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​DNA Sweeps: How a Lack of Oversight Permits Police Coercion

DNA canvassing has been criticized as coercive and racist, but there is virtually no oversight for the Canadian police using it.

Haseena Manek

File photo dated 27/02/2006 of a police officer taking a swab from a volunteer's mouth at a temporary police DNA screening station in the Brighton Road Baptist Church in south Croydon, Surrey. Photo via CP.

DNA—the most private and intimate of information—is being swept up in blanket canvasses by Canadian police, who say the samples are collected from individuals who meet either demographic or geographic profiles, and only with their consent.

But the process requires no court order, no legal oversight, and is subject to no comprehensive policies. And advocacy organizations are pushing back, warning that mass sweeps of this nature are inherently coercive and need regulation. They point to a 2013 sexual assault investigation in Elgin County, where the unidentified victim described her assailant using race, age, and height, as proof of the danger posed by the practice.

The OPP requested DNA samples from all black and brown men in the area—approximately 100 migrant farm workers from Trinidad, Jamaica, and Dominica—with the help of their employers. Because the men were in Canada on work visas, advocates say they were essentially scared into doing the DNA tests out of fear that they could be deported.

"We look at this as more than just simply the act of profiling migrant workers, we look at this as a form of racialized policing," Chris Ramsaroop, who works with advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers, told VICE.

Abby Deshman, director of the public safety program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said while there may be instances where it is justifiable for police to use DNA sweeps, more oversight is required because of just how much it invades people's privacy. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has been calling on police to stop using DNA canvassing since 2011 and has repeatedly raised concerns about the practice, like in early 2015, when Windsor police collected blood samples from hundreds of people in a bid to rule them out as a suspects in the murder of a pregnant woman

"Many people feel they do not have a meaningful opportunity to say no when the police ask them for their DNA," Deshman said in an interview with VICE News.

In previous cases, police have looked at refusals as inherently suspicious, finding ways to test those individuals' DNA by other means. The technique has yielded results in some cases.

The perpetrator of the 2003 murder of Toronto 12-year-old Holly Jones was identified through DNA testing of a discarded pop can. He was flagged for testing because he refused to participate in a DNA canvass.

And while statistics are not kept on how many canvasses occur every year in Canada, more cases appear to be popping up in the news. In the 2011 murder investigation of 42-year-old Sonia Varaschin in Orangeville, Ontario, for example, police swept an entire neighbourhood with a DNA canvass, but found nothing. The case remains unsolved. That year, taxi drivers in Prince George, British Columbia were asked for DNA as part of an investigation into the disappearance of three sex trade workers and one student along the province's Highway of Tears. Just last year, residents of a Prince Edward Island community were swabbed for DNA to help catch a burglar. Police said the "right tip" led to an arrest in that case.

The perpetrator in the Elgin County case was eventually identified through DNA testing of discarded items including a cigarette butt, pop can, pizza slice tray, and napkin—not through the DNA canvass. The suspect was flagged for testing because he was one of a few in the area without an alibi.

Toronto lawyer Enzo Rondinelli wrote about the perils of the "DNA dragnet" and has researched the topic extensively. He thinks the government needs to rein in the practice, and advises his clients against complying with a voluntary request.

"I still think police should have to get judicial authorization to take a DNA sample from someone," Rondinelli told VICE. "DNA testing isn't infallible. Labs make mistakes. The risk of such a mistake is too great and I would still advise against clients giving samples voluntarily."

Police were "overly broad" in their collection of DNA in the Elgin County case, according to a report put out by the Office of the Independent Police Review Directorate, an independent organization that receives, responds and follows up on police complaints in Ontario. It found that the practice could "reasonably be expected to have an impact on the migrant workers' sense of vulnerability, lack of security and fairness," but ultimately concluded that racial profiling did not occur.

"When it comes to the investigative results, we stand by our investigation, there's no doubt about that," said OPP Provincial Media Relations Coordinator Sergeant Peter Leon of the case. "In the end we were able to identify the person who was ultimately convicted of this very serious offence."

Read more: The Exciting and Terrifying Future of DNA Editing

But there were still consequences for the migrant workers, according to Ramsaroop. He said one Trinidadian worker who refused to participate in the DNA sweep was not called back to work.

"This, to me, speaks of control and sends a strong message to the workers that if they don't take part they're gonna be seen as criminals and be victimized by their employer," he said.

The OIPRD has recommended all Canadian police forces develop policy to govern how and when DNA sweeps are used and "identify and ensure best practices," institute new training, reassess consent processes and publicly report on storage of previously collected samples. The recommendations come with a model policy and a six month deadline until the OIPRD follows up on those recommendations. No police force is required to make changes based on the report and none have confirmed doing so at this time.