Can San Francisco Narcotics Cops Play 'Mr. Wizard?'

Categories: Crime
'Looks like you've got some primo blow there, Billy...'
With San Francisco crime lab tech Deborah Madden accused of going Scarface with the lab's coke stash, the police now are going to try their hand at Mr. Wizard.

Backing up: Since the crime lab's narcotics unit has gone dark pending an investigation, the district attorney has had to dismiss more than 100 drug cases because there was no lab worker to certify that yes, that rock is crack, not a lump of candle wax.

But things are a' changin: police spokesperson Lieutenant Lyn Tomioka says that narcotics and gang task force officers were trained this week in a drug test method that seems just a bit like an eighth-grade science experiment: The officer plunks the sample into a vial filled with a liquid that will then change color indicating if the sample is, indeed, an illegal substance or not (remember to wear those goggles!). That would be sufficient evidence for the district attorney to charge the case.

The drug sample must be re-tested and weighed by one of the regional crime labs covering for the out-of-commission San Francisco lab before the case proceeds . Still, as you might expect, some of the city's public defenders are not impressed by the cops-turned-chemists plan.

"I think it's laughable," says public defender Rebecca Young, who regularly represents accused drug dealers. "It's not tested by a chemist, and there's no rigor to a curbside food-coloring test. Part of the reason you have a crime lab is it's science. It's not police work."

Still, experts say there's nothing to worry about. Yes, Tomioka says the police drug testing is "completely new" for San Francisco. But it's actually a pretty normal practice across the country. Ralph Keaton, the executive director of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board, says "It's not uncommon that police officers are trained to do preliminary testing to see if there's a possibly a controlled substance present." Keaton told SF Weekly he sees no problem with the plan.

Young obviously does. "So are they going to limit this to the police officers who have taken chemistry in high school? What they're telling us by doing that is there is no science in the testing of drugs."

C'mon! Anyone who watched Mr. Wizard knows you don't need a science degree to be a scientist! But we're starting to wonder about the purity of the baking soda in that volcano experiment... 
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