When Officer Desiree Peterson responded to a report of a driver slumped over the wheel in her car in Westerly on May 24, she knew there was a chance that fentanyl was involved.
Peterson collected six syringes, several bags with an off-white residue that were tucked in a cigarette box, and other drug paraphernalia found in the driver's purse, Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey said. The driver, a young woman, told officers she had heroin, a police report said.
A field test did not detect heroin, but the powder tested positive for fentanyl, Lacey said. Despite taking several precautions, including using gloves and avoiding direct contact, the officer soon felt some of the effects of exposure.
"At the station," Lacey said, Peterson "was showing several signs of possible exposure, beginning with a rapid heartbeat and then sweating profusely."
Personnel with the Westerly Ambulance Corps provided treatment for Peterson at the Westerly police station, helping her avoid a trip to the hospital, and she was able to eventually return to work with no long-term effects.
"The reality is, this is the type of challenge we face every day," Lacey said. "We try to limit (field) testing, but we are also balancing the needs of the investigation. If we wait and send everything out for testing, then there's a chance the person could be released without charges."
Across the region, the dangers of fentanyl have forced officers to weigh policy concerns and investigative practices with the need to protect the safety of officers. Surrounding towns have done away with field testing in virtually all small possession cases.
In Charlestown, Police Chief Michael Paliotta said Wednesday that his officers had been fortunate in avoiding any exposure cases — and part of the reason is a policy that has reduced the direct handling of narcotics in most cases.
Paliotta said he issued the directive in March 2018, after he became chief.
"The directive put a stop to the practice of field testing suspected 'powders and pills' in order to put officer and all personnel safety first," Paliotta said. "The added risk posed by exposure to these powerful opiates such as fentanyl, carfentanil and other opiate derivatives is significant and requires special attention by law enforcement personnel. These powerful drugs, often 100-1,000 times more powerful than morphine, are showing up more often."
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, powerful opioids like fentanyl are being mixed into a variety of drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine, and crack cocaine, at an alarming rate. In some cases, such as the recent incident in Westerly, fentanyl substitutes for the drug a dealer claims he or she is selling.
Lacey said uncertainty over what the substances are, and how test results might affect a case, has led his department to conduct field tests on occasion. Most commonly, substances believed to be a typical street drug will test positive for fentanyl, but Lacey said there have also been at least two cases in the past month in which people who believed they had drugs were carrying a substance that did not test positive for anything illegal.
"In those cases, there were no drugs and the suspect was released," Lacey said. "These examples are why it is important to test in some cases."
In Charlestown, Paliotta said the decision not to test became a simple one once the opioid epidemic struck the region. The department isn't "going soft on drugs," he explained, but has rather found a way to better limit exposure.
Charlestown officers are directed in small possession cases to use their equipment — good quality particle masks, rubber gloves and goggles at a minimum, with replacement gear available around the station — and to take detailed notes about suspects, including home and work addresses, in order to make contacting them in the future much easier.
Any suspected narcotics are then sent to the state toxicology lab for analysis as soon as possible. The policy change has led some arrests to be delayed by a week or two, Paliotta said, and helps better protect the officers.
In cases of large seizures or possession with intent to deliver illegal drugs, special arrangements can be made to have the suspected drugs field tested by another agency with the proper facilities, or the toxicology lab may handle it on short notice, the chief said.
Several other local departments have also done away with field testing. In Stonington, the department made adjustments in February 2016 after a series of heroin-fentanyl overdoses in the region.
In Hopkinton, the police moved away from field testing in late 2017. In an interview last year, Police Chief David Palmer said that concerns about fentanyl exposure "had led many departments to look differently at how we do the job. It 's not worth the chance; we just can't put the officers at risk."