Do police need more drug tests?

Editorial by Mary Kitch from The Oregonian, November 1, 2010

Imagine the strength and self-confidence the Portland Police Bureau would project if officers, tomorrow, voluntarily embraced random drug testing.

Such a move would show public spirit, and a welcome concern for public safety as well as public perception. It also would show that officers believe they have nothing to hide. As for any officers who do have problems with alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription drugs or steroids, testing would give them an incentive to come forward and get help ASAP — before their problem is randomly revealed.

That would be welcome, too.

For a variety of reasons, though, mostly involving the choreography of union negotiations, such a quick concession on this issue isn’t likely. But don’t assume the bureau’s 980 sworn officers are necessarily opposed.

Some are; some aren’t. Many have mixed feelings. Drug use by one officer, after all, could put his or her colleagues at risk, so police officers themselves have a strong motivation for weeding it out. To be sure, the logic behind such testing is unassailable.

A public servant who carries a small arsenal of heavy weaponry and drives a powerful vehicle — fast, often while multitasking — represents a grave liability to the city. For similar reasons, trucking firms and transit agencies (including TriMet) already use random drug testing, because it’s a powerful deterrent to drug use.

Across the country, police bureaus are waking up to the need for new drug testing protocols, too. Police use of steroids, which can boost aggression, has triggered additional worries.

When Commissioner Dan Saltzman oversaw the Police Bureau for 16 months, he concluded that random drug testing was needed, and he pushed for it to be included in contract negotiations. As in the rest of society, prescription drug use is a growing problem, Saltzman says, and testing for police also needs to include steroids.

“As much as I’d like to think these are not real issues,” Saltzman said, via e-mail, “unfortunately, they are. Our current ‘reasonable suspicion’ standard … is not sufficient.”

Currently, drug testing can be ordered if an officer has given the bureau reason to suspect he or she has a problem. But as a practical matter, “reasonable suspicion” testing is rarely invoked. Police Chief Mike Reese said Thursday that he doesn’t think drug use is prevalent in the bureau. Nevertheless, he favors random testing.

Recently, the Albina Ministerial Alliance’s Coalition for Justice and Police Reform called for mandatory drug testing after police-involved shootings, in-custody deaths (like James Chasse’s) or other critical incidents that result in hospitalization. Testing after such incidents would be smart. The bureau should pursue this change.

Ironically, though, Reese said post-incident testing probably has less support among the rank-and-file than random testing does. Post-incident testing is fraught with the implication that an officer did something wrong. But making a drug test routine for everyone involved in a critical incident, eventually, ought to ease that perception.

Having test results in hand could help the city dispel the groundless suspicions that proliferate in the absence of hard data.

We’re not ready to embrace random drug testing in the bureau, at least not yet, because we don’t think the need has been clearly established. But a vigorous debate on the issue is well worth having. It would be particularly illuminating if police officers themselves joined in the debate.

Paradoxically, if officers embraced the idea of random drug testing without a struggle, it would telegraph that there’s probably little need for such testing. Then the test results would show whether there is — or isn’t.

OUR OPINION – Re-posting this opinion editorial from The Oregonian may seem to some visitors to this mental health advocacy web site to be rather far afield. It’s not. For over four years supporters of the Mental Health Association of Portland have been concerned about the behaviors of our police officers as they have both institutionally and individually evaded responsibility for knowing about the issues of mental illness and addiction in our community and resisted an engaged and forthright relationship with the problem – which results in our jails and prisons bursting with persons whose most effective intervention would be with medical and communications skills.

For the past four years The Oregonian – and longer – has served as a stalking horse on this issue, returning repeatedly to the issues of police accountability and mental illness, to educate our community and reduce fiscal impact and personal injury. Kudos to them.