WASHINGTON — The nation's police chiefs are descending on Congress today to push their legislative agendas, including the right to take DNA samples from people arrested on suspicion of violent crimes.
The controversial proposal has alarmed some civil libertarians, but the president of the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police says it is no different from the routine practice of fingerprinting suspects.
"We're not talking about sticking a needle in somebody and drawing blood," Bruce D. Glasscock, the association's president, said in an interview as more than 100 fellow chiefs and police superintendents began assembling Monday to fan out across Capitol Hill.
"The procedure involves taking a swab of saliva from a suspect's mouth. It's no more invasive than a fingerprint, and it would help police determine who committed many crimes while clearing those who did not," Glasscock said.
The police chiefs are pressing their case early in the 107th Congress and to the new Republican administration. Founded in 1893, the IACP is the world's oldest and largest organization of police executives, with members from the United States and 95 other countries.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil libertarians object to mandatory DNA sampling as a violation of innocent peoples' privacy. They say that the creation of a national DNA database could lead to mass screenings of innocent people in a hunt for criminals.
Glasscock--the police chief of Plano, Texas, a Dallas suburb--said law enforcement officers now can get DNA samples only if suspects allow them to be taken. In some cases, officers have obtained a court order to get the samples.
"With the new technology, if you walk into a crime scene and find a toothpick or a cigarette butt, a trace of saliva can provide a valuable clue," Glasscock said. "But you have to match it with a suspect. Law enforcement, in some respects, is just catching up with the new technology."
Two years ago, the Justice Department's National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence decided to oppose mandatory DNA testing for people charged with crimes. However, it urged federal and state prosecutors to use genetic evidence that could exonerate convicts. Glasscock believes the Bush administration may pave the way for a new look at mandatory testing.
The police chiefs want Congress to create a commission that would recommend ways to adapt technology for police work and support government funding. The Johnson administration created a similar group in the mid-1960s.
That commission's report led to numerous innovations, including improved radio communication systems for police and the establishment of now-familiar 911 emergency telephone numbers. Glasscock believes that it's time for an updated look at "the technological changes in police work. . . . There's been an erosion of public confidence in our efforts.
"Such a commission should take on the entire criminal justice system, with members from inside the system as well as outside experts."
Glasscock said his members also are concerned about racial profiling, the practice of police targeting minorities for traffic stops and other enforcement actions.
"This is occurring, unfortunately, in many parts of the country," the chief said. "But we don't believe it's widespread. Good agencies won't tolerate it."
Glasscock, who has spent 32 years doing police work in Florida, Colorado and Texas, said his members also are urging Congress to renew the Justice Department's COPS program, an acronym for Community Oriented Policing Services.
"We're concerned because this program is expiring," he said, referring to the Clinton administration's plan to put 100,000 more officers on the streets. But the nation's police chiefs would like more flexibility to spend COPS grants for technology, as well as hiring additional officers, Glasscock said.