ONE DAY IN JULY, police in Bensalem, Bucks County, interrupted a burglary in progress and caught two suspects. Eleven days later and 10 miles north, someone threw a rock through a window to get into a Falls Township home and steal three handguns.
In the past, investigators might have been hard-pressed to solve the second break-in, let alone link it to the first. But thanks to a new countywide, multijurisdictional DNA database, cops had cracked both cases within weeks, after finding DNA evidence at the Falls burglary that proved the Bensalem baddie was behind both crimes.
Bucks County officials announced the new database - the first of its kind nationally - at a news conference yesterday at the county courthouse in Doylestown, recounting case after case in which the new database solved crimes that might have gone cold with few other clues.
Although most states and big cities have their own DNA databases, smaller towns and rural burgs don't - and have had to send DNA swabs to their bigger brethren for testing. That has left many small police departments waiting months to over a year for results from overburdened state or city DNA labs that prioritize murders and other serious crimes.
Bucks County's new database delivers results within 30 days - or even 24 hours for urgent cases, said Fred Harran, Bensalem's public safety director and vice president of the Bucks County police chiefs. Bensalem started its own DNA database in 2010, and Harran credits it with helping his officers solve more than 400 crimes. The new countywide database, which launched in June, started with the 13,000 DNA samples Bensalem has collected since 2010. Since June, other departments have added about 600 more, Harran said.
There's no crime too small to benefit from the database; if DNA evidence exists, it will be tested, Harran said. That's key for the counties, where the most common crimes are property crimes, Harran said. While burglary may seem like small potatoes compared with murder, he added, such property crime can be devastating to the victim - and even drive them out of their homes.
And with all 40 Bucks County police departments participating, authorities expect to catch the lawbreakers who have dodged justice in the past by hitting the road to a different town.
"It takes an hour and 20 minutes to get from north to south in Bucks County; the detectives [from different departments] normally don't talk to each other," Harran said. "But in this [local DNA database] system, the computer does the work for them."
The system is called BodeHITS, a nod to Bode Cellmark Forensics, the Virginia-based private DNA lab that tests and catalogs the Bucks DNA samples. It will cost about $600,000 annually, with the county kicking in nearly $250,000, Bensalem as the largest department picking up an additional $175,000 and the other police departments shouldering the rest, Harran said.
The new system - in which authorities can swab suspects for DNA even before they're arrested - might raise the eyebrows of privacy-protective civil-rights advocates. The state database maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police, for example, contains DNA only from convicted offenders.
But Harran emphasized that suspects must consent to be swabbed, unless officers can persuade a judge for a court order.
"People think it's 'Big Brother,' " Harran said, referring to a character in a popular dystopian novel about government oppression. "It's not. It's an all-voluntary program. People can say no. Thank God criminals are stupid" and usually consent.
And at a time when police nationally are catching criticism for militarizing, the new DNA database is a kinder, gentler path toward more effective policing, said Adam Weintraub, assistant district attorney.
"Every cop - and there are over 600 in Bucks County - is now armed with this revolutionary crime-fighting tool," Weintraub said. "It's not a gun, it's not a Taser. It's not even a weapon. It's a Q-tip, and because of it, we're all much more safe as a community."
One local DNA expert cautioned that counties creating private DNA databases isn't the best answer for beating the backlog of bigger databases, primarily because as a private database, Bucks County's DNA samples don't get shared with other jurisdictions.
"The answer is not for law enforcement to have disjointed private systems, but to work together to expand/join CODIS [Combined DNA Index System, a national database of local, state and federal cases maintained by the FBI] for the best interests of all criminal investigations," said Michael Garvey Jr., director of the Philadelphia Police Department's forensic science office, which analyzes DNA evidence in about 2,000 cases a year.
On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo