Drug recognition experts vital to taking impaired drivers off the road
FRISCO — The Colorado Department of Transportation and law enforcement agencies around the state are dedicated to taking impaired drivers off the road.
But while police officers are well equipped to identify individuals who are driving drunk using standardized field sobriety testing, other drugs can be much harder to spot. In come the drug recognition experts, a group of specially trained police officers in agencies across the state equipped to help identify drivers using myriad substances.
In Summit County — which has the 5th most DUI arrests per capita in the state — the vast majority of DUI arrests are related to alcohol, but about 22% of arrests involve one or more drugs, according to a report by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.
“CDOT is committed to stopping all incidents of impaired driving in Colorado,” CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew said in a news release. “However, for those individuals who choose to ignore the law and drive under the influence of alcohol, drugs or alcohol and drugs, these highly trained experts are ready to apprehend and remove these dangerous drivers from our roadways.”
The Drug Recognition Experts Program emerged from a Los Angeles Police Department initiative in the early 1970s, when officers suspected many of the individuals arrested for a DUI were under the influence of drugs but didn’t have the skillset to support their claims.
The program was formalized in the early 1980s with the support of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and was expanded as a pilot program to Colorado, New York, Arizona and Virginia in 1987. Today, under the coordination of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the program exists in all 50 states along with Canada and a number of other countries.
The idea behind the program is simple: provide law enforcement agencies with officers who are experts in identifying substances in individuals arrested for DUIs or other offenses. According to officials, the drug recognition experts are a huge help in evaluating drivers following fatal crashes, observing and testing suspected inebriated drivers and even providing expert testimony in court.
“These are fine officers,” Colorado program coordinator Kim Ferber said. “They’re what I would say are some of the most committed police officers in the state because of the level of training and research necessary in the process, and the fact that they have to provide expert testimony — a much higher threshold than normal testimony. They’re 100 percent committed to stopping impaired driving, and they definitely have the training and the tools to do it.”
Becoming a drug recognition expert is the third and highest level of training an officer can achieve in the field, in addition to standardized field sobriety testing and advanced roadside impaired driving enforcement. While the bulk of the training occurs over nine days, it’s quite intense — including more than 1,200 pages of material and seven written examinations before any field testing.
Ferber noted that officers are trained to complete a 12-step process anytime they’re asked to assist in a call. The testing begins with regular procedures you’d see in an average field sobriety test, including administering breath alcohol testing, taking vitals and performing divided attention testing (for example, asking a suspect to walk in a straight line and turn, or stand on one leg). Drug recognition experts also are equipped to search for injection sites for drugs, perform toxicology tests, and analyze eye movement and muscle tone — things that certain substances can affect to a great extent.
Officers receive comprehensive training to pick up on seven drug categories, including central nervous system depressants (alcohol, sleeping pills, etc.), hallucinogens (psilocybin, LSD), narcotic analgesics (pain relievers), cannabis, inhalants (glue, nail polish remover), dissociative anesthetics (ketamine, PCP), and central nervous system stimulants (cocaine, amphetamine).
Once an officer completes classroom and practical testing on the drugs, they’ll need to complete a field certification course with one of the instructors and must return about six months later for a final knowledge exam. Ferber said that in order to retain their expert standing, they also need to return the next year for a two-day refresher course and are required to return for training every other year to maintain competency.
Ferber noted that she helps to teach one or two classes a year, and the group shoots for about 20 individuals per class — though at least a couple tend to wash out during a day-two exam in each class. There are about 226 active drug recognition experts in the state across 79 agencies, including many with Colorado State Patrol.
For law enforcement agencies, having the help of drug recognition experts can make a vital difference in prosecuting a case.
“Every officer has the training to say, ‘I believe I have probable cause to put this person under arrest,’” Ferber said. “But the (drug recognition experts) have extensive training into the specific drug categories and how those affect the body.
“It’s important in terms of the prosecution purposes that the court has the ability to see the totality of the case from the initial contact all the way through the full investigation. They work side by side with crash investigators to culminate a comprehensive investigation. In my experience reviewing some of these investigations, drug recognition experts are vitally important in adding their expertise day-to-day around the state and even more so on major crashes.”
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