Tulsa jail receives DNA kits for arrestees, but timeline for their use remains unclear

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The kit provided to jails by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation for DNA collection. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
The Tulsa Jail received about 600 DNA kits on Wednesday thanks to an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations grant, but jail officials said there’s no timeline yet for when the kits will be used on arrestees.

The kits, which essentially consist of gloves (for the detention officer,) a cheek swab (for the inmate) and a packet to send back to the OSBI, are intended for use on those who come to the jail on arrests for alleged felony crimes, as well as some misdemeanors.

Jails across Oklahoma gained the legal ability to do such testing in late 2016 thanks to a bill written by Lee Denney, R-Cushing. Although the bill was met with support by legislators, no funding was attached to it, leaving jails across the state without the means to carry out the testing.

That changed recently as the OSBI received a $740,000 federal grant that paid for what amounts to startup fees for the collection process. While OSBI is providing agencies with kits and training, continual testing and purchasing of new kits will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

So for now, only one jail — the Oklahoma County Jail — appears to be collecting DNA samples. Tulsa Jail officials told The Frontier on Wednesday that while the OSBI provided them with training and hundreds of kits, they’re not yet sure when they’ll begin taking DNA samples.

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Casey Roebuck, a spokeswoman for the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, said she anticipates beginning DNA collection “in the coming months,” but said more detention staff will need to be training before the the process can start.

The early stages of that process kicked off Wednesday, when Rhonda Williams, a DNA Analyst with the OSBI, trained 10 members of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, a group comprised of both jail staff and deputies. Also in attendance was Deputy Jail Administrator Marty Roberts.

The aim, Roebuck said, was to “train the trainers” so that this group would be able to pass on the training to other staff members.

Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation DNA Analyst Rhonda Williams, right, talks with a member of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Williams said collection is relatively simple. The jailer will collect the DNA via a cheek swab, then place the collected saliva on a designated piece of paper. It is then placed in an envelope with a card identifying whose sample was collected, where the same was collected, and who collected the sample.

It’s then mailed to the OSBI, who adds it to their CODIS database to cross reference it against DNA collected from other crime scenes.

While proponents have said the process should clear up some unsolved crimes, critics have argued that collecting DNA from people merely accused of a crime constitutes a civil rights violation. Nevertheless, more than half the states in the nation do some form of DNA collecting of recent arrestees and attempts to rollback the law in other states have all failed.

The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office tried earlier this year to get a similar bill (which ultimately failed) through the Legislature. It would have allowed jailers to collect DNA samples from arrestees and use a Rapid DNA analysis device to enter the DNA profile into a national database to check against other DNA profiles collected in unsolved or outstanding criminal investigations.

That bill originally sought to have DNA collected from all arrestees, even those arrested on misdemeanor allegations. When some lawmakers pushed back, the bill was amended so DNA would only be taken from felony arrestees.

Oklahoma Watch, which first reported the Oklahoma County Jail’s DNA collection on Monday, said that jail had cheek swabbed “hundreds” of inmates.

The next step would be to upload genetic profiles of the inmates to an FBI database, in theory allowing authorities to connect recent arrestees to other unsolved crimes.

Oklahoma Watch said the OSBI confirmed that 12 agencies have been trained so far on collecting inmate DNA. Allie Shinn, deputy director of the ACLU, told Oklahoma Watch the agency was “looking at all options” to stop the DNA collecting.

According to the Oklahoma law, if charges are dropped against an inmate who has been swabbed (or the inmate is later acquitted,) the sample is supposed to be destroyed. The person can request the OSBI expunge their DNA profile but must show proof they were not convicted.

The law also states that “any person convicted of any misdemeanor or felony offense” must pay a $150 fee “for each offense.” The funds collected via that fee are given to either the OSBI, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner or the “municipality or county” where the test was conducted.

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Dylan Goforth

Editor in Chief/Staff Writer

Dylan has two kids, three dogs, and no time to himself. He's fueled by QuikTrip and Twitter. Contact: dylan@readfrontier.com or 918-931-9405.
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