Imagine what would happen for preliminary hearings if a relatively small amount of narcotics didn't need to be sent to the crime lab for analysis. Instead, a plastic bag containing what looks like cocaine could be examined and tested by a specially trained and certified law enforcement officer. Immediate test results would confirm what the officer already suspected, an arrest would be made and charges filed. The officer wouldn't need to wait for lab results and the lab, not bothered by small cases, would keep working on more complex felony cases until analysis was required for trial — saving time and money.
For the Phoenix (Arizona) Police Department (PD), the Utah State Crime Laboratory and the Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) Police Department, this scenario is real. Based on knowledge gained at these sites, the Oregon State Police and a validation study of frequently used commercially available test kits, the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) says others too can benefit by their own Field Investigation Drug Officer (FIDO) programs.
Departments and crime laboratories can benefit from the improved process, says Kevin Lothridge, NFSTC chief executive officer.
The FIDO concept is modeled after the Phoenix PD's Controlled Substances Officer Field Identification Program, which, in turn, is an adaptation of an Arizona Department of Public Safety program.Controlled substances
Looking at last year's numbers from the Phoenix PD Laboratory Services Bureau, the value of a program like FIDO is evident. In 2007, the bureau's Controlled Substances Unit received 3,741 requests for analysis. Without the Controlled Substances Officer Field Identification Program, the unit would have received more than 8,500 additional requests for analysis. Those requests were not made because more than 300 officers themselves tested substances appearing to be marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine, and testified in preliminary hearings.
The field identification program not only alleviates backlog in a laboratory not staffed to handle what would have been more than 12,000 analysis requests in a year, it hastens the delivery of investigative information.
"Officers who see a lot of drugs cases know exactly what they are dealing with 99.9 percent of the time," says Assistant Laboratory Administrator Nancy Crump, who works in the Laboratory Services Bureau of the Phoenix PD. "A chemical color test just confirms what they already know."
"It makes the process go a lot faster," says Officer Kenichi Doi, one of the department's five Controlled Substances Officer Field Identification Program officers assigned to the airport.
Any case that proceeds to trial requires lab analysis, including weight (which impacts sentencing) and testimony from a forensic scientist. Most drug possession cases in Maricopa County never reach this point because they are pled, Crump points out.
With the most simple felony possession cases being handled in the field, forensic scientists are free to spend time on cases that involve drug trafficking or clandestine laboratories, for example.
"When we started developing the field program, a lot of our time in the lab was spent analyzing methamphetamine clandestine laboratory cases, which are very involved, very complex relative to a small, sandwich-size bag of marijuana," Crump explains. "We really need to put our effort into those types of cases."
In addition to saving time, the program can save money. The savings per individual item is significant. One field test kit costs about $1 to $2, while lab analysis costs $50 or more, Crump estimates.
That's not to say, however, that the program does not require time and effort. In Phoenix, a controlled substances analyst oversees the program and others in the unit assist with training and quality assurance.