The blue-and-gray, hand-held instrument - called a TruNarc Analyzer - allows the task force to test any substance for the presence of narcotics, according to Mark Hopwood, a task force analyst.
TruNarc, which was approved for purchase by the Oxford City Council Feb. 26, cost $20,000 and can identify a substance in less than a minute.
The new technology will drastically limit the number of cases the task force sends to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences lab, Hopwood said.
The task force was given a TruNarc Analyzer to evaluate for 90-days in October by Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts company. During that time, 210 substances were evaluated and 32 percent of the cases from Calhoun County that would normally be sitting in an evidence locker were cleared, Hopwood said. Samples sent to the lab in Hoover on average take nearly 18 months to return, he said.
TruNarc matches substances through a database run by Thermo Scientific, which houses over 100 non-controlled substances and 60 controlled substances, according to Scott Fitzpatrick, safety and security specialist at Thermo Scientific.
Hopwood said the analyzer can scan solids and liquids, without even removing them from a container. He said it’s important for non-substances to be included in the database because a substance that looks like a narcotic isn’t always what it appears to be.
“We run across a lot of negatives and it’s still 18 months for those folks to get an answer,” Hopwood said.
The system is simple to use, according to Hopwood, and is kept up-to-date by plugging it into a laptop.
“Each time you sync (the TruNarc) to the computer, if something has been added to the database it automatically updates it,” Hopwood said.
Surrounding counties participating with the task force could receive their own TruNarc shortly, Hopwood said.
The task force is waiting to be approved for a $100,000 grant which will provide them with four more analyzers, he said.
Charlotte Hubbard, Oxford city councilwoman, said she’s proud of the council for approving the technology.
“This equipment helps us to be on the cutting edge,” Hubbard said.
Hubbard said even though Oxford purchased the equipment, it’s imperative that it’s used in surrounding areas.
“Drugs are not just a problem in one locale,” Hubbard said. “If we don’t control them everywhere we’re doing all our citizens an injustice.”
Hopwood worked as a forensic investigator for the Department of Forensic Sciences at McClellan for 22 years. When the lab closed due to budget cuts in 2011, Hopwood was hired by the task force to analyze local crimes.
District Attorney Brian McVeigh said his office noticed a severe lag from the Department of Forensic Sciences. McVeigh said with a backlog of more than 20,000 cases, finding a way to expedite the process was needed.
The analyzer helps to diminish the number of new cases sent to the lab for testing and allows older cases to be cleared if a person pleads guilty after a TruNarc test, McVeigh said.
“(TruNarc) has helped in not only convicting and indicting people, but also in exonerating people,” McVeigh said.
McVeigh said he’s had cases recently where someone was arrested for possession of a substance that appears to be a narcotic, but TruNarc quickly discovered it was not.
“Those cases are dismissed or a charge for imitation controlled substance can be brought,” McVeigh said.
Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge, who advocated for the TruNarc in front of the City Council, said he’s already used the analyzer in nearly 100 cases.
“This will make a very efficient way of clearing out drug cases and getting some type of judicial process done,” Partridge said.
Staff Writer Rachael Griffin: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RGriffin_Star.
Editor's note: This article has been modified from the version originally published to correct the name of the manufacturer of the TruNarc Analyzer. The company is Thermo Fisher Scientific of Waltham, Mass.