75 officers failed city drug tests
Cocaine use most prevalent, raising concern
By Suzanne Smalley, Globe Staff | July 30, 2006
Since Boston police started annual drug testing in 1999, 75 officers have failed the tests, and 26 of them flunked a second test and were fired, newly released statistics show.
Acting Police Commissioner Albert Goslin said an additional 20 of the officers who tested positive left the department on their own, which he said is because they could not handle the frequent follow-up checks.
Of the 75 officers, 61 tested positive for cocaine, 14 for marijuana, two for ecstasy, and one for heroin, according to the figures, obtained by the Globe through a public records request. (Some officers had more than one drug in their system).
Some specialists and department observers said they were alarmed by the number of officers testing positive for a ``hard" drug such as cocaine and questioned the department's policy that allows an officer to remain on the force after a positive drug test. An officer is not fired until a second positive test.
``It seems like it's a chronic problem," said Darnell A. Williams, president and CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. ``Here we're trying to deal with the guns and the drugs on the street level, but we have a more strident problem inside the department when we have that many people testing positive for drugs, especially cocaine."
The department's drug testing policy is already under scrutiny, after reports that the alleged ringleader in a corruption case tested positive for cocaine in 1999, yet kept his job under the rules that call only for suspensions and treatment even for positive tests for drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
Unlike Boston, the New York and Los Angeles police departments dismiss officers after a first positive drug test.
Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City police officer who is now a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he believes the Boston police may have an unusually high number of hard-drug users because of its two-strikes policy. The New York Police Department has a very low drug test failure rate because of its zero tolerance policy, he said.
``Once you establish that people are fired, it does change the complexion," he said. ``If an agency says you can use drugs . . . it stands to reason you're going to have a higher rate of people using drugs."
While 75 Boston officers failed drug tests out of a total force of about 2,000 sworn officers since 1999, at the much larger Los Angeles Police Department, 14 officers have flunked the drug test since March 2000. It employs 9,354 officers, of whom about 3,000 are subjected to random urine tests each year.
A spokeswoman for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said that of the 150,000 federal employees who took random drug tests in 2004, 0.4 percent failed.
In 1999, when the most Boston officers failed drug tests, the rate was more than double that, about 1.1 percent. Goslin said the testing policy and treatment have cut the number of positive tests since then.
Boston police test for cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, PCP, and marijuana -- the standard list recommended by the federal government for workplace testing. Officers can also be tested for other drugs with reasonable suspicion.
Officers are tested before they join the force, again while on probationary duty, then annually within 30 days of their birthday. They are also tested if they get promoted or assigned to a special unit such as narcotics or organized crime.
If they test positive for any drug, officers receive a 45-day unpaid suspension and must get treatment. Once they return to duty, they are subject to random testing for three years, in addition to regular testing.
Goslin said it is not fair to compare the department to other law enforcement agencies, which he said typically use a less sophisticated urinalysis test that does not detect drugs taken more than a few days before the test.
He said the Boston police method of testing officers' hair is more reliable and can catch drug use dating back three months. ``I would expect our rate to be higher," Goslin said in an interview.
Los Angeles police test urine for drugs, and New York police test hair.
Goslin also said that Boston police test every officer annually, which is more regularly than many police departments, where a smaller number of officers are tested at random each year. Therefore, he said, all officers aren't screened consistently.
The annual testing began in 1999 after years of negotiating with the city's powerful police unions, which had objected to the tests. In exchange for salary and benefit increases, the unions agreed to a system that gives officers warning by scheduling tests within 30 days of their birthday.
The city's hair-testing method has also been disputed.
Fifty-seven percent of officers who failed an initial drug test since 1999 were African-American, which troubles critics who believe blacks are more likely to get false positive results because of the texture of their hair. Last year, seven former Boston police officers -- all African-Americans who lost their jobs because of what they say were false positives -- sued the department, alleging the hair test is biased. The suit is pending .
Goslin defended the test. ``The science is very good and can withstand any level of scrutiny," he said.
Goslin said he is not surprised that the vast majority of officers who failed the tests had used cocaine. ``In the '60s it would be marijuana; now it seems to be cocaine," he said.
But Mark A. de Bernardo, a labor lawyer in Virginia who is executive director of the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace, said he is startled by the number of Boston officers who used cocaine. He said that while no one tracks national numbers on law enforcement officers who test positive for drugs, it is unusual for so many of the positive results to be for cocaine.
``In typical drug testing, the number of marijuana positives is going to be three, four, five times the number of cocaine positives," he said. ``That's alarming that cocaine would seem to be the drug of choice for the drug abusers in the Boston Police Department."
He said the number of drug-using officers might be higher than what the testing shows because of the predictability of Boston's annual testing.
``Anybody who fails a drug test when they know a year advance within 30 days of when it's going to be . . . is a person who I consider to be an addict," he said. ``I'd assume that this is just a percentage of those that actually engage in actual drug use because it's not true random testing."
He also said that by giving officers a second chance, Boston police are straying from the standard set by most other employees where workers are responsible for public safety.
However, the Urban League's Williams said he believes the department is right to give officers a second chance, especially since in many cases it seems to work. Of the 75 officers who tested positive since 1999, only about a third failed a second test.
Goslin said after the initial wave of positive tests in 1999, the policy has successfully cut drug use. ``People took the policy seriously and went to get help on their own, and that caused the numbers to drop drastically," he said. ``And it dropped every year the policy has been in existence."