Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A series of unfortunate events

John Auerbach, Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health, has resigned. I have known John for at least 15years, since he was Commissioner of Health for the City of Boston. He is one of the most effective, progressive and selfless public servants there ever could be.

The news of the reason for this tragic turn of affairs is disturbing and perplexing. The Department of Public Health operates a laboratory in Jamaica Plain where they do the usual public health stuff: test mosquitoes for West Nile Virus, test bats for rabies, nasal swabs for influenza, identify the culprit in outbreaks of food-borne illness, yadda yadda yadda.

Presumably because it was convenient, the legislature gave the DPH laboratory the job of testing samples of suspected illicit drugs for law enforcement. (Hey, they already have a laboratory, let them do it.)  This has nothing to do with the Mission of the Department of Public Health, so it would not be terribly surprising if the Commissioner and other high-level functionaries in DPH didn't spend their days paying a whole lot of attention to what was going on there.

Now it turns out that since 2003, a chemist working in that laboratory was apparently faking it. The full details of what she was doing have not been made public, but apparently she was not following test protocols, would do things like add drugs from another case to make amounts large enough to qualify for a more severe charge, and possibly just flat reporting negative results as positive. Nobody has said why she might have done this, but one has to suppose that she thought her job was to help the cops get convictions, rather than determine the truth.

Anyhow, now that this has been discovered, it's the biggest mess since the Harlem wastewater treatment plant caught fire. (Bet you didn't remember that one.) Bigger. Much bigger. She worked on something like 34,000 cases, and now the defense attorneys are lining up to get tens of thousands of convictions overturned. Nobody has even started to imagine the lawsuits yet, the mind cannot encompass it.

Now, I don't happen to think that non-violent drug offenders should be criminally prosecuted in the first place. What's actually most disturbing about this, to me, is that there were 34,000 cases for her to work on. What a catastrophic waste of public resources and destruction of people's lives. Drug enforcement is fundamentally racist and socially counterproductive. But it is happening, and now the Commonwealth is going to be snarled in litigation and paying out damages that will drown the courts and drain the public coffers for a decade.

Actually it will be all for the good if they have to empty out the jails of people whose only offense was to be caught with pot or pills. But the political consequences will be appalling.


Anonymous said...

Oy vey. Beyond "what a mess."

Tony Mach said...

While I don't know if she faked all her tests, I wouldn't be the slightest surprised if the cops were systematically "leaning" on her to supply the results the cops "needed" – a quota to reach, and somesuch.

Tony Mach said...

“Police officer perjury in court to justify illegal dope searches is commonplace. One of the dirty little not-so-secret secrets of the criminal justice system is undercover narcotics officers intentionally lying under oath. It is a perversion of the American justice system that strikes directly at the rule of law. Yet it is the routine way of doing business in courtrooms everywhere in America.”