When More Expensive Costs Less
Recently I was training a group of investigators at a large law enforcement agency on wet-vacuum forensic DNA collection, and discussing the best ways to apply the M-Vac System to their current cases. Over the course of our conversation, I learned there were a couple of people who were not overly enthusiastic about introducing a new collection method to the cases, despite the fact that the traditional methods used had only yielded an unusable partial profile and the investigators had limited other options to further their cases. Based on the level of care and caution law enforcement personnel must apply when investigating cases this hesitancy from some didn't surprise me. But it did get me thinking about how to address it.
One of the arguments against the M-Vac System was the initial expense compared to other collection methods. Another argument was the way in which the samples were processed. It required a new method of processing and had yet to be validated, both of which could potentially add to the cost and time of processing. If adopted into the agency's protocol and widely used, the thought was, the additional costs incurred could be dramatic. As the M-Vac System representative during the discussion, I had to agree that all the concerns raised were not only valid, but a distinct possibility - If the system was used improperly and/or inappropriately. The challenge then is how to help agencies adopt this method and use it correctly.
Before going any further, let's talk about how much an M-Vac sample costs. It's approximately $95 per sample and the equipment to run the collection system has an initial purchase price of just under $48,000, depending on how many consumables you purchase with it. Compared to the cost of a swab, which is typically about $2, I fully acknowledge that is a substantial cost increase. Considering that the cutting method doesn't cost anything, it's even more. Clearly, if the M-Vac were used as a replacement for those methods, rather than an additional tool to be used when appropriate, the costs to the agency would be unreasonable.
However, let's take a deeper look. First of all, everyone knows that the only thing that never changes is the fact that change is constant. When it comes to technology, change is not only constant, but also accelerating at an astonishing rate. Look at DNA profiling and where that has come in the last 20 years. In the late 1990's, DNA profiles were low grade and required a significant amount of DNA material to generate the profile. Today, a fraction of that DNA amount is needed to produce a DNA profile so distinctive it can identify an individual with a confidence level of one in a trillion (or more). Combine that with other evidence of a good investigation and it should make a strong case against any suspect. In today's world, DNA evidence is so influential that many investigators and prosecutors won't take a case forward without at least attempting to get a DNA profile. Clearly, DNA evidence has become a mainstay of investigations and prosecutions and is definitely here to stay1. Some even say DNA profiles have replaced fingerprints in their level of importance.
Knowing the importance of DNA profiles, does it make sense to avoid adopting new methods of collecting DNA evidence? The vast majority of the detectives and crime scene investigators we talk to adamantly agree that new methods, as long as they are proven, should always be explored and used as soon as possible. Every case that is solved now, rather than later, results in actionable intelligence that will help prevent or solve future crimes.
In addition, solving a case closes the departments' expenses. This provides a fixed amount including the cost of responding emergency police personnel all the way down to the costs of prosecuting the suspect. An open, lingering case continues to incur substantial costs. Each time a case is reviewed by future detectives, prosecutors and forensics teams, the cost of personnel time alone would be more than this new technology which may have helped solve the case when it was first active. Research has shown that just pulling a cold case off of the shelf and reviewing it costs approximately $35,0002. A perfect example is the Krystal Beslanowitch case, which was a homicide committed in 1995 but not solved until 2013 until DNA technology advanced to the point where the suspect's touch DNA could be collected from the surface of a rock. Due to being reviewed a number of times over the years, the costs of this case had several multiples of $35,000 added to it before it was solved. Multiply that by the number of cold cases across the United States and the price tag is staggering.
In terms of DNA profiling, by far the most expensive portion of obtaining a profile is the lab costs. Extracting DNA from the sample and amplifying it to determine if there is adequate DNA material to move forward is estimated at $500 per sample. Should the sample be taken through the entire process, the average cost of the full process is about $2,000. In addition, considering the cost of lab equipment combined with the costs of hiring and training lab staff, it would be practical that anything that can be done to improve this process should be thoroughly explored. In light of this complete picture, obtaining a better sample on the front end by using a new collection method, such as the M-Vac, a hundred dollars price increase is a relatively insignificant amount.
An excellent example of how an M-Vac sample may have benefited another case is where the investigators believed the suspect had touched a fabric while committing a heinous crime and most likely had left touch DNA material on the fabric in several places. Investigators used numerous swab samples trying to collect enough DNA material to get a profile. Unfortunately, all the swabs failed to produce a viable profile. At a cost of approximately $2,000 per sample, the lab costs alone of this one case had built up to tens of thousands of dollars. Does that mean it shouldn't have been done or a limit should have been placed on the number of samples that are allowed? Absolutely not! Most people would agree that investigators must do everything possible to get a vicious killer off of the streets and there shouldn't be a price tag on justice. At the same time, however, society also expects our law enforcement officials to be as effective as possible and constantly strive to improve methods and reduce costs where possible. So what difference could the M-Vac have made?
In this case, using an M-Vac, despite having a higher initial cost than the swab, may have saved this department and the investigation thousands of dollars due to the following factors. One, the M-Vac is significantly (usually 20-30 times)3 more effective at collecting DNA material off porous and/or rough surfaces such as fabrics, rocks and cement. It has been shown to collect over 22 times4 more DNA material (saliva) off of cotton, a common material for T-shirts, even after the swab had already sampled the stain. Investigators could have used the M-Vac to initially sample areas where DNA material was likely deposited, possibly covering enough area in one sample where several swabs would have been used. Had the results been positive, the sampling would have been completed and the case moved forward.
The second factor is the M-Vac can collect DNA material from a much larger surface area than the swab, and an even larger percentage compared to cutting. In our example case, the multiple swab samples taken could have been attained by a single M-Vac sample. That may not have saved money in the initial sampling, but the lab processing costs would have been significantly less.
I believe every investigator and forensic scientist makes the best decisions possible based on the information and tools available. Had the investigators known about the M-Vac during the initial stages, I strongly believe different choices would have been made. Regardless, arm-chair quarterbacking is not the purpose or goal of this article. Encouraging investigators and crime lab personnel to incorporate this information for future decisions most certainly is. This article is part of our effort to get the information about the M-Vac System out there. I would expect anyone else with relevant information in his or her respective fields to do the same. Clearly part of the equation is we want our tax dollars spent as wisely as possible, but another, even more important factor is, we want crimes solved and criminals taken off the streets. All of society, especially the victims of heinous crimes and their families, deserve the best effort, tools and technology available in the fight against crime.
The technology is here and the time is now to see why More Expensive really can Cost Less.
1. Calandro, L., Reeder, D and Cormier, K. 2005. Evolution of DNA Evidence for Crime Solving – A Judicial and Legislative History. http://www.forensicmag.com/articles/2005/01/evolution-dna-evidence-crime-solving-judicial-and-legislative-history
2. Davis, Robert C., Carl J. Jensen, and Karin Kitchens. (2012, March). Cold Case Investigations: An Analysis of Current Practices and Factors Associated with Successful Outcomes. U.S. Department of Justice.
3. Improving DNA Evidence Collection via Quantitative Analysis: A Systems Approach Boston University School of Medicine, Biomedical Forensic Sciences, 72 E Concord St, Boston, MA 02118
4. Filter Apparatus Verification, 0.45 μm PES Filter Material Including Comparison of Double Swab Method and M-Vac with Saliva Stained Cotton M-Vac Systems, Inc. 640 W Sandy Parkway, Sandy, UT 84070
Jared Bradley is the President and CEO of M-Vac Systems, based in Sandy, Utah