Should Drug and Alcohol Tests Be Required In Officer-Involved Shootings?


By Amanda Warren

What do you think about the idea of drug testing police who use their service weapons in officer-involved shootings and other fatalities?

After all, how many times are citizens held to rigorous, if not completely invasive measures to test for substances, especially while targeted during the so-called War on Drugs. Someone need not show any signs of illicit drug use in order to have all rights waived out the window. They may go to prison for defending their home from what they think is a middle-of-the-night invasion – while no drugs were ever present.

Seeing as police killed more Americans in 2014 than all U.S. mass shootings combined, getting to the bottom of the problem and increasing accountability are more important than ever. Drug testing police involved in shootings is an argument up for debate in the state of North Carolina – at least it is currently up for scrutiny and speculation.

An investigation conducted in part by Greensboro’s News & Record found that it is incredibly rare for a North Carolina officer to have a drug test after an officer involved shooting – even the fatal ones.

An N&R investigation found that if there were a time for officers to be tested for substance abuse, it is way more likely to occur after wrecking a service vehicle than after taking a life.

A query of 10 North Carolina law enforcement agencies found that only two agencies require drug or alcohol testing following the use of deadly force, including in incidents that are fatal.

Whether an agency chooses to require drug or alcohol testing is up to the individual departments…

The News & Record recently investigated officer-involved shootings in the Piedmont Triad and Raleigh. Of 61 shootings the newspaper examined, 60 were ruled to be justified. Thirty-three people died.

The Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department automatically requires testing any time a gun is fired in the line of duty, after an officer-involved death and if medical help beyond first-aid is required for the officer. Alamance County Sheriff’s Office requires screening and also didn’t have any officer-involved shootings.

Other than these two examples, any investigative instances of drug/alcohol testing were rare. Although some of the officers and department heads said that there were regular test intervals, it didn’t seem to a requirement after causing a citizen fatality. It appeared to be neither here nor there.

The SBI, which investigates officer-involved shootings for many agencies in North Carolina, doesn’t require a drug or alcohol test during its investigations. Rather, officers might be asked when was the last time they took medications.

Even more rare is the legal basis for obtaining a blood sample from an officer. Unfortunately, the same is not true for citizens who have recently been pinned or strapped down for forced, “no-refusal” blood draws.

One argument for testing would be as a way to hold officers to the same standard as other employees –  especially if they are taking on the responsibility of holding human life in their hands. If a pilot or a surgeon harms or kills and it is found that they are under the influence, it isn’t long before it makes national news wires and there are calls for life in prison.

Greensboro attorney, Bob Weckworth, who represents clients who are injured by police, wants drug testing rules installed, saying that anything that would assist in uncovering the truth of the situation is a policy that should be followed. “There’s no harm. What is the harm in having the test conducted?” he asked. “I would think it would show they have better credibility.”

One reason the drug tests or disclosure of results doesn’t happen much is probably due to how many shootings are ruled justified by internal investigations. This is why demands for accountability, a change in training procedures and citizen documentation of the events needs to continue.

Here is what a variety of officers, chiefs, city spokesmen, association directors and District Attorney officers had to say about the idea. As you might imagine, they are not too keen on the practice. One pattern that sticks out, however, is how many of them think that citizens have all this freedom – inebriated or not. Along with that was the inference of the belief that most, if not all shootings are justified, self-defense mechanism….

Here’s what they said:

Information would have to be developed to make you believe the officer’s actions were affected by using drugs or alcohol before we go down that road.

Somebody can make the point that after a tragedy the officers ought to be drug tested. You can also make the argument that if you have a good officer who has never had any sign of impairment, that you can undermine their integrity.

We routinely review our policies to determine if our practices can be improved. Mandating drug testing after a critical incident is something we are considering. However, we must obtain input from our legal and medical staff before making any change to our existing procedures.

Greensboro officers, as with all city employees, are subject to for-cause testing, random testing and hiring testing.

In North Carolina, being intoxicated is against the law when a person is operating a vehicle or when he or she is being disruptive – However, just being intoxicated is not illegal. More importantly, it wouldn’t change the facts of how the situation unfolded. If the person who got shot was doing something (threatening), whether I’m impaired or not, they were still doing it.

We don’t require it unless we believe there’s a reason we need to require a drug or alcohol test. If something comes up in the investigation that makes us believe either the officer was intoxicated or high, we can ask the officer to consent to a drug screen.

…If a civilian is drunk or high and gets into a fight, that civilian still has the right to defend himself…

Other statements seemed to only support the practice if there were a major sign of impairment, if the facts surrounding the shooting were not justified or if a superior’s suspicions were raised. Others would leave it to whomever was on the scene, and still others said they would not go back and change anything if the circumstances allow for the shooting and there is a body-cam. [Although in that particular case, neither body-cam footage nor answers to drug-use questions were disclosed outside the agency.]

Do you think a demand for officer drug tests after a shooting is a good idea? Or, do you wish to go another route feeling that you don’t want to further legitimize the War on Drugs?

What if the practice of drug-testing after such incidents reveals that drugs and alcohol are not typically involved in the decision to take a life?

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