Saturday, June 21, 2008

Violence Roils Black Funeral Parlors

Clarence Glover has a surveillance camera in the chapel of his funeral home. Joseph Garr sometimes carries a revolver in his hearse. Carl Swann Jr. is contemplating leaving the business.

The three directors of black funeral parlors here have been assaulted at services and each has had gunshots fired during burials. Concealed-weapons, pre-funeral intelligence briefings, cameras, panic buttons and armed security guards are becoming as much a part of services as the eulogy.

"I've been in this business 42 years and I'm jittery now," Mr. Glover says.

Across the country, black morticians are changing the way they operate. The reason: a spike in African-American murders -- and the violence that sometimes follows victims to the grave. In an echo of more volatile parts of the world, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, African-American morticians report seeing an increase in violent behavior, and occasional killings, at funerals.

The violation of the once-sacrosanct funeral is one byproduct of a little-noticed upswing in the murder rate of African-Americans. The number of blacks killed in America, mostly by other blacks, has been edging up at a time when the rate for other groups has been flat or falling.

As a result, the black murder-victim toll exceeds that of the far larger white population. According to the most recent statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the number of whites murdered dropped slightly, to 6,956 from 7,005 between 2004 and 2006. The number of blacks killed rose 11%, to 7,421 from 6,680.

African-Americans, who make up 13% of the population, have long had a higher homicide rate than other groups. And the total number of black murders is still significantly lower than in the early 1990s, when the U.S. was hit by a wave of drug-related killings. At that time, though, "funeral homes used to be the most respected places you could walk into beside the church," says Jeff Gardner, a co-owner of A.D. Porter & Sons in Louisville, Ky., and a third-generation undertaker. "Nobody respects life and the young folks nowadays don't mind dying."

What worries law enforcement, criminologists and sociologists is that there's no unifying theme to explain today's increase. Some killings are drug related. Researchers trace others to a glut of ex-felons re-entering society. Others correlate the rise in murders to the lack of a proper education.

Black funeral homes, long a fixture of African-American communities, offer a stark perspective from which to view the trend. There are no comprehensive statistics on assaults or other crimes at funerals. And the violence has not touched all black communities. Still, the topic has become a hot one in the industry.

Rising Incidence of Violence

Last year, the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association -- a black trade group -- held a panel discussion at its Philadelphia convention about the rising incidence of violence on funeral premises. Among some strategies recommended: increasing security and not publicizing funerals.

Since 2006, police in Boston, Goldsboro, N.C., Louisville, Los Angeles and St. Louis have investigated black murders that occurred at or immediately after funeral services. Of five cases reviewed for this article, four were at the funerals of other murder victims. Two were gang related. One was a revenge killing. Two remain unexplained.

Sitting in the office of his funeral parlor on Reading Road in Cincinnati, funeral director Mr. Glover, 58 years old, can see images from three cameras at once. They allow him to view all the public areas inside the House of Glover Funeral Service as well as the back door. He's had the system up and running for three months.

On at least two occasions, he says, gunfire at grave sites forced him to dive into the dirt. "Bullets don't have names," he says.

If a funeral has the possibility of "drama," as he puts it, Mr. Glover hires security at $25 to $50 an hour per guard. He also assembles his staff two hours prior to a wake for a briefing. "We have a meeting so you know who is who, what to look for and watch out for each other," he says.

Cincinnati is a microcosm of the national picture. Here, black morticians meet regularly. In past months the primary discussion has been about safety. Recently, funeral directors went on local radio talk shows in three one-hour sessions. The subject: escalating violence at funerals.

According to the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, the average cost of an African-American funeral is about $4,500. In many cases, the specter of violence is driving costs up. In Cincinnati, security firms make regular appearances at services, adding as much as $500 to the bill. Surveillance systems can cost $2,000 or more just to install.

"We've had to alternate funeral procession routes because we have been tipped off," says Duane Weems, president of Elite Protective Services, a local security firm. "Attendees to the church service will tell us that this gang is waiting down there."

Since funerals and wakes draw family and friends of the deceased, they also provide a ready stage for anyone with violent intentions toward the mourners.

Family and friends of Frank Sherley Jr., who died at the age of 70 of natural causes, were arriving at A.D. Porter & Sons Funeral Home in Louisville for his wake May 21, 2006. It was "a perfect day," recalls John Curd, an employee there that Sunday evening. "There was no expectation of violence."

At services for Mr. Sherley, two gunmen appeared in the parking lot and began firing. Mr. Curd dialed 911. He recalls thinking: "This isn't supposed to be happening at a funeral home." One man was killed and four other people were wounded. Police say they don't have a motive and the crime is unsolved.

• The Issue: As the murder rate among African-Americans edges up, morticians are noticing more incidents of violence at funeral services.
• The Challenge: Undertakers can beef up security, but their costs rise and profits dwindle.
• The Outlook: Black funeral homes may lose their safe-haven status in some communities.

In his first four years on the job, Mr. Curd rarely tended to homicide victims. In recent years, he sees one to two each month.

Harrowing Experience

Mr. Swann, of Cincinnati, says his family has been burying the dead since the early 1900s. "I caught the school bus in front of the funeral home and I got off the bus in front of the funeral home," he says. Now, at age 37, he's thinking of getting out of the business.

One particularly harrowing experience was the funeral of Raeshaun Hand Jr. The ex-convict had continued to deal drugs after being released from prison, according to police, and was wanted at the time of his murder. Mr. Hand, 27, was found shot inside his car in February 2005.

Mr. Hand's father tried to keep the service private, but word got out. The father stood guard at the church door, trying to limit access. Some mourners made it in, drinking and smoking in the church bathroom, Mr. Swann says. Later as he prepared to close the casket, a large group rushed inside, pinning the undertaker.

"One dude punched me in front of the casket. The dead man's son was there and he got punched and his father was punched. My professionalism went out the window," Mr. Swann says. "I started fighting back, throwing punches. This wasn't in the job description and it doesn't come with the job."

Evacuation Plan

Debora Kellom, director of Wade Funeral Home in St. Louis and a spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association, similarly recalls how a fight broke out during the wake of a murder victim in January. Word spread that there were guns present. Panic erupted. Ms. Kellom ordered the casket closed, moved everyone outside and called 911.

Thirty police arrived on the scene, complete with a paddy wagon. "So many emotions came over me that night," she said. "I was angry because I had to do that. Telling the mother who was crying we have to get you out and protect you."

At least she was prepared. Ms. Kellom has an evacuation plan for the funeral home. At its core is an electronic switch that allows her to put the facility in lockdown mode.

Mr. Gardner, the co-owner of A.D. Porter & Sons, has also installed electronic surveillance cameras. On occasion, he hires extra security for a funeral that's likely to attract violence. Mr. Gardner says he sometimes must absorb the extra cost, which can amount to hundreds of dollars per funeral. "There's no price too high for safety but it costs and that just eats into my bottom line."

Gayle Graham locks the door to her establishment, W.T. Shumake & Daughters Funeral Home, Louisville, unless a service is under way. "The open door policy is gone even though we're a business. You have to ring the doorbell," says Ms. Graham. Other policies include changing venues for some funerals and not publicizing wakes. Ms. Graham also reports that her insurance costs are rising because of liability concerns.

In some cases, police are shadowing mourners. On the West Coast, funeral directors are now working closely with the Los Angeles Police Department, from planning procession routes that avoid gang territory to coordinating burials so rivals aren't interred in the same cemeteries at the same time.

Detective Sal LaBarbera, a homicide supervisor with the LAPD, says the department routinely attends high-risk funerals to offer security and gather intelligence.

Earlier this year, the family of a gang-related murder victim had difficulty finding a funeral home that would take the body. "This poor family, it took five or six days before they could find a place that would even accept this kid," recalls Mr. LaBarbera.

Once arrangements were set, LAPD suggested that the wrong location and time be disseminated "so the family could have a private service," says Mr. LaBarbera. "On the face of it, it sounds ridiculous but it's real life here."

Anthony Felder, of Los Angeles's Spalding Mortuary, says he routinely faxes basic information to the police if he's handling a homicide case. He also faxes images of tattoos on the body to help the police identify gang members -- and assess any specific risks associated with the deceased. The police in return send plainclothes officers for security.

In St. Louis, Ms. Kellom, 43, says she has gone so far as to ask that the local police department set up a substation inside her facility. She argues that such an arrangement would give her establishment -- and the neighborhood -- a much-needed, visible police presence. She has promised a body-free zone for officers, who she expects will soon be dropping by on a regular basis to monitor the area.

Mr. Garr, 77, has largely taken matters into his own hands. The Cincinnati funeral director obtained his license to carry a concealed weapon in late 2005. His next step is to increase liability coverage in case he has to use one of his two .38-caliber pistols.

The 'S'

At a recent service, mourners driving in the funeral procession began zigzagging in what is known as the "S," says Mr. Garr, weaving so dramatically that they covered three lanes instead of one. He stopped the hearse and asked the participants to stop because they were creating a hazard. When they continued, he began pulling the funeral flags off their cars.

One man grabbed him, Mr. Garr recalls, and said he couldn't prevent them from making such a display, which they called a homage to the dead man.

"I could feel myself reaching for my gun, but then I'm showing the same attitude as the knuckleheads," he says. The young man stepped away, defusing the situation.

As funeral security evolves, Ms. Kellom says the business of burial insurance -- policies sold by directors to help customers pay in advance for funeral costs -- is also morphing. Rather than purchase policies for just themselves, mothers and grandmothers are now taking out policies for younger family members, too.

Says Ms. Kellom: "They come in and say, 'I know I'm going to be responsible for burying him when something happens.'"

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Polygraph Paradox

Lie detectors aren't perfect. But, convicted sex offenders concede, they may be good enough.

The lie detector won't die.

Polygraphy, the attempt to ferret out deception by monitoring changes in subjects' breathing, sweating or pulse, has long been derided as "voodoo science." Confessions made under polygraph aren't admitted as evidence in a vast majority of U.S. courts without the consent of the accused. The National Academy of Sciences says the technology isn't accurate enough to be used for employee security screening.

Yet polygraph use is at the highest level in two decades. Government agencies from local police departments to the CIA are increasingly using the technology for job interviews. In U.S. courts lately, judges have expanded the instances in which polygraph testing is mandated or admitted as evidence.
[Click to see a polygraph test]1

In law enforcement, this lie-detector paradox is clearly on display. Polygraphy is a centerpiece in an expanding range of parole and probation programs that are designed to dissuade sex offenders and other felons from committing more crimes.

The recent experience of convicted gay pedophile Paul Duncan shows the polygraph's contradictions and, its proponents argue, its promise. Last November, as part of a program in this southern Oregon town to monitor paroled sex offenders, Mr. Duncan sat in a small windowless room in a corrections center with polygraph sensors on his palm, chest, stomach and arm. Under the program, a parolee who fails the test, or admits to parole violations under the threat of a test, can be sent back to prison.

The machine's operator asked: "Have you had sexual contact with a minor during the last six months?"

Mr. Duncan said he hadn't. The polygrapher judged him to be lying. Mr. Duncan was sent to jail for 15 days.

In an interview after his release, the 33-year-old Mr. Duncan said reality had been more complicated. Mr. Duncan said he hadn't, in fact, had contact with a minor. But he admitted he had violated his parole in another way -- viewing online pornographic photos of young males, an activity he says had sparked his past pedophilic episodes. Mr. Duncan says he believes that while the polygraph got the specifics wrong, it revealed a broader truth: His conscience was guilty.

"I didn't disclose my deviant fantasies -- and I deserved to fail," Mr. Duncan said of the test. "Don't believe anyone who tells you polygraph doesn't work."
[Paul Duncan]

Mr. Duncan's unusual endorsement is consistent with those provided by other paroled felons. In interviews with The Wall Street Journal, a dozen convicted sex offenders in Klamath Falls and Denver, Colo., said lie-detector sessions exposed their parole violations. More importantly, they say, the threat of upcoming tests serves as a deterrent to future crimes. Polygraph proponents argue that this is a benefit the ongoing polygraphy debate misses: The question shouldn't be whether the technology is always accurate, they say, but whether it is useful.

Polygraphs have long been used as a tool to keep sex offenders from relapsing, typically as part of maintenance programs that combine polygraphy with group therapy and parole-officer supervision. Today, a majority of jurisdictions use such programs for convicted sex offenders. Now, post-conviction polygraphy appears poised to spread: Probation officers have recently started deploying lie detectors in programs tailored to domestic-abuse and drunk-driving offenders, as well.

Last July, Klamath Falls expanded its sex-offender program to cover domestic-violence offenders. Two East Texas counties, Van Zandt and Wood, recently began monitoring drug and alcohol offenders with lie detectors, and polygraphy has also been used in monitoring drug and alcohol offenders in Dallas and Houston.

Eric Holden, a psychologist and Dallas polygraph examiner, says that as courts become familiar with how lie detectors are used with sex offenders, the tests will be increasingly applied to other offenders. Polygraph testing "will become a standard for supervising probationers of all kinds," says Mr. Holden, who was one of the first to use polygraphy with sex offenders in the early 1980s.

That tracks the lie detector's expanding use overall. The number of federal polygraph programs has grown 53% in the past decade, according to the Defense Academy of Credibility Assessment, which trains polygraph examiners for the government. There are roughly 5,000 polygraph examiners in the U.S., conducting some 1.6 million tests a year -- both up about 50% from a decade ago, estimates the industry's largest trade group, the American Polygraph Association. This year, APA membership reached its highest level since 1988, when Congress outlawed pre-employment lie-detector testing by most nongovernmental employers.

Unlicensed Operators

Critics remain vocal. The idea behind polygraphy is that physiological changes often accompany lying. But subjects can fool the machine, detractors say. While subjects are supposed to sit still to ensure an accurate reading, some may try to distort results by squeezing muscles in the buttocks, for example, or lightly biting the tongue. Precise polygraphy also depends on the ability of the machine's operator to formulate questions and analyze results; nearly half of U.S. states, including California, don't require examiners to be licensed.

Even with trained polygraphers, the technology fails to detect those telling lies, or wrongly implicates those telling the truth, about 10% of the time, according to field studies reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences. Such reliability levels are too low for many uses. In making employment decisions about thousands of people, for example, lie detectors could wrongly implicate hundreds of them, the academy wrote in a 2003 study. Polygraphy performs "well above chance, though well below perfection," the study concluded.

High-profile cases have spotlighted these imperfections. Polygraph testing failed to raise suspicions about Aldrich Ames, the former CIA agent who spied for the Soviets. The Federal Bureau of Investigations' interpretation of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee's exam results wrongly implicated him of being an agent for China.

Proponents say accuracy rates have improved. Increasingly, hand-scoring by examiners has been replaced by computerized algorithms that proponents say filter out human errors and biases. Examiners have also tried to counter polygraph-foiling techniques, employing, for example, what they call "butt pads" to detect muscle squeezing.

When it comes to dissuading released offenders from relapsing, polygraphy is superior to other methods, adherents say. It beats self-reporting -- simply asking parolees whether they've violated their parole terms -- a method previously employed by many jurisdictions that have switched over to post-conviction polygraphy.

Eighty Offenders

In Klamath Falls, a town of 20,000 people and the seat of Oregon's mountainous Klamath County, some 80 convicted sex offenders are required to attend weekly therapy sessions and probation-officer meetings. They're also required to submit to lie-detector testing. Initially, they undergo an extensive screening of their sexual history, meant to provide a baseline of behaviors and flag activities that tend to provoke deviant behavior. Offenders also undergo so-called maintenance polygraphs at least every six months.

Klamath Falls's corrections office requires the offenders to pay $200 for the sexual-history exam and $150 apiece for maintenance tests. Some money is available for those who can't afford to pay.

Michael Collier, a convicted offender in Klamath Falls, says the polygraph pushed him to admit what he wouldn't otherwise have disclosed. Imprisoned in 1999 for sexually assaulting a young female cousin, Mr. Collier was released in 2006. Afterward, he submitted to the mandatory sexual-history exam.

Mr. Collier says he "failed miserably" twice. Because flunked polygraphs are regarded as noncompliance with treatment, a parole violation, Mr. Collier was ordered to serve 68 days in the county jail. After his release, he admitted he had withheld information during the tests: He had been drinking alcohol and had been in the home of a woman with young children, both parole violations. (Oregon grants offenders immunity from prosecution for these kinds of confessions.)

Mr. Collier's experience isn't unusual, according to a 2000 survey conducted by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice for the National Institute of Justice. In a study of 180 convicted sex offenders in three states, its authors determined that the subjects confessed to more crimes, and a wider variety of offenses, under polygraph than they otherwise would have. Ten percent admitted to having male victims before they took a post-conviction polygraph exam. After the polygraph exam, 36% admitted to having male victims.

Hands-Off Behaviors

The study also suggests that polygraphs can help reveal activities that could lead to relapse. In pre-polygraph questioning, 3% of offenders disclosed so-called hands-off behaviors -- including exhibitionism, voyeurism, placing obscene phone calls and viewing pornography on the Internet -- that for some offenders often precede assaults. Under the polygraph, more than 10 times as many offenders -- 35% -- disclosed hands-off offenses.

The report's lead author, Kim English, says that without the polygraph, therapists and probation officers might falsely conclude a group of offenders presented a relatively low risk to the community. "People will divulge victims and behaviors they would otherwise withhold," Ms. English says. "With polygraph, they know they're going to be found out."

Lawyers for sex offenders have argued that subjecting a suspect to such polygraph tests violates the U.S. Constitution's protection against self-incrimination. Dozens of federal and state courts, however, have ruled that post-conviction tests don't violate these Fifth Amendment rights. Polygraph testing "produces an incentive to tell the truth, and thereby advances the sentencing goals," the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said in a 2006 ruling.

The First Polygraph

Polygraphy dates back almost a century. William Moulton Marston -- a Harvard psychologist and lawyer better known for creating the "Wonder Woman" cartoon character -- published a paper in 1917 that argued that deception could be detected by measuring systolic blood pressure. In the 1920s, John Larson, a police officer in Berkeley, Calif., adapted Mr. Marston's method to the interrogation of criminal suspects, building a device that measured blood pressure and breathing patterns. His colleague Leonarde Keeler updated the design, wringing confessions from criminals with a mechanical box that also measured palm sweat and pulse rate. Mr. Keeler called it a polygraph, a device that records multiple measurements.

The basic idea has changed little. Polygraphs now typically consist of a set of probes that feed into a laptop computer and use scoring based on computerized algorithms. Four manufacturers in the U.S. and Canada offer polygraphs that cost roughly $7,000 to $11,000.

Entrepreneurs are racing to develop alternatives. Functional magnetic resonance imaging, also called brain fingerprinting, uses MRI technology to detect areas of the brain that are said to be activated when a subject lies. Brain fingerprinting is only now being tested, and is currently too expensive for widespread use: Machines cost $3 million or more, with single tests costing about $10,000 each. For now, old-school polygraphs remain the standard.
[Robert Lundell]

In Klamath Falls, testing is conducted by Robert Lundell, a former Oregon state trooper who left the force in 1980 to attend polygraph school. He started conducting post-conviction testing in 1982 in Oregon, one of the first states to deploy lie detectors this way.

Mr. Lundell, who owns a polygraphy business in nearby Medford, Ore., typically spends three days a week with convicted sex and violence offenders in Klamath Falls. He works in a small, unadorned room, designed to minimize distractions. During a typical session, he conducts a pre-polygraph interview that runs about an hour. Then comes a brief polygraph segment, lasting about 10 minutes. It incorporates a handful of control questions, to which the responses are obvious or known, plus five or fewer "yes" or "no" questions. Next is a post-polygraph interview, where subjects may come clean on questions they failed.

Calling his work "40% science and 60% art," Mr. Lundell says the key to polygraphy is asking the right questions. Specific and unambiguous inquiries about past behavior, he says, are best. "Have you been alone in a home with any minors since your last test," he says, is preferable to "Have you done anything wrong in the last six months."

Mr. Lundell says he shares the information he gleans with David Robinson, the psychotherapist who treats the Klamath Falls offenders. "Polygraph verifies the information I already have or thought," Dr. Robinson says.

'An Eye Opener'

Subjects are typically skeptical of the tests at first, say Mr. Lundell and offenders. But Mr. Lundell says polygraphs eventually become a strong deterrent. Simply knowing they will be tested, Mr. Lundell says, makes offenders less likely to commit new crimes.
[Jose Villenueva]

Jose Villaneuva believed he could beat the machine. First arrested at age 15 for stealing a car, Mr. Villanueva had spent five years in a juvenile facility in California before graduating to what he terms "a life of crime" and illegal drug use. The married father of two from Klamath Falls took his first polygraph in 2005, after he pleaded guilty to having sex with a 15-year-old girl.

When asked in his initial polygraph whether he was engaging in behavior that violated his probation, he says he didn't confess his continued theft and drug use. He failed. In a second test three months later, Mr. Villanueva confessed his past criminal activities and said he'd discontinued them. He passed. "It was an eye opener," says Mr. Villanueva, now 35 years old. "If I wouldn't have had to take polygraphs, I'd be in prison now. I had to stop doing all my criminal activity to pass them."

It is possible that polygraphy is effective in such cases in part because offenders believe the technology works. "The value of the polygraph in eliciting true admissions and confessions is largely a function of an examinee's belief that attempts to deceive will be detected and will have high costs," the National Academy of Sciences said in its 2003 report. "Such beliefs are not necessarily dependent on the validity of the test."

Sean Morrison, a 25-year-old convicted of raping a college classmate in 2000, was one of eight sex offenders interviewed during a therapy session in Denver. The others declined to be identified. Mr. Morrison says that while he has completed treatment and is no longer on probation, he volunteers to attend weekly therapy sessions and take two polygraph exams a year. "They keep me honest," he says.

Vince Garner, first convicted in 1990 of an offense against his three-year-old daughter, also credits the polygraph with keeping him out of trouble.

For his 43rd birthday last November, Mr. Garner received a gift box from a family member. In it, according to Mr. Garner and Klamath Falls law-enforcement officials familiar with his case, were a handgun and a bag of crystal meth.

"I like handguns, so I picked it up and touched it," he says. Handling a gun was a parole violation. As he held the gun, Mr. Garner says, he realized he was scheduled for his twice-annual polygraph two days later. "I said, 'You've got to get this out of here,' " he recalls.

At the outset of his next exam, Mr. Garner told the Klamath Falls polygrapher, Mr. Lundell, what he'd done. "If you have even the smallest little detail you didn't tell, you're going to fail," says Mr. Garner, whose confession enabled him to pass that exam.

As it stands now, Mr. Garner says he will have to continue taking the tests until his probation ends in 2020. He adds: "I wouldn't keep taking polygraphs if I didn't have to."

DNA Evidence Gains Acceptance As a Key Tool in Robbery Cases

When David and Dina Weller robbed yet another home in Denver in 2006, investigators traced the couple by analyzing saliva left on a cigarette butt at the crime scene. That DNA evidence connected the pair to a string of burglaries, and each got a 36-year sentence.

The payoff was immediate and huge: The annual burglary rate for the neighborhood they operated in fell 40%.

For years, DNA forensic techniques have largely been used for serious crimes such as rape or murder. Now they are also being applied to lesser felonies -- such as car theft and burglary -- often with dramatic results.

That success also poses a dilemma for cash-strapped police agencies and local governments: Is an expansive new high-tech infrastructure worth the price for solving relatively minor crimes?

Some think law-enforcement agencies have more pressing needs for such sophisticated sleuthing. "Many jurisdictions have a backlog for solving rapes and other violent crimes," and typically those should be tackled first, says David Lazer, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and an expert in the use of DNA for crime-solving.

Still, that hasn't stopped a five-city pilot project that revealed promising results earlier this week, notably that DNA evidence can significantly increase the chance of netting a burglar. Though burglaries and car thefts have dropped in many U.S. cities because of better policing and other measures, a study suggests that DNA evidence can make a huge difference in helping capture and convict those guilty of property crimes.

"We found that twice as many suspects were identified, twice as many were arrested and more than twice as many were prosecuted," says David Hagy, director of the National Institute of Justice, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, which funded the scientifically-conducted and randomized study.

Research suggests that habitual burglars commit on average more than 240 burglaries each year, and often don't stop there. "People committing serious crimes usually start on smaller ones. So through this process you can get these people identified and in the system earlier," says Steve Allison of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center at the University of Denver.

The university recently teamed up with five regional Colorado law-enforcement agencies and a prosecutor to create a DNA lab that deals exclusively with property crimes. The latest statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show property crimes, including burglary, larceny, motor-vehicle theft and arson, were down 1.1% nationally in 2007.

Britain was one of the first countries to embrace the broader use of DNA evidence. Its Forensic Science Service has even tested mobile vans that can analyze samples from a crime scene in six hours, far faster than a traditional lab. That may help quickly identify and nab a burglar still lurking in the vicinity. In some areas, police have given DNA swab kits to victims of hate crimes, in case they are spat on or otherwise attacked again.

Inspired by Britain's example, the Justice Department funded its project in Orange County, Calif.; Topeka, Kan.; Phoenix; Los Angeles and Denver. For the study, biological evidence was collected at as many as 500 burglary and similar crime scenes in each location, between November 2005 and July 2007. Detectives investigated half of the cases -- the control group -- by traditional means. The other half was investigated using DNA leads as well.

Two key results: DNA is at least five times as likely to result in a suspect identification compared with fingerprints. Plus, suspects identified by DNA were found to have at least twice as many prior felony arrests and convictions as those identified in the control group.

There are considerable hurdles to expanding the use of DNA sampling in crime fighting. Civil-liberties groups fret that the rapid growth in DNA databases -- which studies say include innocent people along with offenders -- threatens to erode citizens' privacy. And DNA-based investigations are expensive and require trained police and high-tech equipment.

"What kind of bang for the buck are you getting?" says Tania Simoncelli, science advisor to the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's not a responsible use of our resources."

Another problem is more mundane: logistics. In a typical investigation, experts take a DNA sample obtained from a crime scene and try to identify the culprit by matching the sample with DNA profiles already stored in a database from previous crimes. But in forensic labs nationwide, a crush of DNA samples has caused huge backlogs. In many states, Harvard's Mr. Lazer estimates that it takes four to six months from when a rape or murder is committed to when investigators run a DNA sample through the database.

In Denver, property crimes had risen 5% annually for several years before the project started. Since then, police say they have used DNA to trap 95 prolific burglars, leading to a 13% annual decline in burglaries in each of the last two years. DNA evidence also more than quintupled the rate of case prosecution.

Were other factors responsible for the decline? As it turned out, one of Denver's six police districts didn't get involved in the project, "and it was the only area where crime levels rose," says Mitchell Morrissey, the city's district attorney and an advocate of DNA-based technology.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Bob Arno, world's Fastest-Fingered Pickpocket

Ripley's fastest fingers steal everything! Bob Arno is a stage pickpocket and films real thieves. Here he steals in the street.