Tens of thousands have been convicted and served time—even earning the black mark of a felony—for crimes they likely didn’t commit, a recent report found, because the cases against them relied on horribly unreliable field drug test kits.
So prone to errors are the tests, courts won’t allow their submission as evidence. However, their continued use by law enforcement—coupled with a 90 percent rate at which drug cases are resolved through equally dubious plea deals—needlessly ruins thousands of lives.
In New York Times Magazine, ProPublica’s Ryan Gabrielson and Topher Sanders note that although a popular $2 field test kit for illegal drugs hasn’t been modified significantly since 1973, it remains the backbone for countless convictions and guilty pleas for tens of thousands of doubtlessly innocent people.
One variety of field test, the reporters explain:
“use a single tube of a chemical called cobalt thiocyanate, which turns blue when it is exposed to cocaine. But cobalt thiocyanate also turns blue when it is exposed to more than 80 other compounds, including methadone, certain acne medications and several common household cleaners. Other tests use three tubes, which the officer can break in a specific order to rule out everything but the drug in question—but if the officer breaks the tubes in the wrong order, that, too, can invalidate the results. The environment can also present problems. Cold weather slows the development; heat speeds it up, or sometimes prevents a reaction from taking place at all. Poor lighting on the street—flashing police lights, sun glare, street lamps—often prevents officers from making the fine distinctions that could make the difference between an arrest and a release.”
Error rates, in the context of the over 1.2 million people arrested in the U.S. each year for illegal drug possession, could easily be considered astronomical—even though department figures also vary widely.
Between 2010 and 2013, re-examination of tests by authorities in Las Vegas found a false positive rate of 33 percent, while lab system for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s own data “show that 21 percent of evidence that police listed as methamphetamine after identifying it was not methamphetamine, and half of those false positives were not any kind of illegal drug at all”—worse, some of those officers simply misunderstood which color indicated an ostensibly positive result.
Without stating as much, the report suggested systematic intimidation often traps people into situations they feel would be unwinnable—such police threatening to summon drug-sniffing canines to manufacture consent, or when prosecutors bluster with lengthy sentences to essentially force defendants into otherwise unacceptable plea arrangements—often when a putative suspect committed no crime at all.
Color test kits exploded in popularity around the country, Gabrielson and Sanders noted, almost immediately following then-Pres. Richard Nixon’s 1973 declaration of war on drugs—itself conceptualized under the guise of moralistic imperative because, the president’s chief advisor later admitted, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black,” and the antiwar left and black people comprised the administration’s primary adversaries.
But those field test kits promptly came under fire, as National Bureau of Standards warned in 1974, they “should not be used as sole evidence for the identification of a narcotic or drug of abuse”—a determination echoed by the Department of Justice in 1978, saying the tests “should not be used for evidential purposes.” Secondary, specialized—and far more accurate—tests are required for prosecution in virtually every location in the U.S.
However, those caveats haven’t exactly been heeded.
A 2011 report from RTI International, cited by NYT Magazine, “found the prosecutors in nine of 10 jurisdictions it surveyed nationwide accepted guilty pleas based solely on the results of field tests,” and Gabrielson and Sanders “confirmed that prosecutors and judges accept plea deals on that same basis in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Newark, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Seattle, and Tampa.”
Plea bargains comprise a startling percentage of felony drug convictions: The reporters discovered roughly 90 percent of those nationwide had been handed down through plea deals, though strikingly higher rates were found in Tennessee, with 94 percent; Kansas, at over 97 percent; and Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, the rate of felony drug convictions from plea deals is a staggering 99.5 percent.
Taking field test error rates, and the subversion of rights and perversion of justice effected through plea-bargaining, the failed and falsely-premised war on drugs creates an astonishing number of criminals not guilty of any crime—drug-based or otherwise.
Worse still, and similarly observed by Jacob Sullum for Reason, all of the aforementioned ignores the absurdity of felony convictions based purely on quantities of putatively illegal substances so minuscule they defy the concept of criminality. One anecdotal example from NYT Magazine illustrated the case of a woman whose felony drug conviction—among other alarming details—was bargained for an amount equal to just two-hundredths of a gram.
Police violence is epidemic in the United States, and retaliation—as in the case of Dallas—has now become tangible reality. But an astounding number of policing’s ills can be directly linked to the sham war on drugs and its criminalization of not only substances, but being poor—or, perhaps more aptly, human in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When law enforcement isn’t tasked with protecting people from legitimate, violent criminals, but rather policing people from themselves through their choice of vice, society suffers the consequences. Violent crimes go largely unsolved, while innocent people are gunned down by nervous police whose primary job amounts to revenue-generation through the search and seizure of ‘illicit’ substances—drugs which, if legal, would ‘harm’ no one other than the user.
When advocates and activists, privacy-rights hawks and even some politicians, say “the system is rigged,” this farcical feeding of the prison-industrial complex and its arbitrary criminalization of non-violent ‘crime’ is an enormous part of that.
While no act of aggressive violence should be tolerated or condoned, ire at this broken system virtually guarantees the cycle of killing by police and retaliation by civilians will continue unabated—rather, unabated until the State tucks tail and admits the war on drugs has outlived its guise and, indisputably, needs to end.
During the short video below, the researchers demonstrate how easy it is for police to generate a false positive during a field test for drugs.
The group tests over the counter Tylenol PM in a police test kit for cocaine—the test kit says the Tylenol is cocaine.
The group also tests the most popular chocolate in the world, Hershey’s chocolate, for marijuana, it also tests positive.
Perhaps the most disturbing test was when the group put absolutely nothing into the field test kit, and they received a positive result.
If you have tattoos, law enforcement might be trying to decipher their meaning — and use the information for identification purposes. But, as with any government program with seemingly innocuous roots, the Tattoo Recognition Technology Challenge (Tatt-C) has potential to trigger repercussions beyond a simple invasion of your privacy.
As privacy watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation reported, in 2104 and 2015, the FBI partnered with the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST — yes, that NIST, responsible for the hotly contended report on the World Trade Center and 9/11) to ramp up tattoo identification technology.
Biometrics companies and other researchers received a giant database of prisoner tattoos and “were asked to run five experiments to show how well their algorithms could match tattoos under various circumstances,” EFF explained.
“Some tests involved matching different photos of the same person’s tattoo. Other experiments sought to match similar tattoos on different people based on their characteristics — such as a crucifix, Minnie Mouse, and Chinese calligraphy. These tests pose serious concerns for privacy, free expression, religious freedom, and the right of association.”
While, in the past, tattoo identification has served such beneficial purposes as identifying murder victims and suspects or locating missing people, furthering the technology to include interpretation of tattoo symbols poses multiple inherent risks. That isn’t the only area for the technology to go horribly wrong, either.
As EFF pointed out, if someone refuses to produce ID or otherwise identify themselves to law enforcement, an officer could take a picture and using tattoo recognition, could be identified — pulling up the person’s prior arrest and other records. Though NIST offered the identification of a robbery suspect as an example of potential benefit the technology offers, anyone caught on camera, whether acting nefariously or not, could be subject to identification.
As with mass domestic surveillance, this creates a generalized ‘guilty before proven innocent’ atmosphere — and possibly another avenue to apply the DHS adage, ‘if you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.’ Those who value the natural human right to go about their business anonymously, however — which should encompass every human on the planet — will beg to differ.
Virtually every law enforcement agency in the U.S. now tracks our every move via cell phones, but facial recognition technology — and now tattoo identification tech — are making moot the need for a device to track people anywhere they go.
Three companies in the challenge reported 90 percent accuracy in their algorithms detecting tattoos. But MorphoTrak’s version detected a tattoo in an image with 96.3 percent accuracy — and could track the same tattoo through different images over time with a startling accuracy of 99.4 percent. But it only gets creepier from there.
MorphoTrak also managed to identify through matching, with 94.6 accuracy, tattoos where only a portion could be seen in a photo — where part was covered by clothing, or where the design had been embellished after the original picture.
Further methods for tattoo identification using, for example, an artist’s sketch derived from witness descriptions, which could then be run through a database, is also being developed.
Of paramount concern to privacy advocates are subjective interpretations of tattooed images, particularly as stigmatized and politicized as some symbols can be — especially with such technology in the hands of various government agencies. Imagine an individual’s political ideology or religion tattooed in symbols — whether or not the individual is a true enemy of the State, the ruling government would be free to interpret those symbols as it pleases.
Of course, this doesn’t even approach the idea of tattoos for the sake of irony or satire — or if someone gets a tattoo in the honest belief its symbol means something other than its traditional meaning — or, if the tattooed symbol simply appealed to someone for artistic or design reasons.
As EFF explained:
“One of the most worrisome applications of tattoo recognition technology is its potential ability to reveal connections or shared beliefs among a population. For example, rather than matching a particular tattoo of a crucifix with an individual, police could run the image of a crucifix through a database to produce a long set of individuals with similar cross tattoos. This essentially means police would be able to create lists of people based on their religion, politics, or other affiliations as expressed by their tattoos.
“This type of tattoo matching could sweep of fans of the same bands or members of the same labor union or military unit. This application has a high likelihood of generating false positives — matching someone whose tattoo may be visually similar, but not actually symbolically similar. That could result in people being improperly associated with groups, such as gangs, with which they have no actual affiliation.”
What a convenient way to pad the government’s notoriously inaccurate and highly-controversial terrorist watch list.
Recently, a report indicated the FBI intends to closely guard all information concerning its secretive biometrics database — and it’s safe to assume once tattoo recognition technology is fully developed, tattoos will also find a place in that accumulated list.
While this aspect of the technology might be a long way from reality, its development continues in earnest.
In the meantime, the privacy watchdog has launched a counter-campaign, because, as it states, “the research program is so fraught with problems that EFF believes the only solution is for the government to suspend the project immediately. At a minimum, scientists must stop using any tattoo images obtained coercively from prison and jail inmates and tattoos that contain personal information or religious or political symbolism.”
Not one, but two police training academies have now been suspended for what appears to be teaching the use of excessive force — as the norm — captured on video.
After an investigation by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE), the Lower Rio Grande Development Council (LRGVDC) Regional Police Academy and the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office Training Academy have been suspended until two further investigations are concluded.
“During a defensive tactic training session, video was conducted for the purposes of cadet instruction and feedback,” the Lower Rio Grande Development Council told local station CBS 4 News in a statement. “Video feedback had not been previously utilized by LRGVDC Police Academy and after evaluating this practice and as a result of this incident, this method will not be used in the future.”
Though CBS 4 blurred the faces of cadets and instructors to protect their identities, video shows cadets being taught to use an elbow to strike directly under the chin of a suspect to bring the person to the ground. Other clips show a strike to the face using an extended-arm slap, which also grounds throws the suspect to the ground. Similar techniques show blows to the top of the head and more.
Prior to the academies’ suspensions, CBS 4 released footage of students training as part of a police academy course conducted at Texas State Technical College in Harlingen as part of a Continuing Education program organized and taught by LRGVDC.
A cadet who trained in the sixth-month basic peace officer course informed LRGVDC of the specific incident in question on May 17.
After viewing the footage, Primera Police Chief Manuel TreviÃ±o, whose career in law enforcement spans 26 years, said he was surprised to see training conducted in this manner:
“I’m pretty sure this individual is certified, I mean the academy has to do some sort of background before allowing them to be an instructor, but after seeing this I think they might want to make some changes, especially to have them wear some sort of protective gear.” TreviÃ±o also noted some of the officers on his force had been through this training course.
Details surrounding the separate suspension of the Hidalgo Sheriff’s training academy have not been released.
Though the vast majority of police training in the United States involves stress-based, paramilitary, boot camp-style indoctrination, multiple studies have proven these warrior techniques ineffective in policing.
As the Department of Justice’s own website on American policing noted, some scholars say “that the high stress paramilitary model of training results in police practices that are contrary to democratic governance and that a structure utilizing university connections, experiential learning, and critical thinking would be significantly more effective.”
President Obama’s official directive for law enforcement embodies ‘community policing’ — but such training courses, as evidenced in the video, are antithetical to the very idea of collaborative problem-solving, community trust-building, and integrating police into the localities in their charge.
In fact, those few academies not employing militaristic stress techniques have a higher number of cadets completing the entire program — 89 percent, compared with just 80 percent from warrior training. Female recruits fare poorly in less collegial training environments, as well, where “the idealized conception of masculinity” stands at the center of most police training.
In a decades-old study cited by the DoJ, Assistant Sheriff Howard H. Earle concluded “non-stress trained subjects performed at a significantly higher level in the areas of field performance, job satisfaction, and performance acceptability by persons served.”
Yet, as the Texas academy’s video shows, law enforcement training has instead moved away from the altogether more effective methods of training recruits.
Despite ongoing significant support for American police by the general public, brutal incidents of violence carried out by law enforcement continue to increase. While opposition understandably vilifies the individual officers for such violent acts, the single most effective means of halting the general police culture, which often emphasizes an us versus them atmosphere, has been largely ignored.
Police advocates and those infuriated over killings and brutality would best be served to unite behind a call for an end to training that does nothing but perpetuate the problem.
A Chicago Police Officer who responded to a call for assistance by killing an unarmed 19-year-old college student and a neighbor, who was uninvolved in the situation, has now filed a lawsuit against the estate of the student HE killed — saying the shooting left him traumatized.
Officer Robert Rialmo is inexplicably seeking $10 million in damages from the estate of Quintonio LeGrier — apparently because killing someone is so traumatic, he must also sue for what he did.
According to the Associated Press, Rialmo’s attorney, Joel Brodsky, “said it was important in the charged atmosphere [in Chicago] to send a message that police are not ‘targets for assaults’ and [they] ‘suffer damage like anyone else.’”
Attorney Basileios Foutris is representing Antonio LeGrier in the wrongful death suit he filed days after Quintonio’s death and said he was astonished at the “temerity” Rialmo has displayed in suing the still-grieving family of the man he shot.
“That’s a new low, even for the Chicago Police Department,” he said. “First you shoot them then you sue them.”
Chicago Police have come under intense scrutiny for a number of questionable uses of force, among other issues, and the U.S. Dept. of Justice is currently conducting a thorough investigation into possible civil rights violations.
Quintonio LeGrier was killed on December 26, after his father summoned police for what he thought would be help handling the distraught teen. Instead of giving aid, Rialmo shot LeGrier — six times — as well as neighbor, Bettie Jones, who had simply been watching for police to direct them to the appropriate apartment. Though a statement from police wasn’t forthcoming at the time of the incident, they did say LeGrier was “combative” and carrying a baseball bat.
Rialmo’s lawsuit offers the first account he’s given of the shooting — which, not surprisingly, differs from the family’s description, as well as the vague information given by police at the time. According to the AP, the suit claims Quintonio swung the baseball bat at the officer’s head at close range. The lawsuit states:
“The fact that LeGrier’s actions had forced Officer Rialmo to end LeGrier’s life and to accidentally take the innocent life of Bettie Jones has caused, and will continue to cause, Officer Rialmo to suffer extreme emotional trauma."
While Rialmo claims LeGrier was “3 or 4 feet away” from him and was advancing aggressively with the bat, descriptions from LeGrier’s and Jones’ families say the officer was 20 or 30 feet away when he fired his weapon — and therefore could not possibly have feared for his life.
Additionally, Quintonio placed the original call to 911. As Foutris stated,
“If you’re calling multiple times for help are you going to charge a police officer and try to hit him with a bat? That’s ridiculous.”
An FBI investigation of the shooting has been requested.
Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor and current defense attorney who is not involved with this case, told the AP such a lawsuit is highly unusual, and “said it appeared intended to intimidate LeGrier’s family. He said he had never heard of an officer blaming his shooting victim for causing trauma.”
It’s also questionable whether the courts will even hear Rialto’s suit.
The AP said a spokesperson for the police department declined to comment about the lawsuit.
Maybe if Officer Rialmo hadn’t shot and killed an unarmed teenage college student and ‘accidentally’ shot a neighbor in the neck, but had instead used de-escalation techniques and any number of less-than-lethal options, like backing up, perhaps he wouldn’t be ‘suffering’ so horribly — and these families would not have lost their loved ones.
Besides, as Turner said of the emotional toll policing often causes, “That’s a known part of the job.”