Hair today, gone tomorrow?
Despite a lawsuit by three probationary New York City police officers fighting to get their jobs back, the department is reportedly moving ahead aggressively with a plan to expand a controversial drug test that analyzes hair instead of urine.
The method, known as Radioimmuno Assay of Hair, has been expanded in three areas: “voluntary tests,” tests for “cause,” and tests of probationary officers. For random testing, the department still uses the more common DOLE, or urine test, said Capt. Michael Collins, a police spokesman.
The hair test has not been certified by the Federal Government and Federal agencies are banned from using it on their workers. Civil libertarians and toxicologists question the test’s accuracy since hair, unlike urine, is exposed to outside environmental conditions and contaminants.
The Police Department contracts with Psychemedics of Cambridge, Mass., to provide hair test results. According to the company, which is the nation’s largest hair test lab, the hair test is 10 times more accurate than urine testing.
But Lewis Maltby, director of the workplace rights office with the American Civil Liberties Union, told New York Newsday, “With the hair test, you can get fired for something you did on Saturday night a year ago.”
The test has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a “variety of methodological and technical reasons,” said Joseph Autry, director of the division of workplace programs for the Federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.
“You cannot rule out external contamination, hair is a poor medium for detecting marijuana, and studies indicate that there are possible racial and gender biases in the test,” he said.
Nevertheless, the NYPD has fired 20 probationary officers who tested positive via the hair test in May, brought departmental charges against a 10-year veteran, and fired three other officers who have since challenged their dismissals in state Supreme Court over the hair test.
Veteran officer James Brinson is currently undergoing a departmental trial after being accused of associating with organized-crime figures in the Howard Beach area, sources told Newsday. Brinson was initially charged after he passed a urine screening for cocaine, but failed the hair test. If he loses the departmental trial, he could lose his job.
Brinson’s attorney, Bruce Smirti, denied the organized crime allegations and said the drug test was ordered without any reasonable grounds.
Officers Joseph McCall, 28, a Manhattan transit officer; Gregory Hicks, 33, of the 100th Precinct in the Rockaways; and Yolanda Flood-Hawkins, 31, assigned to Manhattan’s 7th Precinct, are charging that the department’s testing procedures are flawed.
The three officers deny ever using cocaine, as tests appeared to indicate, and moreover, they claim that when they were dismissed in March, they were no longer probationary officers who could be fired summarily.
“I grew up in a rough neighborhood and I worked hard to be a cop, so this is devastating for me because I felt that I finally made it,” said McCall, a former plainclothes officer who made about 50 arrests.
All three officers were tested at the same place, a closed school in Long Island City that was under renovation. The hair was cut by an officer, not a nurse, they said, using scissors that had been used on “approximately 50 other individuals,” said Hicks.
The room, McCall said, was crowded and full of floating dust particles. While critics of the test charge that outside environmental conditions can compromise the test’s accuracy, Psychemedics counters that the hair is washed before being analyzed.
McCall had to return a second time because not enough hair was taken from his armpit and pubic region for a sample. The hair’s root end, he said, was not labeled, as is required by department regulations.
Hicks, whose hair was taken from his head on Feb. 16, blames his positive reading on the anesthetics lidocaine and benzocaine, which he was given for a series of dental operations dating from April 25, 1995, to Feb. 13 of this year, three days before his test.
As with McCall’s sample, Hicks said the root-end of the hair was not labeled. “Basically, they didn’t follow their own procedures in taking the hair samples,” he said.
Flood-Hawkins gave birth on Jan. 1, within the window of the three months for which the test on the 1½-inch length of hair is supposed to be effective. Her son, Shawn, she said, tested negative for drugs when he was born.
“My baby is perfectly healthy, even through I was pregnant at the time I was supposed to have used drugs,” she said.
The Police Department has refused thus far to show the officers the results of their tests. Thomas Crane, general litigation chief for the Corporation Counsel’s office, said he has not seen any evidence or any information that would lead him to believe the test was carried out improperly.