Posted on January 6, 2006

DNA of 37% of Black Men Held by Police

James Randerson, Guardian (London), Jan. 5, 2006

The DNA profiles of nearly four in 10 black men in the UK are on the police’s national database — compared with fewer than one in 10 white men, according to figures compiled by the Guardian.

Civil liberties groups and representatives of the black community said this offered evidence that the database reinforced racial biases in the criminal justice system. The Home Office denied this, saying most of the DNA came from people who had been charged and convicted of crimes. Only about 113,000 people who had been arrested but not charged were on the database, a spokeswoman said.

The figures, compiled using Home Office statistics and census data, show that 37% of black men have their DNA profile on the database compared with 13% of Asian men and 9% of white men.

Keith Jarrett, president of the National Black Police Association described the figures as “very worrying”. He said he would be recommending an investigation into how the database is compiled. “It raises some serious issues and needs to be looked at.” He rejected the notion that the figures reflect the racial balance of people who commit crime. “In my exprience that is not so at all,” he said. “This is an example of disproportionality in yet another part of the system. It’s just going to alienate more black people from having any part in the judicial system.”

Last night, Sue Mayer, the director of the campaign group GeneWatch, called for a debate on whose DNA samples were kept. “If you do have a skew towards certain ethnic minorities, there’s a real danger that you could have another form of discrimination,” she said.

The database, which now holds more than 3 million profiles, provides police with around 3,000 matches between suspects and samples taken from scenes of serious crimes a month. Often these provide leads in cold cases that have been on the books for several years.

Since April last year, police have had the power to take DNA from anyone arrested on suspicion of a recordable offence — one that would involve a custodial sentence — meaning the database is not simply a reflection of those convicted of crimes.

The “ethnic appearance” of each person placed on the database is recorded — 82% of male profiles are white and 7% black, according to the Home Office. The number of men in different racial categories can then be compared with the number in the country as recorded in the 2001 national census.

A Home Office spokeswoman accepted that black men were disproportionately represented, but said figures on race were recorded differently in each case. DNA database figures were “based on the operational judgment of the arresting officer”, whereas census figures on race were self-recorded.

Dominic Bascombe, of the Voice, the black newspaper based in London, said the revelation exposed biases in the criminal justice system that began with ethnic minorities being more likely to be arrested. “It is simply presuming if you are black you are going to be guilty — if not now but in the future,” he said.

He added that the over-representation of ethnic minorities on the database put them under increased “genetic surveillance”. “We certainly don’t think it reflects criminality,” he said. Anyone on the database — and family members — can more easily be linked to a crime scene if their DNA is found there. This may be because they are a criminal, or because they visited the scene prior to the crime.

The UK’s DNA database was set up in 1995. It is the largest internationally and has helped police match around 600,000 suspects to crime scenes.