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Police Turn to Quick, Cheap Drug Test

A kit to test substances for methamphetamine at Bayview Station in San Francisco on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2010
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A kit to test substances for methamphetamine at Bayview Station in San Francisco on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2010
 
After crime lab scandal, San Francisco police now test narcotics themselves

When Sgt. Chris Schaffer confiscates a brick of what he suspects is cocaine, he no longer sends the material to the San Francisco Police Department crime lab.

Instead, Sergeant Schaffer dips a toothpick into the white powder, inserts it into a glass vial and places it in a plastic bag with a chemical that tells him, based on color changes, whether the powder is cocaine.

“When you’re putting someone in jail, that’s a big deal. You want to be prepared,” said the sergeant, who wears jeans and a bulletproof vest while overseeing a plainclothes unit in the busy Bayview-Hunters Point precinct. “The test is just more ammunition to back you up.”

Sergeant Schaffer handles the testing himself because the drug analysis section of the department’s crime lab no longer exists. It was shuttered in March after the authorities accused a longtime technician of stealing small amounts of cocaine. The scandal, one of the worst in the department’s history, led prosecutors to dismiss hundreds of drug cases.

In the aftermath, nearly 700 officers were trained to use portable kits to test for cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. The “presumptive” tests, which cost about $1 each, were introduced into the field in April. Police officials hope that they will reduce the need for more comprehensive drug testing, which is now being outsourced to Alameda County at a cost to the city of $155 per case.

Presumptive tests have been standard practice for decades at police departments across the country, including ones in Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. But critics are concerned that the San Francisco police may be moving from one scandal to another. The city’s public defender’s office says the tests could lead to false arrests because some legal substances are known to yield a positive result for illegal narcotics.

In addition, with set time limits to complete the test and myriad ways to interpret the colors, experts say field-testing can be difficult to perform, especially under the often-stressful conditions of police work. The department has issued a seven-page manual to help officers with the portable kits.

“Like with everything we saw with the debacle in the crime lab, things are subject to human error,” said Teresa Caffese, chief attorney for the public defender’s office. “Are we creating the potential for other injustices?”

The “debacle” involved the accusations in March that Deborah Madden, a former technician at the crime lab, was skimming cocaine and other drugs for personal use. Madden has not been charged with a crime.

The agency responsible for the lab’s accreditation discovered other problems: a short staff, outdated equipment and testing procedures, inconsistent record-keeping, even a family of feral cats living at the facility.

An audit by the United States Department of Justice and the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office concluded that the drug analysis staff of three was overworked, handling about 14,000 cases a year. Technicians were struggling to process the caseload under a tight deadline — within 48 hours, the time allotted for prosecutors to file charges after a suspect’s arrest.

Chief George Gascon shuttered the drug-analysis section of the lab and introduced presumptive testing in the hope that it would sharply reduce the number of cases sent out for lab work. Since more than 90 percent of drug cases in San Francisco are resolved with plea agreements or dropped charges, officials reasoned, they would need fewer lab tests, which prosecutors rely on in a jury trial to prove cases beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Prior, we were going straight to lab testing, which forced the crime lab to really generate a lot of work really quickly,” said Lt. Michael Connolly, who oversees operations for the S.F.P.D. “There’s a cost in doing that, whereas now we get to pick and choose what cases are going to be tested.”

Officers Assereto, left, and Macmahon search a suspect on active parole during a foot patrol in the Tenderloin District on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen
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Officers Assereto, left, and Macmahon search a suspect on active parole during a foot patrol in the Tenderloin District on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen

Police officials say field testing could lead to a reduction in lab tests to 4,000 a year, from 14,000. Moving forward from the scandal, police officials have said a reconstituted crime lab could easily handle the smaller caseload, an argument they have presented to the Board of Supervisors in pushing for a new facility.

A majority of the S.F.P.D.’s 850 officers have been trained by the Drug Enforcement Administration to perform the presumptive tests.

The timed test starts when a toothpick coated with the suspected drug is inserted into a vial inside a thick, transparent plastic bag. Once the bag is sealed, the vial is smashed, releasing chemicals from an ampul that mix with the substance. Different colors — green for heroin, purple for sodium nitrate (an ingredient in methamphetamine), light blue for cocaine — differentiate the substances, and some kits, depending on the color changes, require a second test.

But forensics experts say too many other substances — Tylenol PM, for example — can test positive for illegal drugs like cocaine. The District Attorney’s Office said that prosecutors often ordered further testing to confirm results, but that suspects might accept plea agreements based only on presumptive testing. Even if a person admits guilt, defense lawyers said they worried about the precedent of plea agreements negotiated without the kind of thorough analysis that would serve as proof of a crime.

“If you get a color change, that’s an indication that it’s, let’s say, cocaine,” said Jim Norris, former director of the San Francisco crime lab, who retired in 2004. “But there are chemical compounds that are similar in their structure to cocaine, and that’s why it comes up on the test.”

One of the most notorious examples of misidentification was the 2007 arrest of Don Bolles, a punk rock musician, after a substance found inside his car tested positive for a date rape drug. The substance was later confirmed to be Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, as Bolles had claimed, and the charges were dropped.

In addition to potential inaccuracies, Norris said false results might also be caused by improper execution of the tests.

The test is “simple, but it’s not unbelievably simple,” he said. “There is some care you need to take. You want good lighting. There are time limits for how long you’re supposed to let the chemicals react. There are fairly detailed instructions you need to follow.”

But the police say the tests are merely another piece of evidence that allows officers to establish probable cause and make an arrest.

“You’re not conducting a jury trial when you put them in handcuffs,” Sgt. J.D. Nelson of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office said.

That sheriff’s office and other local agencies, like the Berkeley Police Department, have used presumptive drug tests for more than 20 years. Neither department, nor the public defender’s office in Alameda County, said it could recall a false positive test that had led to an arrest.

With Chief Gascon continuing to make reforms, the San Francisco Police Department is counting on presumptive testing to be an important tool in its counter narcotics strategy. The department faces resistance to a new crime lab from city supervisors who support outsourcing and are reluctant to dedicate scarce public funds to a new facility while public confidence is at an all-time low.

With urging from union officials, the Board of Supervisors decided to outsource the drug tests for another year while they considered a new lab. How successful presumptive testing proves to be at lowering the caseload may factor into their decision.

Defense lawyers, however, still struggle with the fact that officers are testing the evidence in most of the cases that go to court.

“Why can’t we have a world-class crime lab with technicians, chemists who are trained to do this work?” Caffese said. “People can be impacted. People can be falsely arrested.

“We have to wait and see how it all plays out.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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