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.