A Northern New Jersey newspaper reports today on the latest in forensics, use of DNA evidence to solve burglaries and other property crimes:
"Everyone now has a couple of Q-Tips in their crime scene kits," said North Bergen Police Lt. Frank Cannella, referring to the swabs used to absorb saliva, blood and other bodily fluids that contain DNA.
And that makes the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the best known members of the Harvard faculty all the more puzzling. It isn't entirely surprising that the Cambridge police sergeant who arrived after a burglary call didn't recognize Gates; the era of the beat patrolman, even in dense urban areas like Cambridge's Ware Street, ended decades ago. The sergeant and the woman who reported the break-in also live miles from Cambridge. (As a former contributing editor to Harvard Magazine, where the caller worked, I have often visited the nearby publication offices on Ware Street, and and have never given a thought to who might be living in one of the old frame houses next door in a district of Harvard offices and apartments.)
What is sad is that a dispatcher's use of freely available technology, not advanced databases, could have defused the whole event. As of 11:10 on July 23, Gates's name, address, and telephone number were still available on line through Google and probably other means. (You can even get the Harvard housing office brochure about the house with rent information online.) A dispatcher could have searched the address, found occupants' names within seconds, used them to determine Gates's appearance and Harvard connection, and relayed all of this to the officers on their way to the scene. I'd be surprised if they didn't have laptops and/or smartphones with them that could have found the same information. And since Professor Gates said he had entered through the back door and turned off the alarm system, shouldn't the dispatcher also have known about the system's existence -- most cities now require registration to penalize repeat false alarms -- and let the officer know that the owner probably was the person observed at the door?