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Boston may look to eliminate disputed hair drug tests for police

A Boston police cruiser in May.
A Boston police cruiser in May.David L. Ryan/Globe Statt/File/Globe Staff/File 2019

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, joining six Boston city councilors, called on the police department Tuesday to eliminate a long-disputed hair test as a way of determining whether officers and cadets are using illegal drugs.

Courts have ruled that the test is unreliable, especially for black officers whose hair texture makes false positives more likely. In October, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court determined the Boston Police Department was wrong to deny a white man employment based on the drug test alone.

“Mayor Walsh agrees that the best way forward is to eliminate hair testing at the Boston Police Department and we thank the City Council for their support of this change,” press secretary Samantha Ormsby said in a statement. “We will work collaboratively with the union to implement an updated drug testing policy after contract negotiations are complete.”

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Boston police officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The city has spent $2.1 million on outside counsel defending the disputed drug tests over the years, city councilors wrote Monday in a letter to Walsh and Boston Police Commissioner William G. Gross.

“This method of drug testing not only creates an alarmingly high rate of false positives, but also disproportionately results in false positives for black officers,” Boston city councilors Andrea Campbell of Mattapan and Kim Janey of Roxbury wrote. “While it is imperative that we, as a city, ensure the safety of our officers and the citizens that they serve, we must do so with a complete understanding of the research and empirical data and remain grounded in our shared values of equity, diversity, inclusion and fairness.”

According to city records, 11 black officers and 14 white officers were fired, disciplined, or retired between 2012 and 2019 because of positive hair drug tests. Those officers represented a small fraction of the more than 2,000 officers tested each year, and some failed re-testing as well. Still, black officers, who now make up about 22 percent of the force, were over-represented in the testing compared to white officers, who make up 67 percent of the department, according to an analysis by Campbell’s office.

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At-Large Councilors Michelle Wu, Althea Garrison, and Annissa Essaibi George signed the letter, as did Councilor Lydia Edwards of East Boston.

“This test disproportionately effects African-American officers and has been ruled upon by multiple courts as an unscientific and unreliable method of testing,” Janey said. “That is why my colleagues and I have called for hair drug testing’s immediate cessation.”

Psychemedics, the Acton-based company that conducts the hair tests, uses samples that are snipped off the heads of officers and potential hires, rinsed in a phosphate solution to remove contaminants, and then run through a chemical analysis to look for illicit drugs.

A spokeswoman for the company called its science “rock solid.”“We would welcome the opportunity to testify before the council and provide the facts supporting the accuracy of Psychemedics’ testing,” said Nancy J. Sterling.

The Boston Police Department began using the test in 1999, according to a federal court decision. In 2005, the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers and 10 officers and cadets — seven of whom were fired because of the test — sued the city. The officers had tested positive for cocaine use; all denied ever using the drug.

In the lawsuit, attorneys claimed black officers and cadets tested positive for cocaine 1.3 percent of the time while their white counterparts tested positive for the drug only 0.3 percent of the time during an eight-year period. Since that lawsuit, a state appeals court ordered that six officers who were fired after positive drug tests be reinstated.

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“Moving away from hair drug testing will promote diversity and promote public safety by making sure that highly qualified officers are not unfairly removed from the force,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal of Lawyers for Civil Rights, which has opposed the test.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruling came nine years after Michael Gannon was first denied a job as a Boston police officer when a strand of his hair tested positive for cocaine. The court held that the department offered insufficient evidence to rebut Gannon’s denial of having ever used cocaine.

Gannon had previously been a police cadet from 2007 to 2009 and was tested using the same procedure for drugs in 2006, 2007, 2008 — and passed all of them.


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.