Part of a Presque Isle Police Department cruiser is seen in this BDN file photo. Credit: File

A proposal by the Presque Isle police chief, urging cops to field test potentially lethal drugs with a chemical pouch, has stirred debate inside the department, after two high-ranking officers cited safety concerns over the widely discouraged practice.

Chief Matt Irwin informed the city’s 18-person department in an email sent late last month that officers should return to the department’s former practice of using “presumptive drug test pouches” to determine whether substances they seize during an arrest are, in fact, illegal drugs.

Following other Maine and national law enforcement agencies, Presque Isle police stopped using the pouches — in which officers mix suspected drugs with color-changing chemicals — because of the rise of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that can cause someone to overdose if the powder is inhaled or comes into contact with the skin.

Since 2016, the department has instead waited days or weeks for test results to come back from a lab while suspected drug offenders remain at large, sometimes hiding from police before they can come back with an arrest warrant, Irwin said.

The chief is now pushing to reinstate the practice in a move to get tougher on offenders, who feel emboldened by the department’s current “catch and release” practice, he said. The pouches would eliminate the waiting period, allowing police to immediately establish probable cause to make an arrest, he said.

But some officers have questioned the risk of such action. Hours after Irwin sent a June 20 email recommending the renewed testing, Sgt. Joey Seeley urged him to reconsider the policy.

“We have a young department, and I would hate to see an officer open up a container of powder to test it and have an accidental exposure that could potentially kill them,” Seeley wrote.

He pointed out that MDEA recommends against the pouches when an officer suspects fentanyl might be present, which experts say now could be the case in most Maine street drugs. His position was backed in an email from Chief Deputy Laurie Kelly.

“Everything we do involves a level of risk,” Irwin wrote in response to Seeley. “Surely there is a way to adequately minimize risk while ensuring criminal conduct is addressed in a timely way.”

The debate — which is still playing out in the department, with neither side budging and the policy put on hold — illustrates the way fentanyl has created new burdens for police departments grappling with drug crimes.

Across Maine, departments are struggling for the resources and solutions in the fight against an increasingly deadly drug crisis. Last year, a record 418 Mainers fatally overdosed, a number that has soared with the rising prevalence of fentanyl.

No U.S. police officers have fatally overdosed in the line of duty after coming into contact with fentanyl, according to The Associated Press. However, spills causing fentanyl to go airborne forced the Cumberland County Jail to shut down twice in the past two months and required officers to seek precautionary medical treatment.

Presque Isle City Manager Martin Puckett said the decision whether to use the pouches will be made after he evaluates whether the policy is safe and financially feasible. He is looking into whether the city’s insurance covers the practice under its workers compensation policy.

Irwin, who came to Presque Isle seven years ago from Orlando, Florida, has stood by his recommendation in the meantime.

In an interview, he suggested that officers could perform the tests at the police station, wearing protective gear and near naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote. That is a recommendation he made in the policy he emailed to officers late last month, but that policy also notes that it may be necessary to perform tests in the open air with the caution that “extreme care should be taken in windy or otherwise adverse conditions.”

He echoed Puckett, saying it would be cost prohibitive to follow suit with larger departments like Portland and Bangor, and purchase a “TruNarc” analyzer, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The device field tests drugs using a laser and does not involve removing powders from a package.

And even without the testing, he said, officers are at risk of exposure when performing regular duties, like pat downs and traffic stops.

“I’m certainly not looking to increase the danger for the officer — I’m not trying to put them at greater risk,” he said. “We’re just not in a place where we can ignore what is happening in front of us.”

As police chief, he said he feels pressured to take meaningful actions that will improve Presque Isle, where street drug violations have increased. “Neighbors can’t let their kids out to ride bicycles for fear of that kind of stuff,” he said.

Most officers in the department are behind him. “Glad to see we are going back to taking care of business on scene, not when it’s more convenient for the suspect!” one officer wrote him in an email. But Seeley and Kelly are not in support of the measure, he said.

“Yes, we learn by our unfortunate (sometimes lethal) mistakes and, agreeably, it’s why we do particular tasks a certain way,” Kelly wrote in an email, citing a list of other departments that have done away with the pouches, and pointing out their flaws, such as false positives. “Bottom line, my (probably unpopular) analogy of field testing any unknown drug/narcotic is like clearing a weapon by putting it to your head and pulling the trigger (that is why we don’t do it that way).”

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.