The NYPD’s use of a controversial Virginia-based tech company for criminal investigations remains in effect more than a year after City Hall announced the arrangement was terminated.
The privately-owned Parabon NanoLabs uses DNA samples to create “virtual mugshots” of crime suspects using “Snapshot DNA Phenotyping,” with criminal defense advocates questioning its reliability.
The lab is one of two certified by the State Department of Health for investigative genetic genealogy. It is also certified for DNA phenotyping, which can help determine a suspect’s eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling, face shape and other clues to their identity.
Mayor de Blasio’s office, in a statement late Wednesday, confirmed the NYPD maintained a relationship with the company despite an announcement in September 2020 that the police would not be working with Parabon and had “no plans to do so.”
“The state has certified only two labs to perform investigative genealogy, and NYPD uses Parabon for this limited purpose,” City Hall said in the new statement.
According to a source, there are only a handful of investigations that are candidates for investigative genealogy. The NYPD does not work with Parabon on more routine DNA analysis.
The NYPD issued a statement saying the department would use the technology “responsibly and transparently.” NYPD Deputy Chief Emanuel Katranakis, head of the Forensic Investigations Division, extolled the virtues of investigative genetic genealogy last week, saying the technique has proved vital when cracking cold cases.
“IG can bring truth, closure and resolution through unbiased science by uncovering leads that would not be obtained through other investigative technologies,” he said last Friday at a virtual meeting of the state Commission on Forensic Science.
But Terri Rosenblatt, head of the Legal Aid Society’s DNA unit, questioned the state’s certification process, which seemingly paved the way for the NYPD to dodge City Hall’s directive.
“If you are a private lab, you are subject to less transparent scrutiny than a public lab,” said Rosenblatt. “DOH reviewed whatever they reviewed from Parabon. They have not been transparent. It’s unsettling.”
She said defense attorneys remain in the dark about Parabon’s methods. Critics note that one’s appearance is not solely the result of DNA and that people change their appearance through myriad ways, including a poor diet, dyeing one’s hair, plastic surgery and much more.
Rosenblatt referenced the Howard Beach murder of jogger Karina Vetrano in 2016, where Black defendant Chanel Lewis was convicted of killing a white woman based in part on DNA testing. In that case, detectives demanded DNA swabs from hundreds of black and Hispanic men because they had been previously arrested in the area of the slaying.
“They got information that a Black person committed the crime ... and what they did with that was go out and round up 500 Black men and take their DNA,” the attorney said.
It remains unclear if Parabon was involved in the Vetrano investigation.
Parabon director of bioinformatics Ellen Greytak said the company was extensively vetted and approved by the state. The business works with police to insure the technology is properly applied.
“It’s really like a genetic witness,” she said. “If the witness couldn’t tell you anything other than ‘I saw his skin and I would describe him this way,’ well, the police are going to use that information. But they’re not hopefully going to stop every person who matches the description.”
The investigative genealogy technology is not often employed due to its steep $10,000 tab per case, with the labs used as a last resort if the NYPD finds no success with the FBI’s DNA databases. Even then, the process is used generally only for murders, sex assaults and child abductions.
“The only person or entity saying that Parabon services work is Parabon and the cops they work with,” said Rosenblatt. “They are not giving anything over, so it’s not just transparency that’s the problem ... How many people are being wrongly investigated?”
With Michael Gartland