Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

Low-copy DNA swabs cost £1,000 each, but they did help nail Attracta’s killer

The police officer in charge of investigating the most serious crimes in Northern Ireland has warned that proposed PSNI budget cuts could hinder investigations being carried out by his team of detectives.

Speaking about threatened multi-million pound reductions in the police budget, Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris, responsible for solving murders, organised crime and terrorist incidents, told the Belfast Telegraph it was “hard to see how it will not have an impact”.

ACC Harris said he is particularly concerned about the effect the proposed cuts could have on the gathering of forensic evidence, in particular, the use of controversial low-copy number (LCN) DNA.

The senior PSNI figure was speaking after the revelation that the Government has demanded the PSNI cut £17m from its budget next year.

LCN analysis is used when only tiny amounts of DNA are found at crime scenes, on murder weapons or other evidence.

It has been used in a number of high profile cases across the UK and helped detectives catch the killer of Strabane pensioner Attracta Harron.

The technique is expensive, with one swab of LCN costing £1,000. ACC Harris said that in a serious crime investigation around 40 swabs can be taken — amounting to over £40,000. ACC Harris said: “It will have an impact on us. In terms of forensics, a low copy DNA swab costs over £1,000 each. Take for example a vehicle recovered after a terrorist incident.

“You may expect upwards of 40 swabs taken in the one vehicle. That is perhaps £40,000, £50,000 or £60,000 on forensic examination in one vehicle. You can see how much of this is actually cash driven,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. “There is a Rolls Royce model of what you would like to do and then what you can do.

“You do have to decide if the money you are spending is giving you the return you hoped for. You can’t throw every last cent into a forensic budget. You can’t think you have an open cheque book,” he added.

ACC Harris’s Crime Operations Department deals with all serious and organised crime investigations including terrorist incidents, homicides, human trafficking and armed robberies. A lot of investigations are also on an international level and any budget cuts will be a challenge for the department.

“I am quite concerned about this because we have already done a lot to actively cut our budget. It will have an impact — it is hard to see how it will not have an impact around investigations,” ACC Harris said.

He added: “A lot of the policing budget is for pensions and fixed costs. The actual operational budget is a small percentage of the overall budget. These cuts are on top of multi-million pound cuts we have already made. How much can you stretch?

“A lot of our investigations have an international reach and this could be impacted on as well. We recognise there is a lot of pressure on budgets.

“After Massereene the Government did provide extra funding and through that assistance we were able to conduct a 100% forensic examination.

“But I am very concerned about the possibility of more cuts.”

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