Decline in forensic DNA sampling threatens safety
On 13 November 2019, the National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on Police were briefed by the National Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board (DNA Board) on their 2018/19 Annual Report. The committee exposed numerous constraints which contribute towards the loss of critical leads in cases where serious offences are committed, such as rape and murder.
The Minister of Community Safety, Albert Fritz, has noted the numerous constraints and calls on the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, and the Civilian Secretariat for Police Services (CSPS) to urgently remedy these.
The DNA Board is a sub-program of the CSPS. It is responsible for, amongst others, providing oversight of processes relating to the collection, retention, storage, destruction and disposal of DNA samples; and the retention and removal of forensic DNA profiles. It is further empowered by Section 15 (E) of the Criminal Law Forensic Procedures Amendment Act 37 of 2013 (DNA Act) to establish, administer and maintain the National Forensic DNA Database to conduct comparative searches.
Minister Fritz said, “Whilst the DNA Board is empowered to conduct comparative searches, it is currently unable to. This follows the expiry of a two-year transitional period for the ‘convicted offender sampling programme’, which has since been discontinued. An amendment has been proposed to extend the two-year period of the programme to facilitate comparative searches in unresolved cases. The DNA Board has, however, taken issue with the amendment’s proposed ‘population DNA database’ which is seen as unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy. Ultimately, there is a need for the establishment of a permanent Forensic Investigation Unit to follow up on leads generated by SAPS’ Forensic Service Laboratory (FSL) to ensure that comparative searches can be conducted to identify suspects.”
Further constraints experienced by the DNA Board include questions of the board’s independence from the CSPS and the issue of non-attendance by board members which hampers the board’s ability to perform its mandate.
During the portfolio committee, it was highlighted that the procurement of buccal swabs or smears for DNA collection, evidence collection kits and the awarding of maintenance contracts remain a critical issue faced by the FSL. It was further noted that, “the synchronisation of sexual offender data stored in the criminal record information management system with data stored in the National Register for Sex Offenders remains a priority.” This creates backlogs in processing DNA and convicting serious offenders.”
Minister Fritz said, “It is of great concern that there is a year-on-year decline in DNA analysis performance in both cases registered (57.326%) and finalised (54.574%) between 2016/17 and 2018/19. The decline is reportedly linked to issues of procurement. Its resolution is dependent on the awarding of contracts for the procurement of evidence collection kits, consumables and the awarding of maintenance contracts.”
“It is further concerning that the number of buccal samples taken from arrested suspects charged with serious offences has declined from 75.5% in the second quarter of the 2017/18 financial year to 12.7% at the end of the 2018/19 financial year. Again, this is attributed to delays in awarding bids for procurement. As a result of this, critical leads are being lost, prejudicing particularly rape survivors who are not able to have critical evidence collected and whose judicial rights are subsequently undermined. It further means that new SAPS recruits cannot be sampled before deployment contravening section 15L (2) of the DNA Act,” said Minister Fritz.
Minister Fritz added, “The Western Cape has the lowest number of cases with outstanding feedback for forensic DNA investigative leads of all provinces but it remains deeply concerning that the rate of compliance in buccal samples continues to decrease at a rapid rate, particularly for such serious offences. I urgently call on the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, and the CSPS to remedy this. In the interim, my Department will continue to complete its DNA Project which aims to collect baseline data on the taking of buccal samples, storage of DNA buccal samples, inspections conducted, training, challenges and availability of DNA buccal kits at stations.”
Under the leadership of Minister Fritz, the Department of Community Safety remains committed to using every tool at its disposal to safeguard the citizens of the Western Cape.
Attention broadcasters, please find English audio clip attached.