SCOTIA, N.Y. (7/30/12) - The New York National Guard's Counterdrug Task Force provides specialized tools to law enforcement combating drug trafficking, including the Rapiscan system - a truck mounted x-ray - which enables law enforcement agencies to search for hidden drug compartments in seized vehicles.
A drug trafficker speeds his way up the New York Thruway. Ten pounds of marijuana are hidden in a compartment below his seat. He's nervous. He presses the gas pedal. He looks over his shoulder -- flashing lights.
And now he's in trouble.
He opens his window and the policeman notices a strong scent wafting from the car. But from where? The car is held for further analysis. The police officer calls for support.
And the New York Counterdrug Task Force answers.
Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Brian Gillis, who manages the scanners and other equipment at Counterdrug, estimates his unit is called to help law enforcement find hidden drug compartments 30 to 40 times a year.
The goal is to gather evidence, to find and identify narcotics -- all of the narcotics, no matter how cleverly hidden. Counterdrug offers several specialized tools to agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Defense, the Albany Police Department, and others.
Counterdrug offers these tools to law enforcement agencies at no cost, Army National Guard Col. Michael J. Sloma, New York Counterdrug coordinator, said.
"We have certain types of specialized equipment that we lend out to law enforcement agencies to help them fight drug trafficking in our communities," Sloma said.
"This allows smaller police departments to focus their budgets on their own needs," Sloma said, "while still having access to expensive and specialized equipment such as helicopters, night vision goggles and drug detection tools, all operated by experts with military skills and training."
One of the tools Counterdrug offers is the Rapiscan, which can scan entire vehicles, and another is the Itemiser, which uses ion technology to identify the trace remnants of narcotics, explosives and other substances.
Depending on the circumstances, these two tools can be at a site within an hour. Once there, Counterdrug personnel provide instruction on how to use the Rapiscan and the Itemiser. Their role is to be technical advisers - it's the police who do the policework.
"We're stewards of this equipment," Sloma said. "We make sure it's maintained and assessable, and we get it to where it's needed."
In the past, Gillis, said the Rapiscan has been used to break cases open. He recalls how once, during a double homicide investigation, investigators were unable to find the murder weapon. Then they scanned the suspect's car: they found a hidden compartment with two guns, cell phones and cash. One of those guns was the murder weapon.
The investigators got the conviction.
The Itemiser, too, helps law enforcement take drugs off New York's streets. The Itemiser has the size and appearance of an office printer. Gillis takes a flat swab and runs it across a $20 bill. He inserts the swab into a slot in the machine. Within seconds, the machine makes its analysis: no trace of drugs here.
He runs a swab against a chair was once exposed to heroin. He inserts the swab into the machine -- a positive.
Here's how it works: the Itemiser superheats each swab. Each substance reacts in a different way to this process. The Itemiser runs the results through a database. If the reaction matches that of an illegal substance, it will inform its operators within seconds. Gillis says it has a two percent false positive rate.
Tools such as the Itemiser are available to help law enforcement gather evidence and confirm suspicions, says Gillis. "If they suspect, this is how they can confirm," he says.
Gillis stresses that Counterdrug does not directly arrest or keep any information on individuals. Instead, Counterdrug provides tools such as the Rapiscan and Itemiser to help law enforcement focus on what they do best: apprehending the bad guys.