It was the percentage that struck me. Twenty-eight people, who had been arrested by Sussex Police but were later found to have committed no crime, applied for their DNA to be expunged from the police database. Only one request was granted, a rate of 3.6% that put Sussex Police bottom of a national league table of police forces.
So I wrote to the chief constable, asking for an explanation. I made it clear I wasn’t seeking to undermine the great job the police do, but that there were civil liberties at stake and I found the statistic alarming.
That led to me having a meeting with two of the force’s most senior community police officers (I won’t give their names given how close we are to a general election), which just happened to take place the same day the government published its proposed revised guidance on holding DNA samples.
A bit of history here. The government currently allows the police to take DNA samples from anyone they arrest or caution, and to keep those samples ad infinitum. The ad infinitum part has been ruled inadmissible by the European Court for Human Rights, which said – rightly in my view – that the DNA of innocent people could not be kept indefinitely.
So the government now has to propose revised rules, and it’s done so. It wants to keep innocent people’s DNA for six years. To me that’s excessive, and it was described by the Lib Dems’ Home Affairs spokesperson in the Lords, Sally Hamwee, as ‘excessive and potentially illegal’. Another legal challenge could well be in the offing.
In the meantime, what is a poor police force to do? Sussex Police have taken the view that, until the guidance is revised and such guidance is accepted, it will continue to hold DNA samples unless it’s absolutely clear that a person was arrested with no connection to the crime under investigation or any other crime.
This explains the 3.6% – and here’s the rub.
If we want the police to do a job, we need to give them all reasonable means to do it. That includes DNA, and also fingerprinting which seems less emotive but in most respects has the same status as DNA. If you have a case where, say, police are called to a domestic disturbance, there’s a suggestion of violence so they arrest a suspect but no charges are pressed, it’s probably right for that person’s DNA to stay on the record books for a reasonable period of time.
But what happens when you get a case like the Crowborough businessman Sal Miah, who was arrested and later given a caution after attempting to protect his restaurant from youths who tried to break in? The police later apologised and a senior officer said the caution has been revoked and the DNA and fingerprints are being destroyed. But because Mr Miah was cautioned, it isn’t a simple case of destroying the DNA, and until the full process has run its course, his details remain on a database along with convicted criminals.
That’s the bit that doesn’t feel right, but I don’t think we should turn our fire on the police but on the government. They need to give us a workable Crime and Security Bill that allows police to keep the DNA of reasonable suspects for a reasonable time, so the police can do their job and civil liberties can be ensured.
I trust the police. They’re professional, motivated by a desire to solve crime, and while there are occasional cases of police malpractice, they’re the exception, not the rule (they’re newsworthy because they’re so rare). And the vast majority of police officers respect the need for civil liberties to be protected – that’s why sensible government guidelines are a potential win/win in this highly emotive issue.