On the mean streets of today’s America, the chances of a law enforcement officer coming into contact with a subject who may be under the influence of an illegal drug (or a legal drug) is almost more likely than not. It’s become commonplace.
Meanwhile, LEOs continue to be assaulted and feloniously killed at an alarming rate. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), there were 72 officers murdered in 2011. Of the 77 offenders identified in connection with these murders, eight of them—or 11%–were known to be under the influence of some type of drug.
In the same study, there were 54,744 reports of officers being assaulted. Of these, 11,496, or 21% were known to be under the influence of a controlled substance (FBI, 2011). This means that more than 1 in 5 persons assaulting law enforcement officers were determined to be under the influence of some type of drug. Given the uncertainty of reporting, the number could be higher.
We LEOs pride ourselves on being well trained and well equipped. We take advanced driving, defensive tactics, in-service criminal law and even verbal judo classes to enhance our job skills on the street. Many of our duties require us to deal with and come into contact with controlled substances and other illegal drugs on a regular basis. This includes the people that use and sell these dangerous drugs. Considering how frequently drug-related assaults occur, we must train officer as to when they may be dealing with an offender under the influence of drugs or a controlled substance.
The Drug Evaluation and Classification Program
Strictly speaking, the Drug Evaluation and Classification (DEC) Program was created to assist LEOs with an effective way to combat driving under the influence when the operator of a motor vehicle seemed to have very low or zero alcohol concentrations. Pioneering police officers with the LAPD in the early 1970s sat around a table (much like the originators of the highly successful Below 100 program) and decided to do something about it. These catalyst officers consulted with medical doctors, research psychologists, and other professionals and developed a simple, standardized procedure for recognizing drug influence and impairment.
Their efforts resulted in the development of a multi-step protocol to identify and classify drug impairment and the first DRE (Drug Recognition Expert) Program. Since then, the DRE is an accepted expert on this topic in the majority of states and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) approved the creation of the Drug Recognition Section for their prestigious organization.
Today, the process for becoming a DRE is rigorous, time consuming, scientific and not everyone’s cup of tea. Depending on where you’re employed, a DRE may be referred to as a “drug recognition examiner,” a “drug recognition evaluator,” a “DRT” (drug recognition technician,) or a “DRS” (drug recognition specialist.) All of these terms are acceptable and synonymous.
This article is not meant to persuade officers to become entranced with the prospect of becoming a DRE (that’s a matter for another article), but to make each and every officer that may come in contact with a member of general public a bit more aware of the possible objective signs that a person under the influence of a controlled substance or drug may display.
Many states and departments have already adopted training classes of limited hours to introduce or reacquaint officers with the concepts outlined in this article. The State of Washington has an excellent “Drugs that Impair Driving” course that touches on the skills of the DRE. California agencies sponsor “11550 H&S” training that also address recognizing when a person is under the influence of a controlled substance.
Physiology and Drugs
The DEC Program defines the term drug as “any substance that, when taken into the human body, can impair the ability of the person to operate a motor vehicle safely” (DEC Manual, 2011). Further, they break down these drugs in seven (7) major categories that are relevant to the DEC Program.
Some of the substances considered “drugs” by the medical field (e.g. nicotine and aspirin) are not considered drugs by the DEC Program and will not usually reflect on officer safety. Conversely, some substances that are not known to be drugs (such as model airplane glue) ARE considered such by the DEC Program and may have an impact on officer safety.
Each category of drug produces a different set of effects on the user. Each category of drug will cause the subject to exhibit different signs of drug influence, some of which may come to light during the course of a formal DEC evaluation. Of course, there are many individual factors that will affect how these signs are exhibited by the user, including, but not limited to, the tolerance level of the user, the size, weight and gender of the abuser, the method of ingestion, the length of time since ingestion and even the time of day and temperature may have an effect. There will be many more factors.
Additionally, officers (and the DRE) must also be aware of the possibility of polydrug use–the use of more than one category of drug simultaneously that may affect how the symptoms are exhibited–and how this possibility may “camouflage” the more obvious signs that an officer may normally detect. This practice is so common that officers should expect to encounter subjects under the influence of more than one category of drug more often than not.
The DEC process is a standardized and systematic process that is scientifically based on a complete set of observable signs and symptoms. To accurately and effectively complete this process requires the cooperation of the offender. For the officer making an initial citizen contact or dealing with an individual that is being non-compliant, complete cooperation is often a luxury the officer does not have.
Objective & Subjective Symptoms
The DRE will focus on careful observations of a subject’s appearance, behavior, psychophysical tests (SFST Battery) eyes, vital signs and other compiled evidence. The officer making initial contact with a subject under the influence is going to have to visually appraise his contact and make a relatively rapid determination of the subject, using the same factors as the DRE, with the caveat that he must do so nearly immediately and usually without the knowledge and permission of the offender.
However, it is these same “clues” that an officer who is not a trained DRE can pick up on that may alert the officer to the dangers that may be presented by an offender that is under the influence of drugs.
Windows to the Soul
One of the most important observations the officer in the field can make is to observe and interpret the eyes of the subject. Besides the obvious threats to an officer (violent, incoherent behavior) the eyes may provide not only the offender’s intentions, but they may also reveal the presence of an illegal drug in the subject’s body.
Again, the officer on the street is not likely going to be able to safely conduct the complete eye exam battery that the DRE employs such as HGN (horizontal gaze nystagmus), VGN (vertical gaze nystagmus), LOC (lack of convergence) or any of the pupil exams, but he can certainly determine if a subjects pupils are “not normal” in appearance and file that away into his mental box for reference.
Generally speaking, a normal pupil can range in size from 3.0 to 6.5 mm in diameter (depending on lighting conditions) and will react to light in a predictable manner. Certain drugs can cause the pupils to fluctuate in size and in their response to stimuli. When a person’s pupils are dilated (larger) there is the possibility of that the subject has ingested a central nervous system stimulant, such as cocaine or methamphetamine, a hallucinogen or even cannabis. A constricted (smaller) pupil could be indicative of the presence of a narcotic analgesic (such as heroin).
Observing a subject’s eyes and pupils is only the first indicator and clue an officer should be looking for. With any type of drug, the officer must elevate his degree of awareness and compensate for the possibility that the subject he is dealing with may be under the influence. Not only does an interpretation of the pupils allow for the officer to increase his level of wariness when interviewing a subject, but this knowledge can also be applied to a Terry-v.-Ohio stop-and-frisk or a search incident to arrest. Perhaps these clues can provide the arresting officer with an even greater possibility that the arrestee may have a hidden syringe somewhere on his person.
Being aware of an offender’s objective and subjective symptomology is a tool that every street cop should have. Evaluation and interpretation of the eyes are just the initial step. More to come …
Drug Evaluation and Classification Training (2011). U.S. Department of Transportation. Transportation Safety Institute. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
FBI Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted. (2011). United States Department of Justice. Criminal Justice Information Services Division. Retrieved March 4, 2013. www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/2011/officers-feloniously-killed