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Edmonton police have apologized for contributing to racial stereotyping by publicizing an image of a sexual assault suspect that the police force had generated through DNA investigative techniques.

The municipal police force in Alberta had publicized the image of young man of African heritage earlier this week in hopes of generating leads about an unidentified suspect in a three-year-old case. After encountering criticism, the force scrubbed the image from its website less than 48 hours later.

“We were not, and are not, oblivious to the legitimate questions raised about the suitability of this type of technology,” Enyinnah Okere, chief operations officer with the police force, said at a news conference on Thursday.

He said he took personal responsibility for wrongly releasing the image. “The potential that a visual profile can provide far too broad a characterization from within a racialized community, and in this case Edmonton’s Black community, was not something I adequately considered.”

Mr. Okere said he made the mistake in a last-resort bid to solve a 2019 sexual assault on a racialized woman who was nearly killed during the attack. “We have no witnesses, no tapes, no CCTV and no leads,” he said.

Novel DNA technologies that have become available to Canadian police over the past decade are helping to inject new life into stalled cases.

Semen and blood samples recovered from victims and crimes scenes can generate leads by revealing information about a suspect’s appearance or relatives. A technique known as DNA phenotyping isolates genetic traits in hopes of creating an image of what a suspect’s face might look like.

Privacy officials, however, have flagged this technique as imprecise and problematic. “Inferences made from DNA phenotyping can lead to racial profiling, potentially exacerbating biases and discrimination against marginalized groups overrepresented in the justice system,” said Patricia Kosseim, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, in a statement e-mailed to The Globe and Mail on Thursday.

The Edmonton Police Service paid about $1,700 to Parabon Nanolabs to develop the mugshot image, according to Mr. Okere.

The same U.S.-based company’s services have been used by several Canadian police forces over the past five years. For example, Sudbury police released Parabon’s image of a “Northern European” man with blue-green eyes and brown or blonde hair months prior to making a 2018 arrest in a murder case that dated back to 1998. The suspect is to face trial next year.

Calgary police also hired Parabon prior to releasing the mugshot of a woman said to be of “Northern European and Native North American” heritage in connection with the case of a newborn discovered dead in 2017. A woman pleaded guilty last year to committing indignity to a human body.

Other kinds of novel DNA techniques are also being used by police. In 2018, several Kurdish men who had recently moved to B.C.’s Lower Mainland told reporters that detectives had been asking them to volunteer samples of their DNA so that police could get closer to solving the 2017 homicide of a 13-year-old girl. A suspect in that case is currently before the courts.

The Globe recently reported how a cold case sexual assault squad in Calgary is cracking cases dating back 30 and 40 years by using investigative genetic genealogy. Detectives work with corporations to build out DNA-derived family trees before using that information to zero in on a particular suspect.

Last week, one such case was resolved when a Calgary judge sentenced a 50-year-old man to seven years in jail for a violent rape committed in 1991.

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