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Though they carry weapons and have the power of life and death in many situations, none of the police officers or sheriff’s deputies in San Luis Obispo County get routinely screened. All of the law-enforcement agencies have an initial drug screening for hiring, but officers usually are not tested for the rest of their careers. Only after what police authorities term a “major incident” such as a shooting or squad-car accident are officers screened for drugs.
Though initial screening for drugs is commonplace in California, random drug testing is rare for most professions. California law only permits random drug testing for positions critical to public safety or the protection of life, property, or national security. San Luis Obispo County police departments go against the current trend in law enforcement toward drug testing: More departments nationally are randomly testing their officers for drugs. Beginning with large departments more than a decade ago, police have been initiating ever-stricter random testing.
The Los Angeles Police Department tests officers on a regular basis, a policy that outgoing Chief William Bratton said is a vital step to ensuring the public trust. Boston police began testing in 1999 and the city was shocked to discover more than 75 officers tested positive for drugs, mostly cocaine, during the first six years of testing. The New York Police Department has conducted random drug tests since 1989.
Local cops contacted for this story say that testing is not only unnecessary, but also impractical.
Paso Robles Police Chief Lisa Solomon said there is no testing for her department, but her department has a strict policy against drugs and alcohol: Officers are not allowed to use drugs and are forbidden to drink within four hours of going on duty. Sheriff’s department spokesman Rob Bryn said he believes the department reserves the right to give a drug test to personnel if there is an issue with an officer that would involve internal affairs.
San Luis Obispo Chief of Police Deborah Linden said it would be difficult to have a policy in this county for random drug testing. She said there are privacy concerns for the officers and any policy of random tests would have to be negotiated with the police labor unions for approval. She added that the subject of random drug testing has not come up in her tenure.
Dale Strobridge, president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, said random testing of police officers is “unreasonable,” and that the subject has never been discussed while he has been with the union.
“Simply because someone becomes a police officer doesn’t mean they have to give up their constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure,” Strobridge said.
Any police department that doesn’t randomly test for drugs is asking for trouble, said Eugene O’Donnell, Professor of Police Studies at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who’s a former New York Police Department officer.
“If a department isn’t drug testing in this day and age they are taking a big risk,” said O’Donnell. “You are essentially keeping your fingers crossed that nothing will happen and then you get will eventually be hit with an officer-involved drug bust and that leads to big problems.”
He said many smaller departments never make a conscious decision not to do drug testing, they simply assume that they don’t have a problem. That’s when, O’Donnell said, they can be blindsided by a scandal.
O’Donnell said this is what caused large police departments, after years of resistance, to finally start testing in the last few decades. He said his former employer, the NYPD, was racked with drug scandals for years until random testing of 20 percent of the force was imposed. Now the police department is relatively clear of drug use and corruption is also on the wane.
Police officers often bristle when the subject of drug testing comes up, O’Donnell said, because they feel their integrity is being questioned. They feel it is an unnecessary intrusion into their private lives, a high price to pay when they are putting themselves on the line for the public good.
The problem comes because the public sees this as a double standard, especially when school-bus drivers and truck drivers have to get the random tests and many police officers don’t, O’Donnell said. Departments are beginning to change their views and begin random testing because of liability concerns.
Random drug screening is unlikely to come to San Luis Obispo County anytime soon, according to the police officials New Times interviewed for this article. All of the officials said drugs are not a problem within their
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