Investigation: Should officers be randomly tested for drugs?

Investigation: Should officers be randomly tested for drugs? »Play Video

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Kern County firefighters and school bus drivers across California are subject to random drug testing.

So why aren't local law enforcement officers, who carry guns, held to the same standards?

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The answer is simple: The topic has never been seriously discussed during past union negotiations.

"It's shocking, it's embarrassing, but it's reality," said Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood.

Each officer undergoes drug testing as part of the hiring process, as well as a polygraph test, added two years ago. And, officers can be faced with drug testing for "reasonable suspicion" of being under the influence.

But neither the Bakersfield Police Department nor the Kern County Sheriff's Office conducts random drug testing.

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In December, veteran Bakersfield Officer Ofelio Lopez was arrested for allegedly pocketing and using drugs that he confiscated on the job. It was just the latest such incident to hit public consciousness.

"Well, I think random drug testing would be good for all public employment agencies," Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson said. "Not only because we're held to a higher standard, but that we really are trying to be transparent with the public. It goes a long way to building public trust if they know we are out there to serve them without having drugs in their system,."

When it comes to California law, there is none regarding random drug testing. Some law enforcement agencies have it, and some don't. It's their choice, as long as their unions agree.

So, why aren't local police conducting random drug testing?

"Well, I think informally its been discussed in the past," Williamson said. "Since I've been the chief of police, we haven't been involved in contract negotiations. So we haven't had the opportunities to discuss it, and it has not been brought forward due to the lack of negotiations."

Youngblood also voiced support for enacting a system of random drug testing. He went as far as calling on the union to begin negotiations over testing. That move, he said, was prompted by the Eyewitness News inquiry.

The sheriff acknowledged that at least two officers in recent years were fired for methamphetamine use. But, a public records request to the sheriff's department revealed that from 2008-11, of 30 officers suspected of illegal drug use, 10 tested positive. Citing privacy laws, the department would not discuss what happened next.

"We know that deputy sheriffs are human beings, and they make mistakes, and they do stupid things sometimes," Youngblood said. "We all do in life. But this is of utmost importance when you have a gun and a badge and you're out there serving the public."

Eyewitness News asked Will Vizzard, a criminal justice professor at Sacramento State University, why there seems to be a spike in drug cases involving officers. He downplayed that perception.

"I don't think you are hearing more and more about officers going bad," Vizzard said. "I think peace officers today are honest or more honest then they ever have been."

Vizzard said implementation of random drug testing would depend on one department to the next.

"I'm not at all opposed to it, certainly. It's something that should be considered," Vizzard said in an interview via Skype.    

The topic of random drug testing for the sheriff's office is now before the Kern Law Enforcement Association, which represents the deputies. Its initial stance has been overwhelmingly positive.

"Our board met and discussed this issue, and the majority of the board is completely in support of random drug testing for illicit narcotics, illicit drugs," said KLEA president Marc Hiungs.

As for the Bakersfield Police Officers Association, its president said it is neither for nor against random drug testing, and that random drug testing hasn't been discussed as an issue.