Photo courtesy of SASRAD.

Photo courtesy of SASRAD.

Have you ever encountered a meth lab? Or wanted to test a group of gang members to determine who fired the gun used in a shooting? Then you could benefit from the technologies that detect the presence of unknown substances. They aren't just for specialized units anymore. More individual police officers are using these devices as they become more advanced, portable, and suitable for everyday use.

Contraband Detectors

At the border with Mexico, at ports, and even during traffic stops, officers use fiberscopes and density meters to find contraband. That means officers no longer have to tear up a vehicle or house to find hidden ill-gotten goods.

"In the early 1980s, there wasn't much technology to help the Border Patrol to determine if someone was smuggling something inside a vehicle," says Anthony Harris of CSECO (Campbell/Harris Security Equipment Company). "The officers were just using their hands and maybe a couple of primitive tools to open up different parts of the car, and hopefully they would just see something with their eyes."

But it takes a long time to conduct a vehicle search by hand, and it's easy to miss something if you don't know exactly what to look for. Then there's the issue of ripping apart seats and doors only to find nothing there. Not only do officers then need to deal with the angry driver, but they often need to pay for the damage.

Around 30 years ago, CSECO founder Pat Campbell was asked by the federal government to come up with a version of his soil density gauge that could be used to detect contraband for Customs. The result was the Buster, which uses back-scatter technology. The device emits low-intensity gamma radiation to measure the density of any object up to about six inches deep. Certain standard density ratings are expected from a door, for example. If the density meter gets readings that are higher or lower than normal, it means something is out of place—and most likely that it's illicit cargo such as drugs or money or possibly explosives. Buster units with "Rad-Aware" can even be used to detect radiation, including dirty bombs.

SASRAD's very lightweight Xpose density meter also displays numbers and a graph to show roughly the shape of what's being investigated, which is helpful. But while density readers from CSECO, SASRAD, Field Forensics, and Smiths Detection can tell you if contraband exists in a space, they can't determine what it is. That's where fiberscopes excel.

Fiberscopes use thousands of bundled fiber optic strands to provide a view inside of a vehicle fuel tank, dashboard, or door, for example. These flexible, articulated handheld devices with an eyepiece at one end and a lens at the other are very narrow, so they can reach places the eyes can't see. Drilling a small hole allows enough space for a fiberscope to enter and show an officer what is inside without causing undue damage to a vehicle or even a home's walls.

Ted Sas of SASRAD says his company's Ultimate Fiberscope has been used to find "everything," including AK-47 ammo practically filling up an entire fuel tank. There was just enough fuel to get across the border. "One client used our fiberscope to see inside the dashboard of a car, and he saw a face," says Sas. "A young lady was being smuggled across the border."

Large X-ray machines are also used to detect contraband, but they are mostly used at large checkpoints and must be driven or walked through.

Any of these devices could also help to detect problems at special events. As can devices that use the same gamma rays in density meters for detecting contraband to detect radiation itself.

Currently being used mostly by firefighters and hazmat teams, Field Forensics' NanoRaider is a pager-sized radiation detector that would be easy for police officers to carry on their belts. President and CEO Jim Burdick admits they're prohibitively expensive, but he believes the cost will go down over time and that the benefits will outweigh the expense, especially for certain situations.

"They could be used at special event checkpoint security spots where crowds have to go through an entry gate," says Burdick. "In that case you could use the larger IdentiFinder. Or you could take it further and use a radiation portal from our Stride series, which would give you networked radiation detection."

Colorimetric Tests

For many other substances, colorimetric tests provide a proven form of reliable detection. It seems pretty simple: If a test changes color, it means it's positive. There's actually a lot of chemistry behind it, but for officers, using these colorimetric tests is simpler than ever.

The Chameleon from Morphix Technologies uses colorimetric chemistry to alert officers to the presence of chemicals, drugs, and explosives, depending on the "cassette" being carried. The device uses no batteries or electricity and has no alarms. You simply look at the cassette, usually strapped to your forearm on an adjustable band, and see if any colors have changed to indicate the presence of hazardous substances. The color changes are distinct enough to be seen in low light. The lack of lights and alarms on the Chameleon means it won't alert suspects to your presence, and the simple design leaves little chance for the device to malfunction.

Prepared kits for different situations make using the Chameleon even easier. Instead of choosing individual tests for individual chemicals, you choose the kit most applicable to your situation. The Morphix Clan-Meth Kit, for example, includes indicators for acid, ammonia, phosphine, iodine, and hydrogen sulfide to detect substances found in a clandestine meth lab. This can be very important for rural deputies and officers who are most likely to come in contact with cooking operations. Among the other kits available are the Chemical Suicide kit and the broader Hazmat Kit, which detects all of the substances in both the Clan-Meth Kit and the Chemical Suicide Kit.

"The Chameleon allows officers to have something very low cost that you can train on in literally six minutes with a training video, and for two years they can have it in the back of their vehicle," says Kimberly Pricenski, Morphix Technologies' vice president of sales and marketing. "Even if they only use it one time, that police department can ensure the safety of that officer, as well as save time off and expense to taxpayers from long-term health effects they could have gotten from exposure."

Morphix Technologies continues to develop new cassettes and kits to help officers detect emerging threats. "I think police officers are often thought of as coming in with their guns, but sometimes with what they're running into, their form of protection can't only be their gun," says Pricenski.

Ampoules of solution, such as those from MMC International, can also be used to test the presence of many substances, including a wide range of drugs (even bath salts) and explosives. You put a portion of whatever substance you're testing into the ampoule of solution and see if it changes color, and note what color it becomes.

Field Forensics introduced drug test kits at the end of last year to make it easier for police to collect drug samples and identify them outside of the lab. "If you're looking at cocaine or another powder, it's usually required that an officer find a way to put it in a bag and look for color change. But the sampler kit is what they dab on the material, so they don't need another method of grabbing it," says Craig Johnson, president and CEO of Field Forensics. "And that's important if you're out in the field and it's windy or it's dark or you're worried about traffic."

Field Forensics also sells kits to detect explosives precursors. "Someone working for the FBI or a tactical unit might use our kits to ID things found in a suspect's home or something like that, to see if there might be any evidence of explosives being used," says Johnson.

Cards and Wipes

Without the use of scopes or colors, certain specialized devices can now identify trace amounts of substances when a card is placed within a machine.

The Griffin desktop mass spectrometer from FLIR is an explosives and narcotics trace detector. "It's a lightweight and portable system that will be able to detect targets of interest and breaks down the chemical sample presented to it and the specific chemical fingerprints to determine if they present a threat," says Burdick. "If you've seen at airports where they swipe backpacks, that's what's done here. It can be used for trace explosives and now narcotics."

In addition to its utility at airports, the Griffin can detect trace amounts of explosives and drugs at special events, any checkpoints, and in prisons. It could also be used for car searches. An officer swipes a surface—luggage, car trunk lid, steering wheel, phone, or hand—and inserts the "sample ticket" into the Griffin. An extensive internal software library detects and identifies the substance and returns a lead within 10 seconds with a less than 1% false positive rate, according to Burdick. The only wrinkle is that you need an electric power source to operate the system.

The advantage of RedXDefense's XCAT is that it is entirely portable, weighing under one pound and running on a rechargeable battery. It also detects a wide range of substances—narcotics, explosives, and gunshot residue—depending on the card used, and is easy to use.

"It's meant to take away the subjectivity in the process," says RedXDefense Chief Technology Officer Arman Ghodousi. "It's fairly intuitive to operate and completely objective."

Select the test card that matches the suspected substance, then sample a trace amount of the substance on the card, and insert it into the XCAT. The operator receives notice if the substance is present via a simple indicator, a red light for "yes" and a green light for "no." Detection occurs in less than a minute, depending on the substance being analyzed.

Keeping Up With Demand

With as many detection methods that exist to help protect officers and help them put away criminals, there will never be a stop to the need for such technology. Advances in substance detection put law enforcement officers ahead of the curve as much as possible, but there are always more obstacles to overcome.

"I think it's important that we keep developing new product, because the bad guys are thinking of new ways to smuggle contraband," says CSECO's Harris. "If we don't keep up with them, they'll find a way to get around it eventually. As we keep coming up with new technology, it helps us to stay one step ahead of those guys."

Pricenski of Morphix agrees with this principle in regard to hazardous substances. "As we see new threats emerging, we are developing the cassettes we need for the chemicals we need to detect and then putting them in specific kits. And sadly, I think that situation will get worse and not better." 

For More Information

American Science and Engineering

Campbell Harris/CSECO

Delta X-Ray

Field Forensics

FLIR Detection/ICx

MMC International

Morphix Technologies



Smiths Detection