SJC rules Boston police hair test unreliable

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.

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.

SARAH BETANCOURT


BEACON HILL

Massachusetts gets a $1.5 million grant to address human trafficking. (MassLive)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Boston City Councilor Kim Janey said she was bringing to a vote yesterday a proposal to revamp the city’s marijuana licensing process, but then balked at the last minute and said the plan would be considered at next week’s council meeting. (Boston Herald)

The city has $23 million to spend on undetermined improvements to Boston Common, and some options are public bathrooms, tree preservation, and a dog park. (WGBH)

Convenience store owners rallied outside Boston City Hall to protest possible regulations banning the sale of menthol tobacco products. (Boston Herald)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

US Rep. Ayanna Pressley and the head of immigration services tangle over deferred medical action at congressional hearing, with the federal official saying the decision to do away with the program was his alone. (CommonWealth)

House impeachment investigators want former national security advisor John Bolton to testify next week. (Washington Post)

Joan Vennochi can’t understand why President Trump keeps urging people to read the official transcript summarizing his phone call with Ukraine’s president, since she thinks it reads more like an indictment than evidence of his constant cry of a witch hunt. (Boston Globe)

ELECTIONS

Rep. Lori Trahan conceded that $300,000 she loaned her congressional campaign last year was her husband’s income and that the move fell in a “gray area” of campaign finance law. A watchdog says it was “a very large and very illegal campaign contribution.” (Boston Globe)

People who knew Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a new professor at Harvard Law School, including Alan Dershowitz, recall her as an engaging teacher who tried to diversify the ranks of students. (WBUR)

Democrat Thomas Moakley, of West Falmouth, and Republican Jay McMahon, a Bourne lawyer, have entered the race for the Plymouth & Barnstable District state Senate seat being vacated by Vinny deMacedo. (Cape Cod Times) 

Brenda Ryan, a Quincy author seeking to unseat Mayor Thomas Koch in next week’s election, was summoned to court earlier this year after police accused her of throwing eggs at homes on her street, according to court records. (Patriot Ledger) 

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Despite the go-go business climate, the state’s economy actually shrank over the summer, as employers struggle to fill positions. (Boston Globe)

Twitter is preparing to ban all political ads, sys CEO Jack Dorsey. (New York Times)

Worcester funeral director Peter Stefan, known for burying the poor and unwanted, says his license suspension is a total setup. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

Boston Public Schools scores declined in the latest rounds of national testing that allows direct comparison of districts across the country, another sign of backsliding in the district, which has lots of leadership turnover in recent years. (Boston Globe)

A student admits to writing a bomb threat on a bathroom wall at Mount Everett Regional School in Sheffield. (Berkshire Eagle)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

State officials say a second person in Massachusetts has died from vaping-related illness. (Boston Globe)

A contract standoff between UMass Memorial and United Healthcare leaves retirees scrambling. (Telegram & Gazette)

ARTS/CULTURE

Globe art critic Murray Whyte says it’s time for Boston to make room for a major public art piece by 83-year-old Malden native Frank Stella, a major figure in the embrace of abstract art of the 1950s and 60s.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll wants to find a less prominent location for the city’s portrait of President Andrew Jackson, who warred with and displaced Native American tribes, and commission a new portrait of a leader of the Naumkeag tribe. (WGBH)

TRANSPORTATION 

The recent survey of business groups gives state leaders lots of ideas for potential new transportation revenue, but no clear consensus on what direction to take, writes Jon Chesto. (Boston Globe)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Mayflower Wind, with its lowest price-less onshore investment proposal, is selected as the winner of the state’s second offshore wind procurement. (CommonWealth)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Federal Magistrate Judge Donald Cabell canceled a Wednesday status conference hearing and set an interim status conference for December 12 for both Mayor Jasiel Correia and campaign manager Gen Andrade. (Herald News) 

Austin Boga, a 25-year-old Salem man, allegedly drove towards a Salem police officer who shot him in the arm. Other officers pursued Boga, who crashed the car he was driving and jumped into the South River. (Salem News)

MEDIA

Journalism professor  Dan Kennedy discusses how Facebook News may benefit media giants over local news. (Media Nation)