© 2024 Maine Public

Bangor Studio/Membership Department
63 Texas Ave.
Bangor, ME 04401

Lewiston Studio
1450 Lisbon St.
Lewiston, ME 04240

Portland Studio
323 Marginal Way
Portland, ME 04101

Registered 501(c)(3) EIN: 22-3171529
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Scroll down to see all available streams.

Rapid DNA tests speed up investigations for Connecticut police

A Rapid DNA testing machine displays 77 minutes remaining on a 90-minute test. The use of rapid DNA testing is becoming more widespread across Connecticut as an evidentiary tool and lab director Cheryl Carreiro emphasizes their use is “pro-science, not pro-prosecution.” “It’s something we take personally because we are the scientists,” she says.
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
A rapid DNA testing machine displays 77 minutes remaining on a 90-minute test. The use of rapid DNA testing is becoming more widespread across Connecticut as an evidentiary tool.

In fall 2021, Farmington police officers were investigating reports of a man stealing car parts when things took a violent turn.

Dashboard camera recordings obtained by Connecticut Public show officers cornered a suspect in a residential neighborhood, boxing his vehicle into a cul-de-sac. But the man suddenly accelerated, striking an officer and leaving him seriously injured, according to court records.

The man got away on foot. But inside his vehicle, police say they recovered key pieces of evidence, which allowed them to quickly link a suspect to the crime.

Court records show an officer with the neighboring Plainville Police Department identified a man being investigated in another stolen car case, and thought he matched the description of the perpetrator in Farmington.

Officers then collected the suspect's DNA, and linked it to forensic evidence they gathered from a surgical mask, bandana and cigarette butt they found inside the vehicle in Farmington, court records show.

Conducting that kind of DNA test can often take weeks. But in Farmington, officers had access to a speedy new tool: rapid DNA tests.

Connecticut’s rapid DNA testing program was introduced in 2021 to help reduce turnaround time for forensic tests. Guy Vallaro is director of the Division of Scientific Services, which operates the state's forensics lab. He said traditional DNA analysis takes an average of 47 days to complete. But with rapid DNA testing, samples can be matched within just a few hours.

The shortened timeline allows police to more quickly develop investigative leads, and to prioritize which forensic samples should undergo additional, more time-consuming tests.

Investigators can access rapid DNA tests at police departments in Greenwich, New Haven, Waterbury and Hartford. They can also test samples at State Police Troop E in Montville, and at the state forensics lab in Meriden. Plans are in the works to make testing machines available in the future in Bridgeport, and in a mobile van that would travel to other parts of Connecticut.

Cheryl Carreiro and Sevasti Papakanakis are deputy directors at the division. They train officers to use the rapid testing machines, which they said cost around $130,000 each.

“All the consumables are expensive as well,” Carreiro said. “But in the end, when you compare all the time and labor that it takes for the conventional testing … this does save us some money, and also helps us prioritize samples.”

Cheryl Carreiro, Deputy Director of Forensic Biology & DNA Technical Operations at the CT Forensic Science Laboratory, emphasizes the use of rapid DNA testing machine (behind) is “pro-science, not pro-prosecution.” “It’s something we take personally because we are the scientists,” she says.
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
Cheryl Carreiro, deputy director of forensic biology and DNA technical leader at the Connecticut Division of Scientific Services, emphasizes the use of rapid DNA testing machines (behind) is “pro-science, not pro-prosecution.” “It’s something we take personally because we are the scientists,” she says.

Rapid DNA tests can be particularly effective at quickly narrowing in on a suspect when used with other policing techniques such as collecting fingerprints, said Dr. Claire Glynn, director of the forensic investigative genetic genealogy program at the University of New Haven.

Rapid DNA testing is also useful in settings other than criminal investigations, Glynn said. The technology has been used to identify victims of mass casualty events, such as tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes. Investigators can also use rapid DNA tests to identify victims of fires, or to deter human trafficking at border crossings, Glynn said.

But the increased availability of this tool also raises concerns, said Dan Barrett, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. Barrett noted the rapid DNA testing process can take place outside of the controlled environment of a scientific lab.

“It's being used in police stations by people who are not lab techs," Barrett said. "So you have the potential for contamination and a variety of other problems."

Currently, rapid DNA testing is only used in Connecticut to generate investigative leads. Police use it for things like quickly checking evidence against an existing DNA database. They still need to run a traditional test if they want to bring that evidence to court. But rapid tests can help them figure out which evidence to prioritize, Carreiro said.

Cheryl Carreiro, Deputy Director of Forensic Biology & DNA Technical Operations at the CT Forensic Science Laboratory, demonstrates how samples are collected before being analyzed in the lab’s rapid DNA testers.
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
Cheryl Carreiro, Deputy Director of Forensic Biology & DNA Technical Operations at the CT Forensic Science Laboratory, demonstrates how samples are collected before being analyzed in the lab’s rapid DNA testers.

Papakanakis and Carreiro are teaching officers how to use the rapid DNA testing machines. They recently demonstrated the process at the state lab, inserting a DNA sample into a testing cartridge, which then goes into one of the rapid testing machines, which resemble big printers. It then takes 96 minutes for the machine to test the sample, Carreiro said.

There have only been about 800 rapid DNA tests conducted in Connecticut to date. Officials say that number will increase as the program expands.

“The investigators are very, very happy with a short turnaround time,” Carreiro said.

Ashad Hajela is CT Public's Tow Fellow for Race, Youth and Justice with Connecticut Public's Accountability Project. He can be reached at ahajela@ctpublic.org.