Police’s data-driven fight against the drug epidemic

In the modern age of technology, it seems that successful businesses are more data-driven to optimize their earnings. Many departments in the public sector leverage data-driven approaches to solve problems that affect their citizens. Why can’t the same be done to enhance the way the U.S. is combating the drug epidemic?

In the sciences, more data is typically better than less data. If you run an experiment and collect just one data point, how do you know that one data point is accurate? You do a second trial of the experiment. Then when the first trial and second trial data are completely different, what do you do? You do a third trial of the experiment… and so on. Essentially, the more trials of the same experiment you do, you will eventually get to the point where most of your trials yield data results that are fairly similar to each other (while a small number of trials yield data that do not agree with the consensus) and as a scientist, you can make a valid conclusion of your overall experiment based on the consensus data points.

There are so many drug arrests and drug samples that get seized on a regular basis. Ideally, the seized drugs would be sent to the crime lab to determine exactly what is in the drug (because police drug test kits do not provide a full analysis of a drug sample’s composition). In the U.S. there are only ~400 publicly-funded crime labs to handle the drug case workload for ~18,000 law enforcement agencies. Simply put, these crime labs do not have the labor capacity to handle cases and collect data for every single drug that gets seized by a law enforcement officer in the United States. Many crime labs already deal with case backlogs that make some of their case turnaround times exceed 30 days, so adding more cases would only increase the burden on them.

In a discussion with a former Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) agent, I learned that, at least in Florida, an estimated 20% of the drugs confiscated by police are actually tested by the FDLE crime labs. Just to note, there are only 6 FDLE crime labs to handle drug cases for the majority of Florida, while ~5 counties have their own crime labs (outside of FDLE control) to do their own drug sample testing. If only 1 out of 5 (20%) drug samples are getting full case reports, who is to say the other 4 of the 5 (80%) drugs do not contain fentanyl, carfentanil, other synthetic opioids, or some novel drug crime labs are not even aware of yet? In the case of narcotics and drug enforcement, law enforcement agencies are missing out on so much valuable data. There is little chance for police drug interdiction (the prevention of illicit and illegal drugs from reaching their destination) activities to be effective enough to curb drug overdoses when the drug intelligence is lacking a large amount of valuable data.

There needs to be a way that allows police agencies to capture the other 80% of data they are currently missing. Public budgets are not flexible enough to just build new crime labs and hire thousands of crime lab analysts to accommodate for the large number of drug samples that need to be tested every day. The solution is innovation and new technology. What if there were police drug test kits that rapidly provided the complete composition of the drug sample, or what law enforcement officers know as the drug signature? The missing data could be easily captured without adding further burden to crime lab case loads. Now what if the drug signature data reporting and filing was automated, compiled, and information that traces the drug sample to its suppliers or predicts future distribution trends could be obtained in minutes? Imagine how much rapid, real-time drug intelligence would impact the drug interdiction capabilities of every police department in America. Police would be able to target the “big fishes” and cut off the unsafe, illicit drug supplies more efficiently and effectively.

This is my case for developing new drug law enforcement technology. Recent public health data indicates that current public policies need to shift to focus on innovative ideas and solutions to combat the U.S. drug overdose epidemic. Harm reduction, more effective early education about drugs, better addiction treatment access and options, and more effective police drug interdiction (which is where IDEM Systems’ technology will make an impact) are just some of the ideas experts have suggested. It is up to our elected and public officials to evaluate, adopt, and implement these solutions for the sake of their communities.

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