Can a DNA Dragnet Undermine an Investigation? A Case Study in Canada

By Micheal Vonn

The 2007 conviction of notorious serial killer Robert William Pickton did not see the end of the decades-long story of murdered and missing women in British Columbia. The police investigation into reported disappearances of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has been widely criticized and is now the subject of a controversy-plagued public inquiry. Meanwhile, women and girls continue to disappear in Northern BC along Highway 16, dubbed the “Highway of Tears.”

Earlier this year the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Prince George collected approximately 600 “volunteer” DNA samples from taxi drivers, on the theory that a Prince George cabbie might be one of the last people to have contact with one of the missing women. On the basis of reports, it does not appear that the decision to seek voluntary DNA samples from taxi drivers was particularly well-considered. A contact at Emerald Taxi, who spoke to the media on condition of anonymity, put it this way: “At that time someone said a cab driver might know something, so they called us all in for an interview, and then said ‘Oh, how about a DNA sample too?’ which was a surprise.”

The surprise requests came with the unsurprising DNA dragnet catch-22: the drivers could “volunteer” their DNA orimmediately find themselves on the list of suspects. As one driver said, “They made it sound like if I didn’t, that could cause problems.” Taxi company managers and drivers told the media that many of the drivers initially refused to submit a sample, and many initially told the RCMP that they would not provide a sample without a warrant; but threatened with becoming a suspect, most capitulated.

News outlets across the country covered the DNA dragnet story and the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) was asked to comment on the “privacy issues”-specifically, to comment on whether there were any privacy issues given that the RCMP had promised the samples would be destroyed after the volunteer-suspects had been “eliminated.” But what started out as a conversation about the national DNA data bank system and relevant legislation quickly turned to questions about whether the choice to employ a DNA dragnet could be a tactical blunder for the investigation. The anger of the cab drivers, not least because members of the public had started to voice fears about taking taxis because the police focus on the taxi companies obviously meant that one of the drivers was a serial killer, could only mean that the police were effectively alienating the very people that they were hoping would have useful information for them. In deciding to coerce the drivers into providing DNA samples, the police might be effectively shutting the door on precisely the community cooperation they need for the investigation.

There are at least eighteen disappearances that have occurred along the highway that cuts through Prince George, which is the urban centre of Northern BC. It is impossible that members of the community don’t have information that could prove valuable to these investigations. But the RCMP in general and the Prince George police in particular are suffering from a deep distrust by members of the public. In 2002 a provincial court judge in Prince George was convicted of sexually assaulting underage aboriginal girls in the community. A number of allegations were also made against local RCMP officers by the girls involved and their social workers but no charges were ever laid and the code of conduct investigations into the allegations against ten RCMP officers were mysteriously allowed to exceed the limitation period without resolution. The police accountability scandals have continued ever since with RCMP finding no wrongdoing in their members repeatedly Tasering a ‘hog-tied’ prisoner who subsequently died, refusing to impose internal discipline on an officer convicted of causing bodily harm for an assault that broke bones in the victim’s face, and failing to reprimand officers who were found by a Provincial Court to have destroyed or concealed cell block surveillance footage of an incident in which a man held in jail said he was Tasered by the RCMP more than 20 times. When the BCCLA conducted a public forum on policing in Prince George in the summer of 2010, participants reported a lack of trust in the police. As one participant said, “It’s hard to tell your kids to trust the RCMP when you have a hard time trusting them.”

To date, the DNA sweep through the Prince George cabbies has generated no reported investigative leads and a great deal of anger at the perceived aggression of the police. We don’t know yet what will prove to be the critical pieces of information and evidence that solve these cases. But especially in a context where the relations between the police and the community are already fraught, it is important to consider how distrust that is exacerbated by a controversial dragnet is going to affect the ability of people to come forward with information. How much small town policing, or big town policing for that matter, is reliant on a relationship of trust between the police and the community? How terribly old-fashioned and no-tech that sounds. Certainly in the Pickton murders many members of the community had critical information and many who came forward were not listened to. It’s possible that what unlocks the cases along the Highway of Tears will have more to do with listening to members of the community than profiling their DNA. In fact, it may prove that a DNA dragnet, in some cases a forensic tool, could also prove a liability in an investigation.

Micheal Vonn is a lawyer and Policy Director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

© 2014 Forensic Genetics Policy Initiative