Forensic Unit seeks more funds

High-tech work: ACP Zuraimi looking on as the databank employees process DNA samples. — AZMAN GHANI/The Star

KUALA LUMPUR: A triple murder in Dengkil in 2013 went unsolved until DNA matches were found some four years later.

Based on blood samples collected at the crime scene, police forensic teams managed to get DNA hits with suspects caught in Ops Cantas in 2017.

Two men were detained and subsequently charged.

This is one of the many successes of Bukit Aman’s Forensic DNA Databank Malaysia (FDDM), which is targeting more sophisticated tools to solve crimes.

Set up in 2012, it needs about RM11mil annually to operate at optimum level.

(DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA.)

DNA Databank (D13) principal assistant director Asst Comm Zuraimi Zam Zam said the facility has turned into a crucial crime solving tool of the modern era.

“DNA evidence is easy to come by but it can also be easily contaminated, so it must be collected in a proper manner. A top-notch analysis can be useless without good quality samples.

“The division, along with the Forensic Unit, educates all investigating officers not to contaminate the crime scene or DNA evidence, ” he said in an interview.

ACP Zuraimi said it took about two hours to complete a DNA profiling through a buddy system put in place to ensure a correct analysis.

He said the FDDM was a system designed to meet the requirements according to information needed in investigations.

“We are using 24 ‘loci’ (specific physical location of a gene or other DNA sequence on a chromosome) for a single DNA profile. All the information of the reference samples from six indices are stored in the system’s server.

“Once a match is identified, the databank officer will verify and notify the relevant investigating officer for further action, ” he added.

Since its inception, he said the databank, which is based at the Royal Malaysia Police College in Cheras, had achieved 108 confirmed hits with 90 suspects identified.

ACP Zuraimi, who was part of the Malaysian investigation team at the MH17 crash site in Ukraine in 2014, said 43 personnel were stationed at the headquarters and 569 personnel spread across the country.

“We have personnel who have been trained at every district and state to take profile samples.

“In terms of manpower, we are a bit stretched in Kuala Lumpur, Johor and Perak as the personnel are also involved in other duties.

“In Sabah and Sarawak, sending of samples takes more time. But despite the constraints, it is still manageable, ” he added.

DNA samples can be collected and their profiles stored from seven index categories – crime scenes, suspects, convicts, detainees (under the Special Preventive Measures or Prevention of Crime Act), drug dependants, missing persons (via their personal items such as toothbrush or their next of kin) and volunteers.

“For convicted persons and drug addicts, we have sent our teams to collect samples since 2013. Most of the profiles in our database are of inmates or former inmates. This is important as some are repeat offenders, ” he pointed out.

The databank initially targeted to store a total of 200,000 DNA samples by the end of 2020 but budget constraints hampered the target, ACP Zuraimi said.

“We are trying our best to procure more funds to purchase extra reagents and consumables needed to analyse backlog samples.

“With some additional funding, we managed to process our targeted 40,000 new samples last year. As of December last year, we had a total 139,000 DNA profiles.

“With sufficient funding, more profiles can be stored and more matches made, ” he said.

Moving forward, ACP Zuraimi also wants the current software system of the databank to be improved.

“A more advanced system will enable us to perform more efficiently, ” he said.

ACP Zuraimi said the existing software system (which can only read 16 genetic markers) was not compatible with the DNA kit in use which has 24 genetic markers.

“So we have to key in manually which is time consuming. We have applied to upgrade the system and hope that it will be approved, ” he said.

He said the division also wanted to acquire other forms of DNA database such as the Y-STR database for sexual assault cases and Familial DNA searching for identifying suspects through a family’s genetic makeup.

“Both tools will greatly assist us in making more DNA matches especially pertaining to unsolved cases, ” he said.

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