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Hendon Publishing

Speaking to the Scientists

Professor Stanley Parsons of the University of California at Santa Barbara Chemistry Department is one of very few professors who sits at the interface between law enforcement and scientific research. His laboratory has developed a quick and effective test for the date rape drug, GHB. After some further refinement, it will allow officers to use a simple test kit in order to determine whether the malicious substance is present in a variety of beverages.

Were it not for a series of fortunate events, Professor Parsons would not have been aware of the need within the law enforcement community for such a test. In this case, the issue of date rape drugs came up during a dinner conversation between a police chief and a local entrepreneur.

When the entrepreneur learned that the law enforcement officers in his community would love to have a field test for the increasingly popular date rape drug, he immediately contacted his friend Professor David Harris, who then referred him to Professor Parsons and asked him how hard it would be to develop such a test.

Intrigued by the idea of creating a small, portable, inexpensive method for detecting an illegal substance that can function in beer and other complicated mixtures, Professor Parsons accepted the challenge and assigned several graduate students from his research team to the project.

In my own experience as an engineering project, I was once assigned to the task of testing several methods for stopping Teflon coated “cop killer” handgun bullets. The professor that I was working for instructed us to construct several abrasive-laden, flexible composite panels that were specially designed to deform a speeding handgun round and strip the slippery coating from it before just before it hits the ballistic portion of a ballistic vest.

After a trip to the police training institute firing range with Lieutenant David Nelson of the University of Illinois Police Department, we learned that Teflon coated bullets are not nearly as great a threat to police officers as a garden variety rifle bullet. Until then, we were completely unaware that the current generation of soft body armor is incapable of stopping rifle bullets.

The take home message from this story is that some professors would love to solve technical problems faced by the law enforcement community, but few of them have an accurate picture of what those problems are. There are several efficient channels that can be used to communicate with a large number of scientists.

Science and engineering departments at state colleges and universities almost always have a weekly seminar during which they invite a guest speaker to give a one hour long talk in front of a crowd of professors and graduate students. This would provide a fantastic forum for members of the law enforcement community to communicate their needs to local scientists. Many professors and graduate students would take this as a welcome and intriguing segway from the humdrum of often bland and impractical scientific research.

Not all professors are interested in working on practical problems. Many of them prefer only to follow the path where their own curiosity leads them. Furthermore, the professors with the right skill set to solve a problem may not be local. For this reason, reaching out to the academic community on a larger scale may be appropriate.

In a perfect world, law enforcement groups such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriff’s Association would poll their members and publish an annual list of technological challenges for scientists and entrepreneurs. Furthermore, law enforcement officers could attend the meetings of the American Chemical Society and the Materials Research Society in order to present their challenges to a wider audience.

Building a relationship between your agency and a university has the potential to bear a great deal of fruit. The next time you think to yourself, “I wish there were a way to…” consider talking to someone at your local university about the problem.

Aaron Rowe is a doctoral candidate in Chemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a forensic engineer for accident reconstruction. He may be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Jan 2006

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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