The Chief
March 18, 2005

NYPD Considers Hair Drug-Test For All Cops

PBA Claims Flaws In Process Yield False Positives

By Reuven Blau

The Police Department is reviewing a plan to expand its hair-sample drug-testing program, police union officials said last week.

The NYPD already tests the hair of candidates for the Police Academy before they are enrolled, and calls 20 percent of the force each year for random urine tests.

No Chance to Cheat

The proposed change, which the police unions have voiced concern over, is aimed at making it harder for officers to cheat than with the urine-cased tests. The hair test doesn’t require as much privacy as a urine screening, so there is no chance for workers to substitute someone else’s sample for their own or slip in a fake substance.

The hair test also can detect drug use dating back three months. Standard urine tests only show illegal drug use within the previous day or two.

The plan has not been well-received by the police unions. Al O’Leary, the chief spokesman for the Patrolmen’ Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch, said the union has some “science-related” concerns about the hair-testing and is against the change.

“We are in conversations with the Office of Labor Relations,” Mr. O’Leary remarked. “We stand opposed to switching the test until our differences are resolved.”

Flaws Alleged

Critics of hair-testing have claimed that dark-haired individuals, including African-Americans, are more likely to come up positive.

Medical testing experts have cited scientific studies that have proven there are no statistical differences between different populations under the hair test.

Others contend that hair can be contaminated by exposure to illicit smoke at a party or concert. It also can yield false positives among narcotics officers who are exposed to drugs by the nature of their activities on the Streets.

Inspector Michael Coan, an NYPD spokesman, confirmed that expanding hair-testing is “under review.” He declined to elaborate further, but said of the process, “It’s comprehensive and it gives you a little wider timeframe.”

A union source familiar with the matter said that the department has had several meetings with labor officials to “address their concerns.” The next such gathering is scheduled for March 15, as this paper hits newsstands.

Not Required to Bargain

The city maintains that drug-testing is not a mandatory subject of collective bargaining, which enables the NYPD to modify its screening procedures regardless of union opposition.

The NYPD has used hair-testing for nearly a decade for recruits and officers under suspicion to supplement its urine screenings. The Fire Department recently implemented a similar random drug-testing program after several firefighters were involved in embarrassing high-profile alcohol-and-drug related incidents.

Paul J. Browne, the NYPD’s chief spokesman, said last April that the hair tests are worth the added cost: about $60 for a hair test, compared to $10.50 for a urine test.

John Larose, a Captains’ Endowment Association vice president, contended that submitting 180 hairs for some can be very intrusive. “If you are a female with an expensive haircut, you are going to be annoyed,” he remarked.

Mr. Coan downplayed that concern. “They just run a brush through your hair,” he said.

Under the proposed plan, sources said the hair will be taken either from the head, chest or armpit. Union officials contend that hairs from different parts of the body may be more sensitive than others. “What if you are bald? What if you are a body builder that shaves his hair? There are people like that out there,” Mr. O’Leary added.

Other Options

The Federal Government is presently examining a proposal to give agencies the option of checking workers in safety or security-related titles with tests that rely on hair, saliva and sweat.

Should those regulations be changed, it would likely not affect the NYPD’s procedures, because the department’s standards for detecting drugs are already stricter than the federal guidelines.

Early results from the new hair test in 1996 promoted then-Police Commissioner Howard Safir to fire 20 probationary Police Officers and three veteran officers. Several of the dismissed employees filed lawsuits the claimed hair-testing was unreliable, but the department’s testing regimen has been upheld in court.

“They have a right to drug-test. We are just concerned with the method they use,” Mr. Larose said.