HOPKINTON — Police officers in the community have been given a direct command designed to help keep them safe: don’t field-test drugs that may contain fentanyl.
The Hopkinton Police Department is the latest in a growing number of departments that have warned their officers against field-testing suspected narcotics, especially in cases that contain drugs that may contain fentanyl.
Hopkinton Police Chief David Palmer said the recent change in policy came following internal discussions and concerns regarding fentanyl exposure. The synthetic drug is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and can be absorbed through the skin if direct contact is made with the substance.
Palmer said these factors, along with concerns over what substances may be impacted by fentanyl, led the department to decide to cease field-testing almost entirely.
“Heroin today is as dangerous as ever. It has led many departments to look differently at how we do the job,” Palmer said. “It’s not worth the chance; we just can’t put the officers at risk.”
The practice of field-testing had been used for years, providing police with confirmation in patrol-based responses and allowing detectives to build a more concrete body of evidence in ongoing investigations. But as fentanyl has become exponentially more available on the streets, police have had to adjust to new challenges, including officers across the nation who have suffered overdoses from exposure.
In Stonington, police said the department made adjustments more than a year ago as part of a multipronged response in partnership with other agencies following a series of overdoses in New London in February 2016. After a rash of overdoses at the hands of heroin laced with fentanyl, Stonington police joined forces with other agencies to form the Regional Community Enhancement Task Force, a coalition of officers from several southeastern Connecticut departments.
But another important change resulting from those discussions was a shift in policy to protect the officers, said Stonington police Capt. Todd Olson.
Olson said the department adjusted its policies and informed staff that they should avoid field-testing at all costs and instead were directed to use gloves to package the evidence and allow the state lab to conduct more formal testing. When possible, Olson said officers are asked to collect other evidence on-scene to make an active arrest, or to wait and seek a warrant when applicable.
All products that may contain fentanyl, even those sent with paperwork to the state lab, are also marked clearly with a bright, fluorescent sticker denoting it as a hazard.
“We are clear that we don’t want our officers to field-test. There are other ways, other types of evidence that can be used to help determine probable cause,” said Olson.
The Westerly Police Department is among the few local departments that still tests, Police Chief Richard Silva said, but the department has drastically scaled back the frequency of such testing and officers are advised to limit any exposure.
Silva said when narcotic substances are suspected, officers are required to use proper protection, including the use of gloves and other materials designed to prevent absorption. In cases where an immediate ID is not necessary, Silva said the department would not conduct a field test.
“What it comes down to is what is needed for the case. If it is necessary to complete a criminal investigation, meaning the field test is needed specifically for court-documentation purposes, we will make an exception,” Silva said. “Otherwise, our advice to officers is to package it appropriately and just send it to the lab.”