Police officers face new challenges with drug epidemic

  • Published in Local News

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Gilford Police Sgt. Chris Jacques demonstrates the use of the department's TruNarc device by testing a powdery substance in a closed plastic container. If the device is able to identify an illegal substance, it provides the police department with probable cause to make an immediate arrest, rather than wait for results from a state laboratory. (Tom Caldwell/Laconia Daily Sun)

By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
There is little that is routine in a “routine traffic stop” these days, and police have found that having the right training and equipment for what they may encounter is very important.
Alexandria patrolman David Suckling learned a tough lesson on a breezy day last June when he opened a small container he found in a driver’s purse and a powdery substance blew onto his hair, his hands, and his uniform. He said he felt ill right away and called for an ambulance. Testing revealed that the powder was carfentanil, a dangerous opiate, and hospital officials called in a hazardous materials team to contain any residue that may have fallen from Suckling’s uniform as he was brought through the emergency room.
“With the opioid epidemic, it’s become part of our training to focus on handling, testing, and packaging the evidence,” said Gilford’s deputy police chief, Kristian Kelley.
Sgt. Chris Jacques, who oversees all felony-level investigations for Gilford, said nitrile disposable gloves are now part of the standard equipment in a police cruiser, and officers heading out on patrol will pick up protective masks and glasses from the office.
New Hampshire has achieved the distinction of being the number one state in the country for per capita drug fatalities, recording 4.92 deaths per 10,000 population in 2016. Trafficking in methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil is a worldwide problem, and communities in the Granite State have found themselves especially hard-pressed to identify narcotics and other drugs quickly in order to help get them off the streets.
Typically, if an officer suspects a substance is an illegal drug, a sample is sent to the state laboratory for testing. It can take weeks and sometimes months to receive the results.
“The turnaround time right now is a couple of months,” said Laconia Police Chief Matt Canfield. “We can arrest them ahead of time, but if it goes to trial, we need the lab results to get a conviction.”
As a result, departments like Laconia and Belmont wait for the lab results before making an arrest.
“I caught a person in the process of shooting up, but I couldn’t arrest him at the time because we couldn’t identify what the drug was,” said Belmont Police Lt. Richard Mann. “We sent the drugs down to the state lab a month ago, but can’t make an arrest until we get the results.”
Mann said the delay is understandable: “There are all these police departments, and all these drugs being sent to a small lab, with a small staff. Unless it involves an overdose or is a large bust, it goes by who’s in line first.”

High-tech solution
Gilford is in a better position than other municipal police departments, thanks to its purchase of a TruNarc detection device. The laser-based unit scans a substance without removing it from its container or evidence bag, measuring the reflected light spectrum to identify what it is. A positive identification gives the officer probable cause to make an immediate arrest.
Some scans produce inconclusive results, but the equipment is getting better and better at identifying the drugs that are on the market, as well as legal substances that may look suspicious.
Gilford was able to purchase the $10,000 device with drug forfeiture money.
“We had direct involvement in a large-scale synthetic cannabis and synthetic cathinone operation in 2012,” Jacques said, “and the police department received a decent amount of money under the drug forfeiture law.”
Jacques said that, around the same time, he had his first view of a laser-based system used in a laboratory setting to identify suspected drugs. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency in Bedford purchased the first TruNarc unit in the state, and Gilford became the second agency in New Hampshire to purchase one.
“If we didn’t have that drug forfeiture money, we probably wouldn’t have one,” he said.
Gilford purchased its TruNarc in July 2015, and, since then, the State Police and Attorney General’s Drug Task Force have purchase the devices. Jacques is not aware of any other municipal police force that owns one.
Gilford’s model operates on a pay-per-scan basis. A model with unlimited scans costs $20,000, Jacques said.
The cost per scan is slightly more than $3. NarcoPouches, an alternate method police can use to get quick test results, can cost from $1 to $3, but it may take two to three pouches to successfully identify the substance. To use them, an officer adds up to three chemical ampules per pouch, and a color change indicates what the substance is.
The TruNarc works without having to remove a material from its container, whether it’s in a needle, a bag, or a plastic jar.
In a process known as raman spectroscopy, the laser agitates the substance’s molecules, resulting in light waves that are reflected back to the device. It analyzes the unique light pattern and displays the results on its screen.
The manufacturer, ThermoFisher Scientific, frequently updates the software and expands the range of substances in its database to make identification quicker and more accurate, according to Jacques. The updates are downloaded to the device through a USB computer connection, keeping it constantly up to date.
Jacques said the TruNarc device has made 98 positive drug identifications since Gilford purchased the unit. Forty-three involved methamphetamine, 16 were fentanyl, nine were cocaine, and eight were MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy. Other drugs identified were amphetamine, MDA (a psychedelic drug with similar characteristics to MDMA), cocaine base, gabapentin (an anti-seizure medication), ketamine (an anesthetic), methoxetamine (MXE, a hallucinogen), oxycodone, TFMPP (ecstacy-like drug), and tramadol (pain medication).
Eight of those positive identifications were of heroin or heroin with fentanyl, though identifying the now-common opiate presents a challenge, Jacques said. Heroin “blinds” the TruNarc device, so police have to use an H-Kit, which comes with a spoon to put a sample in an alcohol solution. The alcohol evaporates, leaving a residue that can be tested.
“But that means going hands-on again,” Jacques said. “When carfentanil reared its head, we made an executive decision to stop using H-Kits because it is hands-on and puts the officer in danger.”


Hands off
“We’ve stopped presumptive field tests in Belmont,” Mann said. “It’s too dangerous.”
The Laconia police chief agreed. “The big thing right now is fentanyl and carfentanil,” Canfield said. “It’s super-dangerous stuff, so deadly that if you touch it or get it on your skin, you can overdose, even if you breathe it in. That’s a big concern.”
He said fentanyl is 50-100 times more powerful than morphine and carfentanil is 10,000 times more potent.
“If we believe that’s involved, we wear protective masks and gloves and, certainly if we’re doing a search, we’d call the DEA and use a clean lab team,” Canfield said.
While Gilford is willing to lend its TruNarc to other departments, Canfield said his department no longer utilizes the device. “We package the drug and send it off to the state lab, and don’t do any field tests,” he said.
Mann said Belmont takes a similar approach. “We don’t risk exposure; it’s not worth it for our officers’ safety.”
He said Belmont officers document who the suspects are and collect the drugs, and send samples to the state laboratory for testing. If the results show it was a controlled substance, the department will seek an indictment.
“If we go to calls where there’s an unresponsive person, the officers will wear masks until they determine what level of care is required. If it’s an OD and the officer doesn’t know if the substance is still present, he will wear heavy-duty gloves. We don’t touch anything because of the risk of drug exposure,” Mann said.
Canfield said his supervisors also carry Narcan — not just to revive someone who has overdosed, but also to revive the department’s own officers if they suffer from drug exposure.
Jacques noted that there are other ways to establish probable cause. Typically, there will be several indications of drug use when police come upon a scene: a large supply of plastic bags, scales, pipes, a spoon. Loose powder and indications of physical impairment, as well as statements the person makes, also can provide probable cause for an arrest without the officer having to do a test.
“We look at the entire scene,” Jacques said.


Arrests
Waiting for laboratory results potentially allows suspects to flee before being arrested, but Mann said that rarely happens.
“It depends on their current situation, but if they’re in a cycle of addiction, they’re still doing drugs, and we can still find them,” Mann said.
Canfield said more of today’s drug dealers are user-dealers.
“The drug dealer of old used to be about making profits, but addiction with heroin is so powerful that we’re seeing a lot more street-level users who are dealing only to support their own habit, and they’re not making a profit. They’ll buy a couple of fingers of heroin for themselves and sell some of it to cover the cost,” Canfield said.
What has not changed is the connection between drugs and guns and money.
“A lot of people who use also have guns,” Canfield said. “One of the guys we were looking for was a dangerous individual, and we might have used a SWAT team to arrest him. He was known to carry a firearm.”
Mann said some people Belmont officers arrest are candidates for drug court, where they can receive treatment for mental health or substance abuse problems.
To that end, Gilford hands out cards with information on where to go for assistance with treatment and other needs. The cards have QR codes and addresses to access websites, as well as the 211 number to access information on local services and agencies.
“We’re dealing with chemicals and substances we’ve never had before,” Mann said. Officers now receive training on how to handle these situations. We may have a three- or four-town raid, and we’re all trained the same way so we can provide a universal response.”


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The TruNarc point-and-shoot laser device tests a white powdery substance in a plastic container at the Gilford Police Department to identify what is inside the jar. (Tom Caldwell/Laconia Daily Sun)

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The Gilford Police Department's TruNarc device displays that the substance tested was confectioner's sugar in a plastic container. (Tom Caldwell/Laconia Daily Sun)