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FRIDAY, AUGUST 25, 2005
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EDITORIAL

Officers who claim drug-test bias are splitting wrong hairs

The seven Boston police officers who claim in a lawsuit that drug testing utilizing hair samples is racially biased are grasping at straws.

The department promptly fired or suspended each of the seven officers who tested positive for cocaine. All deny having used cocaine.

In a civil-rights lawsuit filed against the department, the officers claim the test utilizing hair samples is unreliable and racially biased because, they say, studies have found dark-haired people are more likely to test positive for drugs than light-haired people. According to the studies, drug compounds bind more easily to dark hair because it has higher levels of melanin than light hair.

Our reaction: So what?

If the officers had avoided cocaine, there would be zero chance of detecting the substance in their hair, regardless of its color. Because the hair test — which is much more scientifically reliable as well as more difficult to alter than the alternative urine test — is even more accurate on dark hair than on light hair is not grounds to throw it out altogether.

As with any medical test, laboratories must take care of the sample to assure no outside contamination takes place. If the test shows a positive result, a second test should confirm that result. The company that performs the testing for the Boston Police Department as well as Fortune 500 companies and police departments in Chicago and Los Angeles takes such precautions.

Given the nature of police work, it may be possible that the officers had some environmental exposure to cocaine — during a drug bust or while handling evidence, for example. Drug testing usually establishes toleration limits to take that possibility into account.

But officers who claim the test is racially biased on the basis of hair color are splitting a hair that is irrelevant to the issue.

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