By John L. Ross / Staff Writer
Drug- and alcohol-related crashes on the roadways have become an increasingly common occurrence, especially after abusing prescription drugs became so prevalent in recent years.
Stories are told, heard and read daily, both nationally and locally, about how drugs negatively impact the lives of whom they touch — users, dealers, and families and friends of those people.
In some cases, those stories involve accidents and car crashes, such as the one Christmas Eve in southern Knox County which killed four members of one family and the driver of the vehicle who caused the crash.
Other cases involve drinking and driving.
Still other cases involve driving a vehicle while under the influence of drugs.
And with the prevalence and variety of today’s illegal drug market and the widespread drug problem, law enforcement officials find their jobs more and more difficult when it comes to controlling driving while under the influence.
But now, the Williamsburg Police Department has a living, breathing tool ready to catch and convict those suspects who choose to drive the roads while doing drugs or drinking.
That tool is Officer Brandon White, who recently achieved certification as a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE).
According to the International Drug Evaluation & Classification Program (DECP) website, a DRE, “sometimes referred to as a ‘drug recognition evaluator,’ is an individual who has successfully completed all phases of the DECP training requirements for certification as established by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
“A DRE is skilled in detecting and identifying persons under the influence of drugs and in identifying the category or categories of drugs causing the impairment,” states the website.
Officer White is now that man.
“It was rough — one of the most difficult training an officer would go through,” White said.
According to Williamsburg Police Chief Wayne Bird, the city was hosting an Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) school at the University of the Cumberlands.
Bird explained the two-day course teaches advanced field sobriety techniques — step one for acceptance into the DRE program.
“The ARIDE program was developed by the NHTSA with input from the IACP Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police,” the website states. “ARIDE was created to address the gap in training between the Standardized Field Sobriety Testing (SFST) and the Drug Evaluation and Classification (DEC) Program.”
SFST testing is usually done at the scene of the traffic stop, while a DRE typically works after an arrest in a controlled environment, according to the website.
“ARIDE is intended to bridge the gap between these two programs by providing officers with general knowledge related to drug impairment and by promoting the use of DREs in states that have the DEC Program,” states the website. “One of the more significant aspects of ARIDE is its review and required student demonstration of the SFST proficiency requirements. The ARIDE program also stresses the importance of securing the most appropriate biological sample in order to identify substances likely causing impairment.”
Bird said 33 students were in the class, and that the “top scorer” in the course was considered a candidate for the next step.
“Brandon was chosen,” Bird said.
White explained he went on to Richmond, where the Department of Criminal Justice Training held what he termed as a “preschool” for the final DRE course.
“(This course) was to make sure they had the right candidates in there,” White said. “It was a short, demanding course to ensure (law enforcement) was ready for the final course — they wanted to make sure who was there wanted to be there.”
White again “proved himself” in Richmond — and that led him to the final step in The Golden State.
White returned this week from California after a very intensive seven-day course at the Los Angeles Police Department designed to train law enforcement to be DREs.
“Part of that course was (officers) had to evaluate people who were under the influence of drugs,” White said.
He explained the LAPD, through a drug task force, arrested people for being under the influence — and then brought them to the officers so they could determine what types of drugs the suspects were on.
Some of those suspects were on just one drug, or multiple drugs, called “poly drug use,” according to White. He said a majority of the suspects he reviewed had taken a “speedball,” which he explained is smoking crack cocaine, an “upper,” and following it with an injection of heroin, a “downer.”
“That’s a pretty common type of drug use over there,” he said.
Once those evaluations were complete, White said there were several other tests, and then officers were required to pass a 4-6 hour exam.
“We had 10- to 16-hour days out there,” White said.
According to White, there are three questions a DRE must ask when evaluating a DUI suspect:
— Is the person impaired? If so, is the person able to operate a vehicle safely? If the DRE concludes that the person is impaired, they must then ask,
— Is the impairment due to an injury, illness or other medical complication, or is it drug-related? If the impairment is due to drugs, then they must ask,
— Which category or combination of categories of drugs is the most likely source of the impairment?
White explained there were seven drug categories which a DUI suspect may fall into — and it could be one category or multiple categories.
Those categories are:
— Central nervous system (CNS) depressants, which includes alcohol and prescription drugs similar to Xanax;
— Inhalants, which could mean “huffing” gas or paint fumes;
— Dissociative anesthetics, which include drugs like Ketamine or PCP;
— Cannabis, or marijuana, or other cannabinoids and synthetics;
— CNS stimulants, which includes drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine;
— Hallucinogens, including MDA, Ecstasy, and LSD, and;
— Narcotic analgesics, which includes drugs like morphine, Oxycontin, oxycodone and heroin.
“When we’re evaluating a person we (DREs) can tell you (the suspect) is a category 1, 2, or 3 or more categories of drugs,” White said.
With an agreement signed in April, law enforcement agencies across the Tri-County, including Laurel, Knox and Whitley sheriff’s offices and the police departments of London, Corbin and Williamsburg, will all be able to benefit from White’s DRE certification.
It can also be utilized in detention facilities, including the Whitley County Detention Center. It was learned that if law enforcement brings a DUI suspect to the jail, personnel there may request White to put his DRE certification to use and determine just what a suspect has ingested.
“It does not just have to be my arrest,” White said. “I could be called to test drivers of other vehicles.”
A DRE evaluation is more than just a one-word answer, according to White.
“Actually, I would write a detailed report after the evaluation and prepare it for court,” he explained. “Then I would go into court and give a detailed explanation of my opinion on how they were under the influence of drugs and unable to operate a vehicle safely.”
One thing that may also be addressed with the DRE certification is determining the therapeutic effectiveness of a potentially abused prescription drug. Both White and Bird explained that often in the courtroom, when reviewing the results of a defendant’s blood test, it is determined that the suspect’s blood contained therapeutic levels of the drug to which they were prescribed.
Which can often lead to that suspect’s case getting erroneously dismissed.
“If (a suspect’s) lab work shows they’re in the therapeutic range — that means the drugs they are prescribed are working — and therefore, they were under the influence of those drugs while driving,” Bird said.
According to White, there are approximately 6,000 DREs throughout the United States — about 70 of which are certified in Kentucky.
“Less than one percent of all police officers are (certified) DREs,” White said, adding that in this course, there were nine law enforcement officials participating.
The DRE course started with two LAPD sergeants in the 1970s, White explained.
“The approach (for the program) was to categorize drug users,” he said.
In 1979, the LAPD recognized the program, but it took years before it was a nationally-accepted training course.
With this new training, Bird said that White could now become key in many DUI cases, and not just his own.
“He will be able to testify in our court system as an expert,” Bird said. “This is a huge, huge asset to our department — it will help in enforcement and convictions in DUI cases.
“This was an honor for him to get to go,” Bird said, adding there was no one else in the area certified in this training.
White said he is required to re-certify for DRE status every two years. He added DREs are required to perform a certain number of evaluations annually, and complete an 8-hour refresher course.
“We log into a tracking system,” he said. “It monitors what we do in the process (of being a DRE).”
Bird said the Williamsburg Police Department as well as local law enforcement will benefit from White’s certification.
“We are fortunate to have him here in this capacity,” Bird said, adding that there were several DREs working in the state’s larger cities, but that more rural areas did not have so many.