4 safety tips for cops when dealing with a subject high on PCP
Follow these guidelines to minimize the risk of injury to yourself, other officers, the suspect and bystanders
PCP recently came back into the limelight after the controversial officer-involved shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In this case, the officer involved in the shooting was a Drug Recognition Expert and said that she believed Crutcher was under the influence of a drug, possibly PCP. Tulsa police searched Crutcher’s SUV and found a vial of the drug.
A suspect under the influence of PCP can be very dangerous and these situations should not be taken lightly. In 1983, West Covina (Calif.) Police Officer Ken Wrede was killed by a man who was high on PCP. Wrede contacted the man and he subsequently attacked the officer, then went to his patrol car, took the shotgun from the mount, and ultimately shot killed Wrede.
Dealing with a suspect under the influence of PCP takes knowledge and skill. Here’s what you should know about this dangerous drug.
PCP has been around for years and its popularity ebbs and flows. In a report filed in 2013, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that there was a 400 percent increase in emergency room visits between 2005 and 2011. The National Drug Intelligence Center estimates that in the U.S., more than 6 million people 12 years and older have tried PCP at one time in their life.
What is PCP?
PCP is a shortened name for Phenylcylohexyl piperidine. It was originally marketed as an anesthetic to be used in surgery on humans with the benefit of having the patient awake during surgery while feeling no pain. However, it was discontinued in the late 1960s and was re-patented as Sernylan, an anesthetic to be used by veterinarians for surgery on animals. It was discontinued again in the 1970s as the drug became widely abused on the street.
Today, PCP is made in clandestine labs. The numbers of PCP labs seized are low compared to methamphetamine or BHO because of the complexity of making PCP. It is no easy task, but a skilled street chemist can make a batch that can be sold on the streets.
Signs of PCP influence
PCP is unique in that it acts as a hallucinogen, a central nervous system stimulant and a central nervous system depressant. It belongs to the dissociative anesthetic category of drugs and causes elevated vitals, muscle rigidity, increases body temperature and causes massive sweating. Users often become psychotic, confused and have very intense emotions. They might also be disoriented, uncoordinated and have slow, slurred speech at times. Oftentimes, their speech is repetitive. As an example, you will ask their name and they will repeat it over and over. To be clear, these are things that could happen.
I have completed a number of DRE evaluations on people high on PCP that have run the gamut of completely incoherent and unmoving to combative and downright resistive. This switch from passive to violent-aggressive can be fast, without warning and unpredictable.
When you encounter a person suspected to be under the influence of PCP, you will immediately notice their behavior. They may not be responsive to questions or they may look at you with a 1,000-yard stare. As you talk to them, they may suddenly become agitated and aggressive for no apparent reason. Loud noises, such as authoritative commands, and bright lights, such as your spotlight and flashlight, may ignite aggressive behavior.
Officer safety techniques
As we discuss tactics and techniques in dealing with people high on PCP, it is important to note that I am not critiquing what happened in Tulsa. If you encounter a suspect known to be using or suspected to have used PCP here are four officer safety techniques:
1. Establish a calm environment
If you suspect PCP influence, it is important to talk to the suspect using a calm, reassuring voice. Time may not be on your side though. If you can’t make an environment quiet and calm, you will have to act quickly to keep the suspect from injuring you, himself or a member of the public. Most importantly, you cannot take on a suspect by yourself. You need several officers to deal with the suspect quickly and effectively.
2. Alert dispatch and request backup
When I have dealt with people under the influence of PCP by myself, I advise dispatch that I have a person I believe is high on PCP and need cover. I request four units. I request these units because you are going to need all of them to do this safely. Ensure that your cover units don’t drive up with their sirens on as this may excite the suspect.
Strongly consider requesting paramedics in your initial call for additional resources. Once the suspect is physically restrained paramedics, as a physician extender, are able to administer sedative medications if indicated by the suspect's behavior and condition.
3. Less lethal considerations
While you wait for your cover, it is important to remember that PCP is an anesthetic. The usual police control practices may not work. Control holds, pain/compliance techniques may be ineffective and will put the officer, the suspect and the public at risk.
Once all of your officers are on scene, you can now enact your tactical plan. If a TASER deployment is warranted, I find it very effective.
Other less-lethal options, such as baton strikes or bean bag rounds, in my experience, have not been effective.
4. Restraining the suspect
When it is time to go hands-on, I find that it works well to have each officer grab an appendage. So, make sure each of your four officers grabs an appendage to restrain the subject. The fifth officer or supervisor should act as a coordinator to ensure all officers are working on the same page and don’t work against each other. Follow your department's policies and procedures to restrain the subject with handcuffs and continuously monitor the patient for signs of respiratory distress or airway compromise.
Once a suspect is physically restrained, allow medical providers, if available and authorized, to determine the need for sedative medications to chemically restrain the patient. It is physiologically dangerous for the suspect to continue fighting against restraints. Follow local policies for monitoring the suspect's breathing, level of consciousness and the potential need for additional medical treatment.
These tactics, in my experience, do work, but you still need to be concerned for your safety. Without a doubt, dealing with someone on PCP is a very dangerous situation. Remember to stay calm, get additional officers, request paramedics and keep yourself in a position of advantage, you can minimize the risk of injury to yourself, other officers, the suspect and bystanders.
Editor's Note: This article, originally published September 26, 2016, was edited on August 20, 2021, to update procedures for responding to a person suspected to be on PCP and if indicated, to restrain the person.