'A national problem': More cops should be trained to detect drivers high on weed, chief says
Since recreational weed became legal in Connecticut last year, Chief William Baldwin wants as many DRE-trained officers as possible
By Emily M. Olson
The Register Citizen, Torrington, Conn.
TORRINGTON, Conn. — When a police officer suspects a driver of being under the influence of alcohol, there are tests they can apply to find out — a Breathalyzer, which can show a person's blood alcohol level, or physical challenges such as walking a straight line.
But figuring out whether a driver is under the influence of marijuana is more difficult.
Since recreational marijuana became legal in Connecticut last year, local law enforcement has examined its own role in determining whether a person is under its influence. The resulting Drug Recognition Expert training, which began nationally in 2018, now is a requirement all police departments must follow.
Torrington recently approved an ordinance regulating smoking, including marijuana use, in public places, town parks and other places, allowing law enforcement to control its use.
Police Chief William Baldwin told the City Council Monday that his department has one DRE — an officer trained in detecting marijuana's influence on a driver. Now, based on a city or town's population, departments are required to have a certain number of trained officers on staff who are part of a team responding to accidents with injuries and/or fatalities.
"We'd like to have as many officers trained as we possibly can," Baldwin said. " I want DREs assigned to our accident investigation team."
City Councilwoman Keri Hoehne asked whether the DREs are required for every accident, "or is it just for fatal or serious injuries?"
"How many were there last year?" she asked.
"We did have five or six fatal accidents last year; their severity is increasing," Baldwin said. "We can only guess at why, but with summer coming on, motor vehicle accidents are increasing. The concern of law enforcement with the legalization of marijuana is that these accidents will increase.
"It's not just a Torrington problem, it's a national problem," the chief said.
"Officers have to be trained to detect possible drugged driving, and there are advanced roadside field sobriety tests that includes driving under the influence of drugs," Baldwin said. "The only way to detect drunk driving is with a blood alcohol test. Unfortunately, we don't have the technology yet, to test people who might be influenced by drugs or marijuana. There's no breather test yet ... saliva tests are coming, but they're not available yet."
The officer training program isn't available in Connecticut yet, either, according to the police chief. "The training program we want to use gives an officer the skills to test people he suspects are under the influence of drugs, including marijuana," he said.
According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the DRE program trains law enforcement officers and other approved public safety officials as DREs through a three-phase training process that includes 56 hours of classroom time and 40 to 60 hours of DRE Field Certification.
The training relies heavily on Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, according to the association, which provide the foundation for the program. "Once trained and certified, DREs become highly effective officers skilled in the detection and identification of persons impaired by alcohol and/or drugs. DREs are trained to conduct a systematic and standardized 12-step evaluation consisting of physical, mental and medical components," according to the association. "Because of the complexity and technical aspects of the DRE training, not all law enforcement officers may be suited for the training. Experience has shown that training a well-defined group of officers proficient in impaired driving enforcement works well and can be very effective."
The goals of the training are to determine whether a person is under the influence of a drug or drugs other than alcohol, the combined influence of alcohol and other drugs, or suffering from an injury or illness that shows signs similar to alcohol or drug impairment, according to the association.
DREs must be able to describe the involvement of drugs in impaired driving incidents; name the seven drug categories and recognize their effects; describe and properly administer the psychophysical and physiological evaluations used in the DRE procedures; prepare a narrative drug influence evaluation report; and discuss appropriate procedures for testifying in typical DRE cases, according to the association.
The next two-week training program is being offered in mid-June, in Arizona, according to the IACP. "It can be somewhat expensive to send officers to the training; it's an unfunded mandate," Baldwin said.
"The state requires now that if anyone's involved in a serious accident or fatality that a DRE has to respond to the scene with the accident investigation team," the chief said. "We're asking the City Council to approve the training. If there's an accident, we have one DRE now and he responds. If he's not available, we have to reach out to an outside agency, per our union contract. Troop B has a DRE."
(c)2022 The Register Citizen, Torrington, Conn.