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.
"You need to have people who are dedicated to training the officers and making sure they're getting a good background and good understanding of how the test kits work so they can testify in court," Crump says.
Interested officers must pass tests to become certified and then recertified annually. When officers pass after a two-day class, they have confidence that they can presumptively test for drugs and testify in preliminary hearings.
From an officer's perspective, "It makes us better cops," says Doi.
Quality assurance checks ensure testing and paperwork are done properly. When Phoenix began its program in 2000 with 15 officers, every field test was rechecked for almost six months. Today samples from every officer in the program are randomly tested.Utah's identification test kits
Before adapting FIDO guidelines to meet their needs about two years ago, the Utah Bureau of Forensic Services' four labs struggled with "a hodge podge" of drug test kits from 140 law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Officers were using various test kits in the field and weren't always trained how to use them. In the courts, some judges and attorneys were willing to accept the presumptive results from these tests, while others were not.
With some prosecutors unwilling to look at a case until they had a report from the crime lab in hand, agencies began sending everything to the crime lab, where only eight forensic scientists did all of the controlled substance testing.
"You can imagine what a problem that would be," says Laboratory Director Jay Henry of the Utah Bureau of Forensic Services. "We quickly got overwhelmed and had terrible turnaround times. Most of the cases didn't even go to court."
Drug evidence was submitted simultaneously to the labs, regardless of whether or not they were going to trial. Some had either been pled out or resolved in another manner. With all the cases submitted together and no way to distinguish which needed a full analysis, the crime lab was forced to test everything, Henry says.
One costly solution was to have the lab analyze all the evidence for all the cases. To do so would have required more people and more equipment — but the legislature wasn't eager to provide funding.
The bureau opted instead to follow FIDO guidelines (with some adaptation) and have screening done by those who knew the status of the case best — the officers making the arrests. Today, more than 100 Utah police officers and evidence technicians are trained to do screening at their agency, and testify in preliminary hearings that a substance tested presumptively positive for cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin.
Thinking that some local agencies wouldn't purchase test kits because of the additional cost, the Utah Bureau of Forensic Services designed and built its own kits to distribute to local agencies free of charge. In addition to screening samples, the Utah Narcotic Identification Test can be used to look at paraphernalia or other items that might be more difficult to test with standard kits, says Henry, adding that the bureau is willing to share directions with other agencies how they put the kits together. The custom-made kits test for three drugs, which represent about 85 to 90 percent of the drugs officers see, he says. Marijuana is excluded because Utah has a separate, local program that trains officers to become marijuana leaf technicians.
At the same time, Utah learned NFSTC was putting together a field investigation program, and also learned about the program in Phoenix. "We implemented a lot of their philosophy and some of our own," Henry says.
Being able to tailor the program to meet a department's needs is as important as being able to change officer training to keep current with the latest drug trends.
"We train them with up-to-date knowledge, competency test them and check on them year to year," he says.
At one point, drug analysis at one of Utah's four labs would take months. An agency can now submit a case and get a report back in less than two weeks or, in some cases, less than a week depending on demand. The lab is also in a better position to respond to the critical "rush" cases, and can often turn those around in the same day.
"Turnaround time has never been better," says Henry, attributing the program's success to the partnership between state and local law enforcement.
Since Utah agencies have been doing presumptive screening, they've eliminated about 50 to 60 percent of the cases submitted to the lab, he says. After they screen a case, it may not get filed, or it gets resolved at prelim and never makes it to trial. About 95 percent of the cases don't seem to make it to court, Henry estimates.Philadelphia moving forward
For about 20 years, Philadelphia narcotics officers have been using field tests and testifying for preliminary hearings. Today the District Attorney's office, in collaboration with the Philadelphia PD's Narcotics Bureau and the Forensic Science Bureau, is working to take its field testing program to the next step.
Preliminary hearings are required only in felony cases and the vast majority of cases in Philadelphia are non-felony drug possession cases, points out Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Sarah Hart.
Because the lab analysis can't always be done in time, cases have been getting delayed and discharged.
"We lose an unacceptable number of drug cases because the defense attorneys are insisting on the drug analyses before trial or a plea," Hart says.
To prevent that from happening, Philadelphia has been working to have narcotics officers qualified as experts for trial purposes in low-level cases. When officers would testify in misdemeanor cases, in municipal court trials, additional scientific analysis wouldn't be required.
"We may not be able to do it," Hart says. But given the new validation studies demonstrating the reliability of the field tests, the testing proficiency of the more than 100 narcotics officers (over 99.5 percent accuracy), and a quality assurance program, Philadelphia wants to move to the next step.
Hart compares these narcotics cases to drunk driving prosecutions. At first, prosecutors faced opposition to officers testifying about breathalyzer results instead of lab analysts testifying about blood alcohol content. Hart believes that the legal standards allowing breathalyzer testimony will also allow narcotics officers to testify at trial about the results of narcotics field tests.
Hart estimates that officers testifying as experts in municipal court trails would save the crime lab about 3,000 drug analyses per year.
Philadelphia Narcotics Bureau Chief Inspector William Blackburn agrees, "Not requiring further analysis would mean a huge savings."
Because further analysis would not be required, he says there would also be fewer continuances.Considering a FIDO program
Hart, who approved funding for FIDO when she was the NIJ director and later helped write the FIDO practice guide, says FIDO programs have a lot of promise throughout the country. According to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, the most frequently requested forensic laboratory service was the identification of controlled substances.
"A lot of jurisdictions spend a tremendous amount of resources in the crime lab simply to confirm what an officer has reliably shown in a field test," Hart says.
Starting a FIDO program requires the cooperative effort of the prosecution, police and the lab. At the start of a new program, Hart says, the prosecution will be putting on more extensive evidence. However, an officer's credibility and competence will be at issue.
An officer who is not a specialized narcotics officer, or who has no experience making drug arrests, may have a difficult time in the program, Doi says. He adds that, during the first year of the Phoenix program, he frequently testified about his experience as a narcotics officer.
Initially there was thought in Utah that officers couldn't do the testing — it had to be done by chemists. The bureau has been able to help curtail that idea, but after about two years, there still are legal issues in some jurisdictions.
"The defense is going to cry foul every once in a while for a new argument," Henry says. "We just need to maintain vigilance. That's why you need a crime lab managing the program — to stay on top of things, make sure certifications and recertifications are done right."
New officers (10 to 15 officers each month) need to be trained and certified in Phoenix to replace officers who transferred to other units, received promotions or decided not to participate in the program. Constant attrition is a constant challenge, Crump says.
As with any new program, FIDO has its challenges, but it also has potential for huge financial and system benefits for a jurisdiction.
If agencies want quick results that will hold up in court and allow them to forego having to send everything to the crime lab, Henry says FIDO will be a good fit.
"For agencies that have adopted FIDO, the days of court delays due to no crime lab report are disappearing. Given the nation's situation of limited resources for forensic testing, agencies have to think differently to provide effective and efficient services," says Henry; "especially if they want a speedy trial. FIDO is one tool that will allow them to attain this goal."
Rebecca Kanable has been writing about law enforcement issues for approximately 10 years. She can be reached at email@example.com.