LEWISTON – Police personnel in the city have been working under a new drug-testing policy since early March, as the city awaits formal approval from the Maine Department of Labor.

Negotiations on the policy began last spring as part of the city and Police Department’s response to the overdose death of officer Nicholas Meserve in February 2019, which brought to light a lack of universal drug-testing policies for law enforcement.

Late Lewiston police officer Nicholas Meserve, right, is pictured in 2016. The Police Department has been working under a new drug-testing policy since March, implemented in the wake of Meserve’s death from an accidental opioid overdose in February 2019. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo

According to Deputy City Administrator Denis D’Auteuil, the city and local chapter of the Maine Association of Police came to terms on the policy in late February, with the union agreeing to implement the new drug-testing policy in exchange for changes to the department’s policies on facial hair and tattoos.

The policy stipulates that drug-testing will be conducted for new applicants, as well as “employees that are under reasonable suspicion” as defined in the policy.

D’Auteuil said Monday that the two sides agreed to the new policy prior to conducting contract negotiations for the recently-approved contract that will take the department through June 2024.

Police Chief Brian O’Malley said the department is working under the new policy while it awaits formal state approval. Once the policy is approved by the Maine Department of Labor, it will be incorporated into the contract language and implemented.

“We are awaiting (Maine Department of Labor) approval but if an incident were to occur this is the policy that we would follow,” O’Malley said. “I anticipate, as does the union, that it will be approved due to the fact that similar policies were approved for other police agencies.”

The city and union signed off the policy agreement March 3.

According to the policy, at the time any city official with hiring authority makes an offer of employment to an applicant, the offer will be conditional upon test results.

Additionally, “a supervisor or administrator may, upon reasonable suspicion and after at least attempting to consult with a higher-ranking supervisor, ask any on-duty employee to submit to an immediate drug test.”

The policy states the supervisor must submit an “observed behavior checklist” regarding the employee to his/her supervisor “within 24 hours of the observed behavior or before the results of the controlled substance test are released, whichever is earlier.” A copy of the observed behavior checklist will also be provided to the employee, it states.

The employee’s supervisor will then “immediately advise the Chief of Police or designee of the ‘determination of reasonable suspicion.'”

According to the policy, when reasonable suspicion is the grounds for requiring a drug test, the employee will be placed on administrative leave (with no reduction in pay or benefits) until the test results are available and a preliminary administrative review has been conducted.

An introduction to the policy states it is intended “To ensure the integrity of the Lewiston Police Department, protect the citizens of this community, and preserve public trust and confidence in our agency …”

The policy is also designed to provide employees with access to confidential counseling and/or rehabilitation programs.

If an employee tests positive, they are referred to the city’s employee assistance program, which provides counseling and access to substance abuse professionals, who will arrange for up to six months in a rehabilitation program. If the employee chooses not to participate in a rehabilitation program, they will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination. No disciplinary action will be taken against an employee who voluntarily participates in the program, the policy states.

In a news release last May announcing the overdose death, which was determined to be caused by opioids, O’Malley said the city was already in negotiations with the police union “to establish a drug testing policy as a means of identifying potential substance use issues and providing resources for employees to deal with dependency or addiction issues.”

The policy states testing will screen for drugs such as opioids, methamphetamine and amphetamine, cocaine, PCP, and marijuana.

The Police Department does not permit an employee to use or possess marijuana, even if the employee has a medical marijuana card with caregiver or patient status in Maine.

The updated facial hair and tattoo policies clarify acceptable mustache and beard lengths and allow officers to have visible tattoos, except on the head, neck or hands.

However, O’Malley said, due to the COVID-19 crisis, and officers having to be “fit tested” for N95 masks, “they cannot have beards at this time.”

Last week, the City Council signed off on a new police union contract that will take the department through June 2024.

Officials said the agreement, which came more than a year before the current contract expires, is a sign that both sides are looking out for the best interest of the city, especially during the unprecedented public health crisis.

Tom Murphy, president of the local police union, said while the union has agreed to the terms, the contract will not be finalized until the union takes a formal vote to approve it, which has been stalled due to the coronavirus. He expects a vote to occur remotely this week.

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