Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Don't eliminate field tests without tracking outcomes from officer discretion

Cheap and unreliable field tests for drugs have caused hundreds of false convictions in Houston and elsewhere. But it's unclear if eliminating the tests will result in better outcomes. Officer discretion will likely be even more problematic and discriminatory.

The department decided to end the tests not because they're notoriously unreliable but because they fear an officer will come into contact with the drug fentanyl and overdose. So the policy is reactionary and rather spur-of-the-moment, not taking into account the possible effects on wrongful convictions.

It will be some time before we know whether officers make errors identifying drugs more often than the field tests. Houston PD should track those outcomes so we will know.

Until then, the Texas Forensic Science Commission has been charged with studying the field test issue and reporting back to the legislature by Dec. 1, 2018 with recommendations. That's a welcome development. The FSC should specifically examine whether officer discretion makes more errors than field tests, to the extent possible. And if they can't tell, they should propose experimentation that would determine the question.

It would have been nice had such research occurred before changing policies, but instead, once again, law enforcement is leaping before looking.


Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of GIGO (garbage in garbage out) If the field tests are known to be defective why continue using them?

How is this any less dumb than the story about the country boy who p*sses on an electric fence a second time in the expectation of a different out come?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@7:17, let's say for the sake of argument that the field tests have a 1% error rate and drug-identification based on officers' experience has an error rate of 3%. Which would you rather rely upon?

My point is that we only know the field tests' error rate (I'd have to look up what it was, but ProPublica reported extensively on it). You can look at that and say "it's not always accurate, throw it out." But the question is "accurate compared to what?" If the methodology that replaces it is less accurate, we're not better off. And if HPD doesn't track that information to determine the error rate from officer discretion, it's impossible to make a valid judgment about what's the best policy from the perspective of preventing wrongful convictions.

For me, the better solution would be for HPD to change policies and stop arresting people when the officer can't tell whether narcotics are present. Take down their information, test the substance, then arrest them later if the test comes back positive. Why not investigate the crime before arresting for it? There's a novel concept!

Barry Green said...

I don't think I've seen DPS (or almost any agency in my rural North Texas County) use a presumptive test in over 15 years. Really common in the 1990s but basically non-existent now.

mapi said...

Bogus Fentanyl Drug Warning: Touching small amounts of drugs could be lethal to officers:

“It’s just not plausible that getting a small amount of fentanyl on your skin is going to cause significant opioid toxicity. You don’t absorb enough drug fast enough to get toxicity that way” said Andrew Stolbach, an emergency physician and medical toxicologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“That sort of incidental exposure would not cause such severe opioid toxicity,” said Joseph D’Orazio, a Temple University emergency physician and medical toxicologist.

“Yes, two to three milligrams of fentanyl would be sufficient to make most people stop breathing if ​it found its way into the bloodstream. However, fentanyl just isn’t absorbed through skin into your blood quickly or efficiently enough to make this kind of dose possible from incidental contact" Stollbach said.