Controversial Drug Testing Riles Chicago Police Officers

Crime is down in Chicago, the police department has a new, no-nonsense superintendent, and community policing is receiving rave reviews. So why is trouble brewing among Chicago's finest?

In a word - hair.

At issue is whether the Police Department should conduct random drug testing of the entire 13,000-member force using hair clippings. Department officials say they are weighing whether to expand hair analysis from recruits to all officers, in light of the superintendent's "zero tolerance" policy for drug use.

The Chicago Police Department would join a handful of city and state police departments and hundreds of companies nationwide that are using hair analysis for employee testing. Although urinalysis is still the most common drug test, employers are turning to hair analysis despite controversy surrounding the technology. The biggest advantage is that hair analysis can detect drug use as far back as three months. Urine testing has a window of just a few days.

The Chicago Police Department began using hair analysis on new recruits last fall and saw an instant jump in drug-related dismissals. Out of 2,300 recruits, 50 tested positive for drug use with hair analysis; eight tested positive with urinalysis, says Tom Needham, the Department's general counsel.

In the past five years, as more employers try to weed out drug users before they're added to the payroll, hair analysis has become a booming field.

Sales have more than doubled at Psychemedics Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., the leading maker of hair tests, from $6.5 million in 1993 to $15.4 million in 1997, says Ray Kubacki, president of Psychemedics. More than 1,300 companies use the technology, he says.

George Grasso, deputy commissioner of the New York City Police Department, whose recruits undergo hair testing, says a drug-free work force is "critical to modern law enforcement."

"Along those lines, we're absolutely committed to using the best technology that's out there," he says.

Mr. Grasso points out that the department's use of hair analysis has withstood challenges in state and federal courts by probation officers who were dismissed after testing positive for drugs. The New York City Police Department is also weighing whether to expand hair testing from recruits to all officers.

BUT the Food and Drug Administration contends that hair analysis isn't a proven technology.

The FDA's policy on hair analysis dating back to 1990 maintains that the test is "an unproven procedure unsupported by the scientific literature ... and clinical trials." The National Institute on Drug Abuse contends that employers should not use hair analysis for drug testing because it is still too new.

"One of the concerns with hair testing is whether a person could be falsely accused ... because they were in an environment of drug use," says Edward Cone, chief research chemist for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

But Psychemedics' Kubacki and supporters who use the tests maintain that it's is reliable. The FDA's policy does not take into account Psychemedics' current testing methodology, Kubacki says.

That the Chicago Police Department is considering hair analysis for all officers has rocked the city. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois recently sent a letter to Mayor Richard Daley, the City Council, the Police Department, and union representatives urging them not to use hair analysis.

"It's inaccurate," says William Spain, a spokesman for the ACLU.

To be sure, the ACLU has long been a staunch opponent of any drug testing because of privacy concerns. But Mr. Spain calls hair analysis "the worst of the lot."

The issue isn't likely to come to a head until January, when the police union's contract is due for renegotiation. Until then, department officials are talking with scientific researchers about the methodology and reliability of hair analysis before making a decision.

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