Police and Drug Testing

SEPTEMBER 01, 2006
Cmdr John Burke

In late July of this year, The Boston Globe reported the arrest of 3 officers of the Boston Police Department that are to have allegedly distributed anabolic steroids and guarded massive amounts of cocaine.

On the heels of this announcement, Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston said that he would do his best to see that Boston officers are tested for steroids. The police union president did not oppose adding steroids to the list of tested drugs, but he was concerned that the hair test being used by the department was not totally accurate.

No one would dispute that police officers have a dangerous job and that keeping in top physical shape is a priority for officers, especially those in uniform who work the street on a daily basis and have the most chance of serious injury or death during something as routine as a traffic stop. This quest for strength and fitness can sometimes lead to the use of anabolic steroids— something that is not unheard of in the law enforcement world.

In the early 1990s, I assisted in the Cincinnati Police Department's random drug-testing program by advising it on prescription drugs that needed to be part of the screen. At the time, I felt it was one of the more comprehensive in the country, because we had succeeded in including hydrocodone and oxycodone, in addition to true opiates like morphine and codeine, into the basic test, along with benzodiazepines.

Anabolic steroids were also mentioned in our meetings, but as The Boston Globe alluded to, this test was expensive, considering the small chance that a number of officers were taking these dangerous drugs.

One other item we stressed was that drug testing of any kind needed to be witnessed if it was to ultimately be effective. Drug users who know they are subject to random testing will carry "clean" urine in their underwear and be able to heat it up to an acceptable temperature on the dashboard of their car by running the defroster.

One officer arrested for drug possession had his 7-year-old daughter urinate in a cup before he brought the sample to be tested. A female officer kept clean urine in a small container she concealed in her vagina covered with cellophane. Even when it was witnessed, the officer was able to puncture the cellophane covering, and drop the clean urine into the test bottle.

So what do most police officers think about drug testing? In the beginning, there was some resistance—usually talk of false positives and possible nightmares of switched samples—but this stone wall quickly ended. It ended because the vast majority of police officers, as in most professions, do not use illegal drugs and do not condone their coworkers who do.

This is especially true in police work, since officers oftentimes count on their partner or the adjoining beat officer to protect them in the most dangerous of circumstances. Counting on these officers to back them up means being free of illegal substances so that they can provide the optimum assistance if needed. An impaired police officer is of little use to his or her partner and may actually create a bigger problem than if he or she had no partner at all.

The question as to whether anabolic steroids are worthy of being added to these screens is probably still up for debate, but random witnessed drug testing for public safety agencies is not. Police officers and other professionals that literally have the public's safety in their hands should have these programs intact. The public, as well as the officers' coworkers, has the right to expect that the people who safeguard them are not impaired in any way.

John Burke, commander of the Warren County, Ohio, drug task force and retired commander of the Cincinnati Police Pharmaceutical Diversion Squad, is a 38-year veteran of law enforcement. Cmdr Burke also is the current president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators. For information, he can be reached by e-mail at burke@choice.net, via the Web site www.rxdiversion.com, or by phone at 513-336-0070.

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