SJC rules Boston police hair test unreliable

Can’t distinguish between external contamination or ingestion

THE STATE’S HIGHEST COURT says a drug test is scientifically unreliable. 

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Wednesday that the department was wrong in refusing to hire Michael Gannon, a white police cadet who applied to be part of the force in 2010, because of the failed hair follicle drug test. In the ruling, the court deferred to a 2012 Civil Service Commission judgment that said this kind of hair drug test was not enough to sustain the department’s burden of proving “a preponderance of the evidence that Gannon ingested cocaine.” 

From the get-go, Gannon has said he never did cocaine, and passed two other kinds of drug tests during his cadet program. According to court documents, he also took a test the day after he failed the hair test and passed.

WBUR had previously written about how at least 10 Boston police officers of color “lost their jobs after testing positive for illicit drugs in hair tests.” Scientists are now saying that the test can’t distinguish if the positive results are tied to external contamination or internal ingestion. Many of the resulting lawsuits and studies have pegged this testing methodology as racially discriminatory.

A scientist at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. told WGBH in April that, when it comes to this kind of test, the distinction between use of drugs and exposure to them is a big deal. Some hair products used by African-Americans make it more likely drug residue in almost any environment (think standing next to someone on the T who has recently used drugs) will bind to the outside of their hair. This leads to African Americans being more likely to be wrongly accused of being drug users. 

According to the advocacy group Lawyers for Civil Rights, the police department’s continued use of the test is “harming public safety by depriving our communities of highly qualified officers — particularly Black officers.” 

It’s previously been reported that the BPD has its own doubts about the test’s reliability, pursuing its own litigation against Psychemedics Corp., the Acton-based company that the city contracts to perform the service at a price-tag of $100,000 a year. 

The city and BPD seemed to question the test’s reliability in that case. “There are no universal industry standards controlling the performance of hair testing” and “substantial parts of the laboratory methodologies, including Psychemedics, are hidden behind claims of competitive proprietary interest,” the department argued. At a time when the Boston Police Department is publicly touting its efforts to diversify the force, this could be a thorn in its side.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

So which is it? Mayor Marty Walsh and former police commissioner William Evans hired Michael Gaskins in a much talked about move as the department’s new diversity recruitment officer more than two and a half years ago. In scenarios like this, you have to wonder why Gaskin hasn’t barred a practice that has caused such a headache, and has received significant pushback by the very community the department is trying to appease.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story, which was based on a report by WBUR, incorrectly stated that Michael Gannon was black and suggested the hair follicle test was racially biased. WBUR subsequently corrected its story to say Gannon is white, raising additional questions about the test.