NYDN: NYPD official denies cops conduct “DNA dragnets” after Daily News reports

NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea (Jeff Bachner/for New York Daily News)

NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea (Jeff Bachner/for New York Daily News)

By Graham Rayman
May 15, 2019

A senior NYPD official denied on Wednesday that the department’s detectives conduct random, race-based “DNA dragnets” in the course of investigations.

Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea was asked about a Daily News report that detectives stymied in the search for the killer of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano fanned out and demanded swabs from 360 black and Hispanic men after DNA found at the crime scene suggested the killer was African-American.

The issue arose as police officials and City Council members discussed an NYPD request for $420 million to fund construction of a new DNA, evidence and property storage facility. The department is looking for a place to house the facility.

The men who were swabbed were selected because they had been previously arrested in Howard Beach, sources said. A number of them told The News in interviews that they were upset by their treatment at the hands of investigators. The men, who lived in Brooklyn and Queens, ranged in age from early twenties to 65.

“Does the department engage in DNA dragnets where they sweep up a bunch of people based on their race in order to take their DNA?” asked Donovan Richards, co-chairman of the council’s public safety committee.

“No,” Shea replied tersely, but he declined to comment on the Vetrano investigation.

The exchange between Richards and Shea accounted for a small part of the wide-ranking council hearing on the NYPD’s $5.6 billion budget, but it was testy from the start.

When Richards asked how much DNA was stored by the NYPD, Shea replied, "The custodian of the DNA is the city medical examiner, so the answer would be zero.”

Richards noted that the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches. “It would be illegal to walk up to someone and force them to spit into a cup so you can take their DNA, right?” Richards asked.

“As I’ve said, we do not participate in dragnets,” Shea replied.

Richard asked if the NYPD holds people longer than necessary to get their DNA when they ask for water or a cigarette to avoid having to obtain consent.

“That’s patently false,” Shea replied.

“You get my gist. We definitely want to see a lot more transparency around the practices on DNA, and right now there’s clearly no transparency when it comes to DNA,” Richards said.

Shea said the city’s local database has 80,000 DNA profiles in it. More than half of the samples are from crime scenes and hasn’t been linked to anyone. He said some 29,000 samples in the database had been taken from people at the time of arrest.

“We are not randomly collecting people’s DNA,” Shea said. “If we did there would be a database of millions and millions of people. I am very comfortable with where we are given the size, the small number and that it is uniquely tied to crimes.”

The News reported that as part of the Vetrano investigation a considerable number of men were approached for DNA long after their arrests, in some cases years. Many of the previous arrests were for misdemeanors and only three were for violent crimes, according to a partial list obtained by The News.

Vetrano was killed on Aug. 2, 2016, and an arrest was made in February 2017. The swabbing campaign took place within that time after DNA testing suggested a black man was the murderer.

“Despite the NYPD’s contention that they do not conduct DNA dragnets, as widely reported, over 360 New Yorkers from communities of color beg to differ,” said Terri Rosenblatt, supervising attorney of the DNA Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “The Department’s tight-lipped testimony from today’s City Council hearing further warrants an investigation into their DNA collection practices, which raise serious Constitutional concerns.”

Richards, who previously said he was disturbed by the DNA swabbing campaign, said, "I just want to say black and brown people in certain geographies should not just be tested based on their geography and race.

“And they aren’t,” Police Commissioner James O’Neill replied.