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HomeNationalDNA-assisted mug shots in law enforcement are based on questionable science. ...

DNA-assisted mug shots in law enforcement are based on questionable science. So why do Edmonton police use them?TAZAA News

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With short-cropped hair and a neutral expression, the figure is looking straight ahead.

He’s 25, but could pass younger, and he’s black. The man is the prime suspect in a series of violent sexual assaults since 2019, so police have released the image in the hope that someone can identify him.

Except, he’s not real.

That’s not to say the attack didn’t happen; It certainly did. And the attacker is indeed real and still largely unknown.

But the image released by the Edmonton Police Service as part of a news conference Tuesday was a computer-generated image based on a DNA profile collected from the victim — a controversial practice questioned by geneticists and cloaked behind private US closed-source technology. The organization

After widespread criticism for releasing an image of a regular black man, EPS apologized on Thursday and removed the image from its website and social media accounts.

But aside from ignoring the concerns of the scientific community, questions remain as to why the police used the Parabone service in the first place, framing the technology as a “scientific approximation”.

“As a black Canadian practicing in Alberta, I am concerned that members of the black community will be unfairly targeted through the use of this technology,” said lawyer Idowu Ohioze.

‘A bit of science fiction’

Parabon isn’t the only company offering this service, called Snapshot. It’s probably the most high-profile since it’s used by dozens of law enforcement agencies around the world, including police in Calgary, Saskatoon, Sudbury and Windsor.

Benedict Hallgrimsson is a biological anthropologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Calgary and a leading expert in his field. In 2015, he told the New York Times that forensic DNA phenotyping was “a bit of science fiction at this point.”

Not much has changed.

Enyinna Okere, chief operating officer of the Edmonton Police Service’s Community Safety and Wellbeing Bureau, said police failed to balance the investigative value of the phenomenon with its potential effects on marginalized communities. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

“I’m not comfortable with the claims that Paraban makes,” he said. “I think they oversell their ability to predict face-shape phenotypes.”

Our physical characteristics are influenced by various factors, including genes. From a genetics perspective, the more genes and genetic variants a trait depends on, the harder it is to predict accurately. Red hair is easy to predict, blonde hair is not.

“Those of us working in the field of genetics of facial shape don’t know how the company makes their predictions,” Hallgrimsson said.

“Facial shape is highly polygenic — that is, it’s determined by probably thousands of genes, tens of thousands of genetic variants. We know only a few of these, like 5-10 percent, have significant effects on the shape of the face.”

To complicate matters further, the interaction between variables also affects the outcome.

“You have to understand those interactions, and it’s very difficult to quantify them, even for situations where you have 10 different genes,” Hallgrimsson said.

“When you have thousands, it’s pretty much impossible.”

Although Paraban does not open its technology to vetting, it has examples of images produced on its website comparing the person eventually charged. However, even in this limited selection, the difference between prediction and reality is apparent.

In a statement, parabone phenotyping is “not a value judgment and not racial profiling; it is an objective scientific finding based on evidence left at a crime scene.”

The company admits that “the exact details of our method haven’t been published,” but they’ve tried to be as transparent as possible by “presenting our work at conferences and posting every mix that goes public on our website, so people can make their own conclusions about how well our technology works.” “

I want the Edmonton Police Service to be transparent about how the decision was made– Idowu Ohioze

“It’s best advised to use it as a form of suspect identification,” said Brenda McPhail, a privacy and surveillance expert with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

“And when it comes to basic rights in a police interaction…desire and expectation are not sufficient for engagement.”

Noting that many blacks in Alberta are likely to resemble that image, Ohioge noted that false identities could not only mislead investigators but complicate the prosecutor’s case in court.

“Identity is a central element in every criminal trial. Indeed, it is the first thing the Crown must prove.”

retreating quickly

A potentially misleading picture arising from a suspect’s DNA can cause problems for anyone. But since blacks and Indigenous people are statistically more likely to be stopped, arrested, and killed by police, this is of particular concern to those communities.

Apologizing for the image, the Chief Operating Officer of the EPS Community Safety and Wellbeing Bureau, Enyinna Okere, stressed that the victim of sexual assault “may never fully recover, two years later she is worse”. Justice has not been done.”

As Det. Colleen Maynes made a news conference announcing the Paraban image two days earlier, which he claimed was a last-ditch effort in the investigation.

The man in black said he felt conflicted about the image.

“While the tension I felt over this was very real, I prioritized the investigation – in this case for justice for the victim, who was a member of a racialized community, potentially harming the black community. This is not. An acceptable trade-off and I apologize for it.”

A forensic expert analyzes DNA samples during a mock exercise. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

At a news conference Thursday, Edmonton police chief Dale McPhee said he was not involved in the decision to use the Paraban image, but supported the decision to apologize and back down, saying, “We have to be very clear when there is none. We have to leave every stone unturned.”

Asked why EPS took paraban claims at face value without listening to geneticists’ concerns, Okere said, “We recognize that this is something that is emerging in terms of science, and we’ve seen success in Canada. And the US in terms of stimulating leads, and that’s the balance we’re weighing.”

Ohioans questioned why the EPS chose this particular case — where the suspect was already known to be black — to attempt phenotyping.

“Because the Edmonton Police Service has so many unsolved cases to choose from, I want to be transparent about how that decision was made,” he said.

“I think EPS is testing the waters to see if this is it [technology] It’s something that ordinary people take issue with.”

McPhail is skeptical that forensic DNA phenotyping, as practiced by Paraban, can play a legitimate role in police investigations. In her view, “legal frameworks and guard rails” are needed to limit how police and other public bodies can proceed with DNA analysis.

“While this certainly does not minimize the trauma that the community has experienced, it provides a very important and welcome start to a public conversation about exactly what the risks of this technology are,” she said.

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