The RCMP and its private sector partner are taking the safety of Canadians to the bank.
Thanks to scores of high-profile court cases, TV shows and legislation, the role DNA and scientists play in solving crimes is at an
all-time high. Increased attention, however, walks hand-in-hand with increased scrutiny. How DNA evidence is gathered, handled and processed is just as important as a fair trial. To this end, the RCMP and Ottawa-based Anjura Technology Corp. built a custom application called Sample Tracking and Control System (STACS). “”The role of STACS is to keep track of all the processing steps of DNA samples from the time it comes to the RCMP, up to the point where a DNA profile has been generated,”” says Jocelyn Tremblay, Anjura’s director of the STACS business unit.
The tool records more than the scientific information. It also documents the human element, those responsible for a each step in the process, creating a complete audit trail. The need for such an application was born out of the DNA Identification Act of June 2000. The proclamation of Bill C-3 enabled the creation of the National DNA Data Bank (NDDB) and amended the Criminal Code to allow judges to order persons convicted of designated offences to provide DNA to create a DNA profile. The NDDB houses these profiles in a convicted offender index and a crime scene index (evidence from crime scenes).
Ron Fourney is the officer in charge of the NDDB and a forensic research scientist. He says the legislation posed two significant challenges: there was nothing to really base a model on and the time frame to get it up and running was 18 months.
“”What happens is you go through every single process: the training, the quality assurance, dealing with sample admission, collection, you name it. It quickly became apparent that in order for us to make our goals and to also track and preserve the privacy and security of the sample,”” Fourney says, “”we needed something that would handle high throughput and automation. So it was really the integration piece that linked people with robotics and process, and that’s how STACS came into play.””
At the time, Fourney believed the RCMP would be able to buy an application off the shelf, but quickly discovered nothing suited its needs. The big hole in the tools on the market, he recalls, was they lacked a chain of evidence component: who collected the sample and when, who has since touched it, etc. “”We were shocked that no one else had come up at that time with a system that was similar,”” Fourney says.
The RCMP was forced to turn to software developers and received a number of bids through the request for proposal process. Anjura stood out, Fourney says, based on its track record, past history with the RCMP and impressive personnel.
The first step was to map all the processes. Fourney says a number of experts and stakeholders were essentially locked in a room for week and mapped out every step. What they ended up with was a wall chart about 64 feet long, eight feet high, containing thousands of data points.
“”This was of tremendous value in terms of collateral information for the development team to start building the application,”” Tremblay says.
Anjura managed to meet the RCMP’s 18-month timetable. Tremblay says the toughest part of the project was integrating STACS with the scientific instruments. To get the best results, he says, the software engineers had to take a crash course in understanding DNA and the concepts surrounding DNA processing automation. “”The management of scientists with IT people, so that they both spoke the same language to get what they finally wanted out of the system, was a significant challenge,”” adds Fourney, and credits Anjura’s project management skills for getting the job done.
The legislation demanded strict privacy and security. To deal with the requirements, two separate databases were created along with a barcoding system. Fourney says this allows the scientists to process the samples without knowing who the sample belongs to.
“”The readable information is sent to a totally different area of the RCMP so there’s a clear segregation of the identity of the individual and the sample that’s going to be processed,”” explains Tremblay.
Once the RCMP has created the profile, it is uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System. The database is used by 12 countries and another 14 are evaluating it as the preferred international standard format. Anjura is currently building a similar STACS system for the FBI and has one operating for law enforcement in Florida.
It is also responsible for the maintenance and support for all three. While Fourney says there were some growing pains at the beginning (it’s been using prototypes and several versions for about two years), he says STACS has become a very user-friendly silent partner. He also credits the system’s adaptability.
Modules have been added since the initial install and he envisions the system being used for non-criminal purposes down the line. “”There’s still work to be done, but it’s only good business sense to use our automation and skill sets to help Canadians in the event of a mass disaster,”” Fourney says.
As of April 7, STACS has helped solve 45 murders, 152 sexual assaults,106 armed robberies and 296 break and enters. More than 38,043 criminals have been entered into the convicted offender index and 8,668 DNA samples have been entered into the crime scene index.