British cops arrest people just to add them to the DNA database, claims inquiry

Britain's cops have the largest DNA database in the world, and it's full of innocent people who were arrested but not charged, or charged but not convicted (the EU's Court of Human Rights have ordered this practice to stop, but the cops refuse to comply with the law -- their latest dodge is to keep innocents' DNA for six years). Now an inquiry that begins today claims that police are "routinely arresting people" that they know they can't convict of any crime, simply to get their DNA into the database.
The highly critical report from the government's advisory body on the development of human genetics is published as the number of innocent people on the database is disclosed to be far higher than previously thought ‑ nearing 1 million.

The commission says the policy of routinely adding the DNA profiles of all those arrested has led to a highly disproportionate impact on different ethnic groups and the stigmatisation of young black men, with the danger of their being seen as "an 'alien wedge' of criminality"...

The chairman of the commission, Prof Jonathan Montgomery, said: "It's now become pretty routine to take DNA samples on arrest. So large numbers of people on the DNA database will be there not because they have been convicted, but because they've been arrested."

He said the commission had received evidence from a former police superintendent that it was now the norm to arrest offenders for everything possible. "It is apparently understood by serving police officers that one of the reasons, if not the reason, for the change in practice is so that the DNA of the offender can be obtained," said Montgomery, adding that it would be a matter of very great concern if this was now a widespread practice.

Police routinely arresting people to get DNA, inquiry claims (Image: DNA Molecule display, Oxford University, a Creative Commons Attribution photo from net_efekt's Flickr stream)


  1. Apart from the database, what happens to the samples? Perhaps in the near future when calculation of the DnaCheckSum() becomes feasible, they can run the ID system.

  2. Okay, I’ve got friends in the police, so that’s a possible bias in their favour, but I simply cannot believe this. Arresting somebody takes so much time out of a police officer’s shift that arresting someone just to get them onto the DNA database is a ridiculous prospect.

    It seems more likely that this is just a result of various ‘always arrest’ policies in place around certain accusations (like domestic violence), which cause a lot of arrests for people that everybody knows will never be charged, because the victim has already refused to press charges at the time of arrest, or will do the moment they wake up in the morning. Since all arrests result in a DNA sample being taken (it’s done along with fingerprints by default for everyone), the DNA database ends up growing.

    So if you do consider this to be a problem, there are three ways to address it:

    1) get the EU to produce something with some teeth to it to stop the retention of DNA samples from non-convicted arrestees
    2) get the police to only take DNA in particular circumstances rather than for every arrest
    3) get rid of those always-arrest policies

    Some combination of the three is presumably the best approach, of course.

  3. Cory, the European Court of Human Rights is *not* part of the EU – it is an institution of the Council of Europe which is separate and dedicated to the monitoring of democracy and human rights of its member states (currently 47).

  4. According to Radio 4 this morning, this specific claim was only made in one ex-policeman’s evidence and was short on substantiation. So, although it has grabbed the headlines, it should probably be treated with some scepticism.

    I mention this in the interests of accuracy, not as an apologist for the government’s policy on DNA data collection, which I regard as misguided and hazardous to civil liberty.

  5. I too, know a few police officers, and would trust them with my life. However, the ‘police’ as an institution I wouldn’t trust as far as I could spit it. Which isn’t far (having never even put one police officer in my mouth, I doubt I could manage all of them).
    Therefore, this story does not surprise me, it just saddens me a little more.

  6. The cops in NYC do this routinely for fingerprints, if not DNA. Under New York state law, marijuana possession is a violation, on par with a traffic offense, and the law says that you should be given a ticket and released. Instead, you’re likely to spend the night in jail during which time you will be fingerprinted and processed for outstanding warrants.

    400,000 people were arrested in NYC last year for marijuana possession. That makes for 400,000 fingerprint records.

  7. Matthew Walton;

    I have friends and family in law enforcement and corrections, I don’t let that color my opinion. Law enforcement, and corrections are one of the largest industries in the US. A lot of cold cases, and future cases can be closed by gathering this information and the police see that gathering the information can not only close this case, but possibly many others. It is an investment (in their eyes). Now with the use of familial DNA matches you can get a grandson and find out that grandpa, cousin, brother etc… committed X crime. So it becomes an increasingly useful tool in the police arsenal, and saves time.

    Now I would like to take just a second to say that while these things are true, I personally do not agree with the use of Familial DNA searches or gathering DNA without warrant or conviction. I know it is abhorrent to some, but I believe that use of this is a crutch. It should be used when needed but too many rely on it instead of researching and following all the leads. I also believe personally that gathering this information can make for spotty police work when relied on too heavily. It is a tool, which should be used properly. Gathered properly and used in conjunction with other tools. It should not be a silver bullet.

  8. ftfa 75% of black men between the ages 18-35 are on the database. that’s just so f’d up. I thought the US prison population distribution was obscene.

  9. The problem in the U.S. is that not every state has the same allele threshold for a match. Some states have as few as six alleles set as their match threshold. So what? Well there are now cases of unrelated people having matched up. It’s only if you probe further into their DNA that you begin to find find differences. In Arizona, or Texas, can’t remember which one, two prisoners in a jail, one white, one black were found to have 13 matching alleles.

    DNA experts always cite the birthday game when confronted with this because it is easier to find two people who match birthdays than one person who matches a particular birthday. That said the more profiles on file the better your odds. Of course even if two different people happened to match a cold case profile there would likely be circumstances/alibis that would eliminate one. Cold cases are difficult though because the further back you go the harder it is to get evidence of what you were doing.

    Furthermore poor lab practices have lead to false matches, crime scene sample contamination and erroneous prosecutions.

  10. To all you folks saying you have friends in the police. It is very likely that there is a different culture in the UK police vs the US. Obviously they have different laws on top of that. I’ve felt that the UK police have been getting more and more paramilitary and secret police-like over the last few decades. I feel the response to fighting the IRA and hooliganism started a trend downwards for the UK police. The people in the UK are slowly decending into a very dark place.

  11. Just to point out that it’s not the “cops'” dodge – it’s the UK government that’s going to introduce the 6 year rule for retention of uncharged persons DNA. In reality law enforcement will always use whatever tools are available to them to the fullest extent they can get away with – it’s for the politicians to set those limits. And this government seems to jump at any opportunity to extend those limits. Obviously this now means we live in the safest, most law abiding country in the world. Doesn’t it? Strangely no, those 5 million DNA records seem to have had little effect on either detection rates or put people off committing crimes.

  12. tizroc:
    Now with the use of familial DNA matches you can get a grandson and find out that grandpa, cousin, brother etc… committed X crime.

    Can you? Can you really?

  13. For British please read England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The law in Scotland is significantly different.

    From GeneWatch UK

    “The law on the collection and retention of DNA and fingerprints in Scotland is significantly different from that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Scottish Government has consulted much more on what the law should be, and has sought to achieve a balance between the benefits of using DNA to solve crimes and the negative impacts on people’s rights if their details are stored indefinitely on a database. The European Court of Human Rights referred to Scotland’s approach as “particularly significant” in its judgment in the Marper case.”


    “There are privacy fears over the way the genetic profiles of suspects in England and Wales who have been cleared of any crime are still stored by the authorities; its retention was recently challenged by a teacher who was arrested but not prosecuted, resulting in new retention policies. Unlike England and Wales, DNA is automatically destroyed if someone was not convicted of a recordable offence in Scotland, Germany, Austria and Finland.”

    This is yet another example of anglocentric media outlets who continue to believe that:-

    England = Britain = UK = England

    This happens all the time and really pisses off people up here in Scotland – we don’t matter and they don’t care. One of the many reasons we should be an independent nation.

    Honestly, trying to get these wankers to understand we exist never mind that we have a separate legal system and now legislate on the majority of matters ourselves, here in Scotland, is like trying to get an adult cat to look at itself in a mirror (it really doesn’t want to, will ignore it a best and will be aggressive at worst).

    Disappointed in boingboing – really thought their standards would be higher

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