Cops shift to field testing suspected narcotics

August 5, 2010 8:01:58 PM PDT
It has been more than four months since San Francisco's scandal ridden crime lab was shut down. To compensate, hundreds of officers have been trained to test for drugs in the field. Police say it is working, but defense attorneys raise concerns.

More than half of San Francisco's patrol officers have been trained to use kits to test drugs in the field. While this is a common practice among other police departments in the Bay Area, field testing among San Francisco's cops was always done randomly. The crime lab scandal changed everything.

Narcotics officer Britt Elmore is one of about 700 officers who have been trained to use kits to perform what is called "presumptive drug testing."

Elmore did not want his face shown because he works undercover. (He was OK with his tattoos being shown.)

"Now, we're using them regularly and it's just a procedure we go through prior to booking them into a narcotics envelope," Elmore said.

If the case goes to court, the drugs will be re-examined more thoroughly at a crime lab.

Most of the officers were trained after San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon shut down the crime lab in March following the theft of drug evidence by a former criminalist.

The field testing provides just enough corroboration to arrest a suspect caught with drugs.

"This is only an entry level process and this basically assessing the preponderance of evidence to provide probable cause," Gascon said.

Some of the testing is done in the field, but most are processed at the station, which is a more sterile environment with fewer chances of mistakes.

A tiny amount of the suspected drug is inserted into a vial. The officer squeezes each end, releasing a chemical which detects a drug. There are different kits for cocaine, heroin, meth and other drugs.

But some defense attorneys say police are not chemists and the tests are not foolproof.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi says some oral anesthetics can test positive for cocaine.

"If you had this substance in your mouth and the officer took a swab of your mouth, and sometimes people keep cocaine in their mouth, it could test positive for illegal for the drug," Adachi said.

Gascon will not argue that point.

"Any defense lawyer that says this is not foolproof, they're absolutely right, it's not intended to be, it's simply a tool to get us to the ultimate process," Gascon said.

The district attorney's office tells ABC7 since the police department went to presumptive testing they have filed about the same number of drugs cases as they did last year during the same time frame when the crime lab was operating.

Since April, the DA's office says it has charged almost 1,000 cases.


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