By Andrew Ford
Published Jan. 24, 2019 by the Asbury Park Press.
At least eight New Jersey police officers last year failed random drug tests, a reform put in place after the Asbury Park Press found more than 100 departments across the state had no random testing policy.
The tests uncovered law enforcement officers using drugs like marijuana, cocaine and the powerful prescription opioid painkiller oxycodone.
At least one officer detected using drugs would not have been discovered if the reform had not been put in place following the “Protecting the Shield” series published by the Press and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey in January 2018.
The mandatory drug testing policy for all law enforcement officers was enacted in March by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal following a public recommendation by the Network series.
In “The Shield” stories, the Network exposed the lives ruined and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent as a result of secretive practices and fragmented police oversight in New Jersey. The series also prompted a statewide early warning system that triggers a review of troubled cops by county prosecutors’ offices.
The results of drug tests recently obtained by the Network make clear a theme in New Jersey policing first uncovered in The Shield: the state’s system, with hundreds of independent police agencies, makes it inherently difficult to maintain uniform best practices. More than 100 departments missed the deadline to file drug testing paperwork, more than 100 are still unaccounted for, the forms they’re filing are inconsistent and it’s unclear what happened to all the officers who tested positive.
Policing expert Joseph Blaettler underscored the challenges New Jersey’s home rule design present for policing.
“Every police department, whether it’s a three-man police department or a thousand-man police department thinks they have the right to do whatever they want,” he said.
The eight municipal cops who failed tests came from six towns. Two officers tested positive in Weehawken and North Bergen, the Network found. Officers also tested positive in Franklin Borough, Ridgewood, Piscataway and Woodland Park.
The drug tests also exposed at least three county corrections officers using illegal substances, according to reports filed with the counties under the new testing policy. The officers who tested positive are a fraction of the more than 2,800 tests performed and roughly 34,000 officers in the state.
The Network obtained records for 20 of 21 counties in New Jersey — the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office provided none. About 3,300 cops work in Essex County, according to pension data.
Officers who test positive for illegal substances or legal drugs without a prescription are supposed to be fired and logged in a state database of cops who failed drug tests, according to a longstanding attorney general policy. But the records on tests last year, obtained by the Network, don’t always show what happened to an officer who failed a test.
Last year, the Network identified Ridgewood — a department of about 45 officers serving a town about 26,000 people in Bergen County — as a department with no random drug-testing policy before the attorney general mandate.
An unidentified Ridgewood police officer failed a drug test in October, according to the Network’s analysis of hundreds of pages of records generated as part of the new drug testing mandate. The drug testing records don’t show what happened to this officer.
Only one person left employment with Ridgewood police department last year, the Network found. That officer left in late November, after the date of the department’s random test in October. The town said his separation was a “resignation.” A letter the town provided from the officer’s attorney said his resignation was “deemed to be in good standing.”
Calls to the officer, his lawyer and the Ridgewood police chief weren’t returned.
A police officer who resigns in good standing can seek a pension or a job with another police department.
The records obtained by the Network also show:
- A Weehawken patrolman was fired for violating the department’s drug testing policy, though it’s not clear in the document how he violated the policy. The department’s deputy public safety director, Thomas White, wouldn’t confirm whether former Patrolman Anthony Landi failed a drug test. White did say two officers were fired from the department following failed drug tests last year. Landi, who was named in the document, returned a reporter’s phone call. Landi confirmed he was fired because of a failed drug test and said he’s “trying to appeal the situation.” Landi declined to comment further, saying he needed to speak with his attorney.
- An unidentified Piscataway cop “retired immediately” following a positive drug test. It’s unclear whether this officer was flagged for the state’s registry of drug-using cops.
- The records don’t show how police departments dealt with other police officers who failed drug tests in towns including Franklin Borough, North Bergen and Woodland Park. Officials for those departments couldn’t be reached for comment.
GAPS IN RANDOM DRUG TESTING
There may be more drug abusing cops on the road.
The attorney general’s new drug testing mandate required departments to test at least 10 percent of their officers in 2018 and file a report on the results with their county prosecutor’s office by Dec. 31.
At least 32 agencies didn’t test as many officers as they’re required to, police records show. Results for the tests in 31 departments are still pending, and at least four departments simply didn’t complete the mandatory drug tests in 2018, the Network found. That includes Colts Neck in Monmouth County, Clayton and East Greenwich in Gloucester County, and Mullica in Atlantic County, areas where a total of about 65 officers work, according to pension records.
East Greenwich Police Chief Anthony Francesco said he took office in November and wasn’t aware of the state requirement. When he found out, he had two of the 16 officers in the department tested in January. He said he hasn’t yet received the results of those tests.
“Unfortunately, the last chief, you know, kind of let it slide and once I found out I immediately took care of it,” Francesco said.
“I think it’s a good thing,” he said of drug testing. “Obviously it’s something needed in our profession.”
Clayton Police Chief Andrew Davis said his department collected samples for drug tests in 2018, but more than 30 days elapsed before the samples were sent to the testing lab, so the samples were rejected. The notice about that rejection came this year, so the department didn’t comply with the state requirement. Davis said he plans to test extra officers this year.
“I think it’s a very fair policy,” Davis said of the random drug testing. “I think it’s definitely good for law enforcement, there needs to be oversight.”
Chiefs for the other two departments that didn’t complete tests didn’t respond to a call seeking comment.
County prosecutors’ offices were unable to provide records for the tests in 151 municipal departments across the state in response to a Network open records request filed with each of the 21 offices. A total of about 6,600 officers work in those towns.
County prosecutors are required to report to the attorney general’s office by the end of January which agencies are in compliance with the random drug testing mandate.
“We will assess that information as we receive it,” Attorney General Grewal said in a statement to the Network. “Our goal is to ensure public trust in law enforcement.”
THE HAZARD OF COPS AND DRUGS
A high-ranking Deal police captain was killed in 2016 after he crashed his car while high on a cocktail of illegal drugs, the Network revealed in an investigation that year.
At the time of his death, Earl Alexander was on suspension following reasonable suspicion by his department that he was using drugs. His wake was attended by hundreds, including a retired Deal police sergeant who remembered Alexander fondly in the video below.
At the time, the department of roughly 20 officers serving a town of about 700 people didn’t randomly drug test its officers. It does now.
The department’s report for 2018 shows the five tests the department conducted came back clean.
But in that department and elsewhere in New Jersey, officers have recently been criminally charged with drug-related offenses.
A 14-year veteran of Deal police department was charged in December with conspiracy to possess drugs, witness tampering and possession of marijuana.
A Paterson officer admitted in federal court in June that he sold drugs he stole from crime scenes.
Police chiefs for Deal and Paterson didn’t respond to calls seeking comment.
The president of the state’s largest police union didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking comment about the attorney general’s directive and the results of last year’s police drug tests. But in an interview before the attorney general’s statewide mandate, New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association president Patrick Colligan said the roughly 34,000 police officers in the state should be randomly drug tested.
“I think they should,” he said. “Absolutely. I’m shocked to have you tell me some don’t. I think that’s an accident waiting to happen.”
COPS ON LEGAL DRUGS
Across the state, 31 law enforcement officers were found to have drugs in their system, including opioids, amphetamines and barbiturates, according to the police records reviewed by the Network. However, the records show 20 officers were able to produce prescriptions for the substances they ingested or they were cleared after an internal investigation.
Even legitimate prescription medication can impact an officer’s ability to perform their duties, experts say. Officers are required by model policies issued by the state and adopted by many departments to notify their supervisor if they’re taking medication that might diminish their alertness.
One national expert on workplace drug testing policies, Dr. Robert Swotinsky, raised concern about officers on certain prescription drugs.
Prescription amphetamines, like the kind prescribed for attention deficit disorders, are probably not a big issue, he said. But it is “not advisable” for someone to carry a gun while taking the opioid oxycodone, Swotinsky said. Swotinsky is a doctor in Massachusetts who is recognized by courts as an expert on drug testing.
“People who are carrying guns and have authority to use them against others, having to make quick judgment calls in fraught situations, have to be at their highest levels of capability and cognitive ability,” Swotinsky said.
It’s unclear from the police records whether the officers found to be taking prescription drugs were on patrol or on desk duty.
The Weehawken deputy public safety director said the department requires officers to report if they’re taking drugs and then the department defers to the opinion of the officer’s doctor as to what the officer is capable of. In 2018, a Weehawken officer taking prescription drugs helped with paperwork while he recovered from a job-related injury, according to White.
While a department can take an officer off their regular assignment if they’re using a prescription drug that impacts their performance, that practice can discourage officers from speaking up about their medication or even discourage them from seeking help for issues like depression, according to Blaettler, a former deputy police chief from Union City who testifies as an expert witness in court.
“Police officers have a gun,” he said. “The last thing you want is an untreated depressed cop out there.”
Officers may fear getting help because they feel their special assignment leaves them isolated and makes their issue known to their peers in the department.
Blaettler stressed moderation when handling an officer taking a prescription drug, suggesting that departments should rely on a doctor to decide whether an officer is fit to stay on the road.
“I think it’s balancing the officer’s privacy rights and medical needs with department’s needs to protect the public,” Blaettler said.
DEPARTMENTS NOT FOLLOWING STATE RULES
Many police departments didn’t follow all the state’s rules on documenting random drug tests.
The Network found 143 departments missed the Dec. 31 deadline to file their annual drug testing report, document show. Records for 100 departments were dated after Jan. 4, when the Network filed its records request.
The Network found 59 departments submitted reports but didn’t provide all the information required by the attorney general, which included the dates of testing, the number of officers in the department, the number of officers tested and the number who tested positive, if any.
Sloppy record keeping is a symptom of New Jersey’s fragmented police oversight system.
The forms departments used to report their drug tests were designed independently, sometimes apparently by the county prosecutor’s offices, rather than the state. That caused inconsistencies in reporting. Ocean County’s forms didn’t include a spot for the number of sworn officers in the department. The forms used in Burlington County didn’t include a spot to report if any officers tested positive.
Burlington County Prosecutor’s spokesman Joel Bewley said the forms will have a box for that information going forward, but the office requires departments to notify them if an officer tests positive and none did in 2018.
A reporter pointed out an inconsistency between the report for Allentown and a summary report for Monmouth County provided by the prosecutor’s office. An assistant prosecutor who acts as the records custodian for the prosecutor’s office provided updated documents, along with a copy of drug testing policies from the attorney general’s office.
“There was no guidance or explanation provided to the local police departments regarding how to fill out the form,” Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer Lipp said in an email.
A SMALL FRACTION
Despite the flaws in execution, New Jersey’s new police random drug testing policy is “a good start,” according to Swotinsky, the workplace drug testing expert.
Many departments across the state followed proper procedure and filed their reports on time. A handful of towns tested all of their officers, including Guttenberg with 39, Ventnor City with four and New Hanover with three.
The fraction of cops who tested positive in New Jersey is much smaller than drug use among the general population. About four percent of the U.S. workforce — 3.6 percent in New Jersey — tested positive for drugs in 2017, according to the most recent rate reported by Quest Diagnostics, a medical testing company.
Blaettler, the former deputy police chief, noted the “minuscule” percentage of officers using drugs.
“An overwhelming percentage of police officers are not involved in illegal drugs,” he said.