Development Movement who are busy lobbying ahead of the introduction of the Climate Change Bill. We are on the same page apparently (hate that expression!) in the key issues around how climate change will hit the ultra poor countries of the developing world much, much harder than us in the Northern hemisphere – so it is both a development and an environmental issue.

So we talked over how to challenge some of the issues in the current proposals and how to get them amended to include things like annual targets for carbon emissions and a development expert on the panels etc.

Who is going to be looking after your DNA?

Labour’s national DNA database-by-stealth has been in the news again, though there is also good news that some decent ethical oversight of the whole exercise might be put in place. Typical however of Big Brother New Labour – do the database first and worry about whether it’s the right thing to do or not afterwards!

You can take part in the Lib Dem campaign on this issue on our DNA database website.

Race Convention

I was speaking yesterday in a break out group at the CRE Race Convention. My session was about race discrimination in the criminal justice system. It was a pretty lively debate. A core problem – on which there was widespread agreement – is that of “disproportionality” running through every part of the criminal justice system. This means that people from ethnic minority communities are far more likely to be stop and searched, have DNA records taken and a host of other things than they should be given their proportion of the population or of the criminal population. And – despite a great deal of talking the talk – the issue appears very resistant to fixing.

My own view is that it comes down to leadership. If everyone understood that any discrimination would be monitored and recorded and SUPERVISED – and that jobs would be lost as a result – then we would see a shift. But despite the very genuine efforts – that level of priority and commitment is not yet truly there.

Take the police and the borough commander level. If the crime targets were down – top brass would be on the phone to the local commander wanting to know the reason why! The same cannot be said around issues of disproportionality. So perhaps the next step is, as one man suggested, disproportionality targets. Only the police are already drowning in targets – and unless the top brass take this as seriously as the crime stats – then the results won’t change.

And in case anyone has forgotten – the stats in London (for example) on DNA retention are that against a background of 28% BME population in London, there is a disproportionate arrest rate of 48% and a rate of 60% of DNA records are from the BME population. Translated – that means that not only are the police disproportionately arresting black and ethnic minority people – they are getting it humungously wrong! And time spent wrongly arresting innocent people is time lost on catching criminals.

I have a meeting coming up with a senior Met Officer to discuss the arrest policy. For it seems clear to me that disproportionality starts with stop and search and the continues through the criminal justice system from arrest to sentencing. Another chap very wisely suggested that there be an independent study of disproportionality across the whole criminal justice system – and I think that would be an excellent thing to do.

As for Ken Livingstone’s purile attack on the Race Convention – typical brattish behaviour from a spoilt child! As usual.