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March 17th

Bensalem police first local department in U.S. to use rapid DNA testing

  • Agency
  • Genetics/Genomics

Bucks County Courier Times – A "magic box" that the Bensalem, Pennsylvania, police acquired recently will enable the department to solve some crimes within about 90 minutes, said Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub as he and Bensalem Public Safety Director Fred Harran unveiled the new rapid-result DNA testing device Thursday.

The department attempted a similar pilot project back in 2013, but never got it off the ground because of a $1 million cost to set up an on-site lab.

This time, a lab isn't needed, dropping the cost of the project to $150,000. The box, called IntegenX RapidHIT ID, allows police to rapidly analyze DNA collected from inside a potential suspect's mouth to see if it matches DNA taken from crime scenes that Bensalem and 38 other police departments in the county are storing at the Bode Cellmark Forensics lab in Lorton, Virginia.

"Bensalem police will be the first police department in the country to utilize this instrument in conjunction with its well-established local DNA database," the department stated in announcing the acquisition.

DNA is the genetic component of cells that make each person unique. If human DNA is found at a crime scene and matched to a suspect, it can be submitted at a trial as evidence that the person most likely was involved in the crime.

During a press conference at the police department, Harran and Weintraub both spoke of what an advancement the machine is in helping police quickly confirm or rule out a person as a suspect. "It's an incredible tool," Harran said. Prior to the rapid response device, DNA results from saliva swabs took up to 30 days to get back from a lab, officials said.

"We will try anything new to prevent tomorrow's victim," Harran said. 

In 2010, Bensalem first developed the local DNA database and the other departments joined in 2015, sending more than 20,000 DNA samples to the Virginia lab. Those samples have assisted in approximately 550 criminal investigations. When working on solving serious crimes, Bensalem also sends crime-scene DNA to a national database.

Harran found out about the rapid response device at a safety conference where he met Robert Schueren, president and chief executive officer of IntegenX, the Pleasanton, California, company that developed it. Schueren, who was also at Thursday's press conference, grew up in Delaware County and said afterward that he was happy to help Bensalem become the first police department to acquire the machine. The "magic box" does the same DNA analysis as larger, national crime-solving labs but in much less time, using "highly miniaturized" technology. Schueren praised township officials' vision in seeing the need and usefulness of rapid DNA testing.

Harran said that in the first few days the IntegenX device was used in the past week, it helped solve an auto theft that occurred in Tullytown. DNA was taken from the auto, which was recovered in Bensalem, and stored at Bode weeks ago. When a suspect in another Bensalem criminal case agreed to a DNA swab, the genetic code matched what was taken from the vehicle. 

The machine can analyze cheek swab samples for matching but not evidence taken from crime scenes such as hair and other bodily fluids. It still takes about a month to analyze and record crime-scene DNA at the Virginia lab, Harran said. But the IntegenX device can still be used to quickly rule out or support the arrest of a suspect whose DNA is already in the system.

Bensalem Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo, who also attended the press conference, said a team effort was used to bring the new device to the Bensalem Police Department. Police, he said, have "the toughest job in the world" and he was happy that the township has given them the latest tool to catch suspects quicker.

His nephew, state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-18, of Bensalem, said he and state Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-6, also of Bensalem, helped acquire a $150,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to pay for the project.

Gene DiGirolamo had a different take on how the device can help. He said most burglaries and other local crimes are committed by drug addicts looking to support their habit. If they are arrested and can get the treatment they need, they can return to productive lives, he said.

While Pennsylvania requires convicted criminals to provide DNA samples for its state database, the county asks a suspect if he or she would agree to have his or her mouth swabbed for saliva to be included in the system. The suspect must sign a consent form before the procedure is done, Harran explained. Ninety-five percent of them agree to the swab, he added.

Weintraub said he'd like to have a few more of the devices for police departments in the central and upper parts of Bucks County.

Image citation: Dean Calma / IAEA, CC BY-SA 2.0