Amsterdam News: City Council calls on NYPD to stop DNA collection

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On Wednesday, April 10, the Legal Aid Society sent a letter to Council Speaker Corey Johnson, stating that collecting DNA evidence from city citizens is “racially biased,” and “constitutes a significant infringement on young people’s civil rights, particularly people of color.” It also urged that the NYPD’s controversial practice must stop.

The letter cited the recent investigation of the Aug. 2, 2016 murder of jogger Karina Vetrano in Spring Creek Park in Howard Beach, Queens as an example.

The NYPD swabbed DNA samples from 384 local Black men, which were then supposedly entered into a databank, leading to the arrest of Chanel Lewis, whose lawyers claimed the evidence was “tainted,” and that police used a “race-biased dragnet” to apprehend him.

“Once taken, these DNA samples were not simply compared to that single case: they were entered into a vast DNA databank, which contains nearly 70,000 New Yorkers,” the letter read. “The continued existence of this unregulated DNA databank is not just an existential civil rights threat. Wrongful DNA ‘hits’ as well as the implementation of new technologies mean that innocent people, through their mere presence in the DNA database, may be charged with crimes they did not commit.”

On April 1, Lewis was convicted of first- and second-degree murder and sexual abuse, and could face life imprisonment. His first trial last year ended in a mistrial.

Defense lawyers later said during the second trial that “they received an anonymous letter from someone claiming to be a cop,” saying police initially suspected “two jacked up white guys from Howard Beach” killed the jogger.

The letter also alleged that Lewis was racially profiled and unjustifiably stopped.

“The Council has shown that race-based law enforcement tactics are not tolerated in our City, and that we are entitled to a transparent and accountable police department,” the letter states. “We hope that you will continue that leadership in conducting an oversight hearing as a first step in ending race-based genetic stop-and-frisk and protecting New Yorkers’ genetic privacy.”

The Legal Aid Society requested that the City Council hold a hearing regarding DNA collections.

“There are standard protocols that govern the collection of DNA, and the NYPD complies with legal requirements surrounding the collection of DNA samples,” a spokesman said.

Public Safety Committee Chairman Donovan Richards said in a letter addressed to Police Commissioner James O’Neill that he has “deep concern” over the database, which includes genetic samples from minors.

“We are very disturbed by the trend that the same underserved communities of color who are targeted by stop-and-frisk are now subjected to its genetic counterpart,” Richards wrote, also co-signed by Councilwoman Inez Barron (D-Brooklyn).

City officials permanently store DNA records once they’re collected, even after people are cleared of any wrongdoing, authorities said.