Safety Director Harran defends DNA database

JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTO Fred Harran introduced Bucks County’s DNA database in 2015

Bensalem Public Safety Director Fred Harran wasn’t happy with his moment in the spotlight this week, and took to the airwaves to talk about it.
Harran was featured in an article published by the investigative journalism website ProPublica on Monday. The article, “DNA Dragnet: In Some Cities, Police Go From Stop-and-Frisk to Stop-and-Spit,” prominently featured a photo of him and contained his comments about the use of localized DNA database used to solve crime.

Bensalem has been building its own DNA database since 2010. Starting in 2013, it launched a program where police can analyze DNA samples on-site within 90 minutes. There are now 18,500 samples in the database.

As of October of last year, Bucks County was the first county in the nation with all its municipalities contributing to the database. Harran introduced the program last year.

But the article was highly critical of the practice, and he felt their portrayal of properly-administered DNA databases was inaccurate. The article was spread on social media and republished in full by a local news website last week.

It drew criticisms of Bensalem’s program online and on the air when talk radio personality Dom Giordano criticized it on his 1210 AM radio show on Tuesday.

Harran maintains the article drew unfair comparisons between Bensalem and other municipalities, and cherry-picked information to create a negative, inaccurate picture of the process.

“I spent a year talking to this reporter. I gave them so much information and they published none of it … The true stories, the cases we solved, they used none of it,” he said. “They spun it really bad. It’s bad information. It was unfair and incorrect.”

The article is framed by a recounting of minors in Florida who were not under arrest but gave consent to have their DNA taken under what seemed like intimidating or somewhat deceptive circumstances.

“There are clear precedents for obtaining DNA from people who have been convicted of crimes and from those under arrest,” it reads. “But the notion of collecting DNA consensually is still so new that the ground rules remain uncertain. Who can give such consent and what must they be told about what they’re consenting to?”

Harran is quoted in the article saying, “This has probably been the greatest innovation in local law enforcement since the bulletproof vest. It stops crime in its tracks…. So why everyone’s not doing it, I don’t know,” and, “There’s no laws, there’s nothing. We’re in uncharted territory. There’s nothing governing what we’re doing.”

In Bensalem, Harran said, officers are ordered never to pressure or manipulate someone into giving their DNA because it’s just not necessary.

“The good thing about criminals, they’re gonna commit a crime tomorrow. We’ll get ‘em another day,” he said. “I’m not going to jeopardize a program that saves lives to lock up one more bad guy.”

Harran pointed to cases where DNA was used locally to solve burglaries and sexual assault cases. To his knowledge, there’s only been one attempt to suppress that evidence, which a local judge denied. Meanwhile, he said, the county’s burglary rates are down 25 percent over the last year while nearby counties have seen increases.

Harran also criticized the tactics used by the Florida counties, saying those places barely use DNA anymore and are not a good representation of the nearly 70 counties nationwide who do.

“We’re a nation of 50 independent states,” he said. “I can’t control what three counties in Florida are doing.”

In Bensalem, he noted, people who are asked to give samples are read a consent form out loud and swab their own cheeks to provide it. Those people can also call the police later to have it removed.

Harran also stressed these points as a call-in guest to Giordano’s show Wednesday morning. However the host, and most of those who called in, were still highly critical of the practice.

Giordano, for his part, said  he wouldn’t be comfortable being part of a database and called it “Creeping invasion” of people’s privacy.

One caller said it was “disingenuous” for Harran to call in completely consensual without taking the “intimidation factor” into account, where many people would feel they have to comply with a police officer’s request, even if it was presented as voluntary.

Another, who said he was a retired Philadelphia police officer, had reservations about the data being used correctly. Those concerns were deepened, he added, when Harran showed his own apprehension about submitting to a database when Giordano asked if he would accommodate such a request.

“How do you expect people to do it if you won’t do it yourself?” the caller asked.

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