Among the first steps undertaken during the start of Kamala Harris’ term as attorney general was her decision to double the funding for familial DNA testing as a method of identifying perpetrators of unsolved violent crimes.

“California is creating the model with our Familial DNA unit, which other states across the country will follow,” she said. “We are cracking cold cases with this high-tech advance, and doing so in a manner that respects and protects civil liberties.”

The case Harris references include the well-publicized “Grim Sleeper” serial murders, resulting in the arrest in July 2010 of Lonnie David Franklin Jr.

Despite her enthusiasm, naysayers, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), point to issues of privacy and potential civil rights violations, as well as unwarranted targeting of ethnic minorities and the poor, who make up a disproportional percentage of the database of convicted felons in which the testing occurs. Harris has marginalized these concerns in favor of the greater good afforded to society.

The process for researching DNA samples follows a rigid methodology. Jill Spriggs, chief of the California Department of Justice’s Bureau of Forensic Services, detailed the protocol for this new course of investigation.

To begin with, an individual law-enforcement agency submits a DNA sample to the state Department of Justice’s Bureau of Forensic Services, after all conventional investigative leads have been exhausted. The case must be considered a public-safety issue, and it must represent a violent crime. The sample must be of one specific individual, and not contain genetic material from other sources (which would complicate the procedure). If a match is found, the findings are presented to a familial search committee, consisting of a group of scientists from the crime lab, a deputy attorney general, and a special agent in charge of the state’s Bureau of Investigation and Intelligence (BII). If the committee approves of these findings, the particular law-enforcement agency can proceed with its investigative process using the data provided by the forensic service.

Assuming that the results are accurate, DNA testing is but one component of the investigative process. The comparative veracity of the sample and testing is impacted by the chain of custody, a concept that figured prominently in the notorious O.J. Simpson murder trial, specifically during defense attorney Barry Scheck’s memorable examination of criminalist Dennis Fung and the transfer of blood evidence central to the prosecution’s case. During Harris’ tenure as San Francisco district attorney, her term was marred by allegations of misconduct by analysts within the San Francisco Police Department’s DNA lab. These included the suspected cover-up of a sample mix-up during a homicide investigation, as well as other breaches of forensics protocol.

The American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD), the national professional society of crime laboratory directors and forensic science managers, was among those following up these allegations. It conducted an interim inspection last fall proving that the mix-up did transpire. Nevertheless, Spriggs, the state’s top forensic analyst and newly elected president of the ASCLD, remains convinced of the new technology and its applications.

Under Harris’ watch, the number of familial DNA searches has increased from one to two a month, and work has begun on the state’s 20th genetic quest.