A spray of DNA keeps robbers away

It was just about that time that local police officers were offering something totally different that they hoped would stem a rising tide of robberies that occur mainly in the immigrant neighbourhoods of this rough-and-tumble port city. The new system involved an employee-activated device that sprays a fine, barely visible mist laced with synthetic DNA to cover anyone in its path, including criminals, and simultaneously alerts the police to a crime in progress.

The mist — visible only under ultraviolet light — carries DNA markers particular to the location, enabling the police to match the burglar with the place burgled. Now, a sign on the front door of the McDonald’s prominently warns potential thieves of the spray’s presence: “You Steal, You’re Marked.”

The police acknowledge that they have yet to make an arrest based on the DNA mist, which was developed in Britain by two brothers, one a policeman and the other a chemist. But they credit its presence — and signs posted prominently warning of its use — for what they call a precipitous decline in crime rates.

Main purpose

But the goal is not so much capturing crooks as scaring them away. Donald van der Laan, whose company, the Rhine Group, distributes the spray, said as far as the DNA is concerned, “the material is identical” to human DNA, he said, “though there is a different sequence of components.” Much of the spray’s effectiveness, he said, comes from the mystique surrounding DNA.

“No one really knows what it is,” he said. “No one really knows how it works.”
At this McDonald’s the DNA liquid is contained in an orange box the size of a large paperback book, mounted over an entrance door. “You don’t smell it; you don’t see it; nobody knows it’s there,” said Jean-Paul Fafie, who has managed the McDonald’s for the last 12 years.

The system and the all-important warning sign seem to have successfully warded off any potential robbers. But there were kinks to be worked out.

“In the beginning, it went off many times, even when there was no robbery,” Fafie said. “And the police came every time.”

The false alarms were caused by employees who forgot, or never knew, about the protocol for secretly activating the system — removing a 10 euro bill from a special bill clip kept behind the counter.

“We didn’t train our counter people properly,” Fafie said sheepishly. As for a potential thief, he said, “we hope he’ll think twice before coming in.”

The city is pushing the use of the spray and sometimes assuming the cost; it is also promoting the use of a kind of DNA crayon with which valuable items like computers or cameras can be marked to facilitate their identification as stolen goods.

Already about 4,000 computers at Erasmus University have been marked. Creative Factory, a former industrial building on the edge of the harbour that is now home to innovative startup companies, began using the crayons after computers and other electronic equipment were stolen.

Down along Beijerlandselaan, a shopping street in the south of the centre, Jale Sag has owned Gulnar jewellers for the last three years and has seen a wave of robberies peak and then recede.

Partly, she says, that is the result of closed-circuit television cameras that were installed all along the street — there are two outside her store and two more inside — but also because the police department and the city paid for a DNA spray system to be installed in her store.

Just down the street, Bart Vos, 51, a manager at a barge company, gazed in the window of Jansen, another jeweller outfitted with the DNA spray. “They see that sign,” he said, “they think twice.”

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