Rachel Cook, 12/10/11
The arrest of a Bakersfield police officer suspected of using methamphetamine last week has stirred up questions about how law enforcement police their own for possible drug use.
Ofelio Lopez, 36, was arrested on drug charges Dec. 2 after police said they found meth in the pocket of the uniform pants he was wearing. Police began investigating Lopez earlier that week after an informant told them that he or she had delivered meth to Lopez’s home, according to a search warrant.
News of the officer’s arrest hit home with Bakersfield resident Mary Williams, who said her daughter is addicted to meth.
“I know police officers are human, but a police officer that has a meth problem and is legally able to carry a drug is such a danger,” Williams said.
She wrote a letter to the editor to The Californian voicing her concerns last week. Speaking by phone Thursday, Williams questioned why the department doesn’t randomly test officers for drugs.
“I think they should because a lot of places do random drug testing,” Williams said. “I think that everybody who works in the public should have random drug testing, especially if you’re carrying a weapon.”
Detective Todd Dickson, president of the Bakersfield Police Officers Association, said Bakersfield officers or the union are not against random drug testing, but the idea has not come up in the time he’s worked for the BPD, since 1995.
“I don’t think there’d be a huge opposition to (random drug testing of officers), it’s just that it’s never come up in the collective bargaining process,” he said.
Dickson said instances of Bakersfield officers using drugs are few and far between, and on the occasions when the issue has cropped up, “it’s been handled in a pretty swift manner and, I think, to everybody’s satisfaction.”
No changes to the police department’s drug testing policy are in the works.
BPD spokeswoman Sgt. Mary DeGeare said the department follows the guidelines set out in a California government code pertaining to public safety officers and the provisions of the MOU between the local association and the city.
“There aren’t any immediate plans to make any changes,” DeGeare said.
Taking the test
Drug testing policies for police and sheriffs’ departments vary across California, depending on what agencies’ unions and cities or counties negotiate. Locally, the Bakersfield Police Department and Kern County Sheriff’s Department test their officers during the hiring process. After that, officers are tested again only if there is reasonable suspicion that they are using drugs. California Highway Patrol Lt. Paul Vincent said the policy is the same for highway patrol officers.
In contrast, correctional officers employed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are tested randomly and if there is probable cause, according to CDCR spokesman Paul Verke.
Some California law enforcement agencies, including the Fresno Police Department, have random drug testing worked into their MOUs for officers in special assignments, such as narcotics.
Unless provisions for random testing are included in an agency’s contract, “any drug testing (of officers) would have to be via reasonable suspicion or probable cause,” according to Harry Stern, an attorney at Rains Lucia Stern, PC, a California firm that specializes in representing officers.
“Keep in mind that peace officers, like anybody else, enjoy constitutional protections while they are at work,” Stern said.
In Lopez’s case, criminal and internal affairs investigations into his conduct began after the confidential informant told a detective that he or she had delivered meth to Lopez’s home in exchange for cash “on multiple occasions” in the past eight months, according to a search warrant filed in Kern County Superior Court.
Investigators set a snare for Lopez, planting a purse containing meth released from the department’s property room in a remote city location on Dec. 2, police said. Lopez was sent to retrieve the purse, but instead of booking the bag and drugs into evidence, he kept it, police said.
When Lopez returned to work a DUI checkpoint that evening and still failed to check in the purse, police searched Lopez, his car and his home, police have reported. Officers found the purse, meth, brass knuckles and drug paraphernalia in the form of a smoking pipe, according to the search warrant.
While Lopez refused to submit to a chemical test, a drug recognition expert concluded that Lopez was under the influence of a stimulant, police said.
Reading the signs
Some officers pointed out that since police are trained to look for signs of drug use, they are well equipped to recognize if their colleagues are under the influence.
Ron Cottingham, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which represents approximately 63,000 members, said officers want to make sure their coworkers are not under the influence to protect themselves, as well as the public.
“The reason that this would be important to us to know that our partner is as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as they can be is because that is our protection,” Cottingham said.
Shafter Police Chief Greg Richardson, whose department also follows the reasonable suspicion guideline, said his force watches officers not just for indications of drug use, but also for personal issues as well.
“I think that, generally speaking, most all agencies are pretty diligent about keeping an eye on their officers,” Richardson said.
But even the most watchful eyes can miss something, others said. Former New York Police Department officer Eugene O’Donnell, now a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said the argument that police can spot drug use is faulty because, unlike chemical testing, drug recognition is not a science.
“Drug recognition is hit or miss,” O’Donnell said.
The professor said he has mixed feelings about random drug testing for police. On one hand, he hates to see a whole department come under suspicion because of one officer’s alleged missteps. On the other hand, he said departments are “flirting with disaster at some point” if they don’t randomly test their officers.
“It’s real hard to argue against drug testing because the stakes are really high,” O’Donnell said. “You can’t do illegal drugs without doing other illegal things.”