S.D. Police Consider Electronic Drug Detector

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An electronic drug detector was given a public demonstration at police headquarters Friday, but drug-sniffing canines don't have to worry about losing their jobs. It will be several months before the department decides whether to buy the machine.

"I think it's great, and is something that applies to the San Diego Police Department," said Matt Weathersby, the department's community relations spokesman.

"We're not trying to replace dogs, and we're not competing with them," said Dr. David Fine, head of the drug and bomb detection program of Thermedics Inc., the Massachusetts-based maker of the machine. "They can be used together. The machine can be used to support the canine findings or to help train them."

The detector is equipped to pick up quantities of narcotics undetectable to the human eye, Fine said. According to Weathersby, dogs are trained to detect usable or larger amounts of drugs.

The decision to purchase the machine lies with the police administration office, which will judge whether it is sound, whether it is needed and whether the funds are available, Weathersby said.

"There will be months of testing before a decision is made," he said. "We want to be 100% sure that the (machine) is correct, because the evidence we gather has to hold up in court. Our own lab will evaluate it later and make comparisons."

The $150,000 machine, called the Sentor, was observed for three days at the Police Department. It was demonstrated by representatives of Thermedics, which develops and manufactures biomedical products and analytical instruments.

Sentor is an offshoot of an explosives detector that was manufactured five years ago for the U. S. Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which protects American personnel in foreign countries, Fine said. The new machine is adapted to detect drugs, and is programmed for cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Other drugs can also be programmed in.

Thermedics representatives have been in San Diego for two weeks showing their product to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Fine said several agencies are considering purchasing the device but that no contracts have been signed.

The device picks up air molecules from enclosed areas such as packages, luggage and cars. A detachable, hand-held sampling gun sucks in air before being placed in a portable unit that, in 30 seconds, separates and analyzes any narcotics.

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