Advocates urge Edmonton police to stop using DNA phenotyping technology

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Black-led agencies are calling on Edmonton police to stop using controversial DNA technology that they say demonizes and alienates vulnerable community members.

Earlier this month, police apologized for circulating a generic image of a Black suspect in a 2019 sexual assault cold case but the service won’t rule out using the technology that generated it.

Phenotyping technology aims to predict physical appearance and ancestry using unidentified DNA evidence. It’s a controversial practice questioned by genetic scientist

“It is troubling to issue a generic image that renders large numbers of Black males suspect,” states the letter sent to police commissioner John McDougall on Tuesday by the Africa Centre and seven other organizations including African Canadian Civic Engagement Council and Black Women United.

“Our community feels traumatized, scapegoated and humiliated. An incident that demonizes and alienates the most vulnerable individuals and families of our community. The practice deepens historical mistrust and lowers confidence in our policing.”

At a police commission meeting Thursday, police said the service has only used the technology once, as a last resort in a violent sexual assault case.

“This is a Hail Mary for a woman that was left for dead … that’s the lens that I’m using when I’m making that decision,” said Enyinnah Okere, chief operating officer for the Edmonton Police Service’s community safety and well-being bureau.

Okere once again acknowledged the “unintended harm that came with the release of a highly generalized, computer-generated image.”

He said police are updating their ethics review process to ensure the use of technology is in the interest of public safety on a case-by-case basis.

When asked, police were not able to provide data showing the success rate of the technology but  said the release of the image had generated leads that could advance the case.

The validity of those leads was put into question by activist Haruun Ali, who spoke at the meeting.

He pointed to a photo posted on social media that juxtaposed an image of himself with the image released by police.

“You can take any random Black man that you know, put him next to it and to be frank,  it will probably look similar to them,” Ali said.

“This is modern-day racial profiling.”

Commissioner Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse said the commission must come up with policy and legislation to protect citizens and their constitutional rights while using technology responsibly. 

“Sexualized violence against Indigenous women is disproportionate to non-Indigenous women and so when we see a tool that potentially can hold men who cause and who perpetrate against women accountable to their behaviours, that’s an opportunity for justice,” she said. 

Commissioners passed a unanimous motion directing police to provide a proposal for a committee that assesses the use of current and future technologies.

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