Shelburne Sgt. Bruce Beuerlein hopes his work as a Drug Recognition Expert will help protect his family and others from an impaired driver.
“I think the biggest single danger that faces my family on any given day is an impaired operator,” Beuerlein.
He hopes trying to keep impaired drivers from behind the wheel helps make driving safer for the unimpaired.
Part of the work of a Drug Recognition Expert is observing body language to distinguish between impaired and unimpaired drivers and to figure out what category of drug might be the culprit.
This part of assessing a suspect really interests Beuerlein, who has been certified as a Drug Recognition Expert for 10 years.
“I find it fascinating when a person says one thing, but their body language says something else,” he said.
In the 1970s police departments saw increasing numbers of drivers who were impaired by drugs other than alcohol. They knew that they were under the influence of something, but what?
The Drug Recognition Expert program originated in Los Angeles, and it came to Vermont in 2005. The state has about 60 certified Drug Recognition Experts now.
“The bottom line is: I can’t do the magic that Beuerlein does,” colleague Sgt. Josh Flore said. “Back in the day before the Drug Recognition Experts were around, if someone was intoxicated on a drug, we didn’t really know what they were intoxicated on.”
Although South Burlington has its own Drug Recognition Experts, Beuerlein is often summoned to help their department, just as their Drug Recognition Experts will help the Shelburne Police Department when he is not on duty.
“It’s part of the services that departments share like canine teams and crash reconstruction experts. It’s kind of a mutual aid thing,” Beuerlein said.
Once a Drug Recognition Expert has found that a suspect is impaired by something other than alcohol, they will follow a 12-step process to deduce what drug it might be.
The categories include central nervous system depressants (Xanax, Klonopin), stimulants (cocaine, methamphetamines, amphetamines), hallucinogens (LSD, mushrooms), dissociative anesthetics (Ketamine, Phencyclidine or PCP, animal tranquilizers), narcotic analgesics (heroine, opiates), inhalants (nitrous oxides, paints, aerosols) and cannabis.
A Drug Recognition Expert’s assessment is almost always followed up a blood test, but those results may take several days.
Shelburne Police Lt. Michael Thomas said, in the street, a Drug Recognition Expert’s assessment finds what category of drugs should be tested for, and it gives ambulance and emergency response an idea of what they should prepare for if a suspect needs medical attention.
The assessment includes taking a suspect’s vital signs – and taking their heart rate three different times.
Beuerlein said he will take a person’s heart rate by holding their wrist. As soon as the person has given him their arm, he takes a heart rate. He will then talk to them. Sometime during this conversation, he will count their heart beats again. After some more talking and just before letting go of their wrist he will count again.
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test
Another test, the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, tracks jerking or bouncing of the eyes when a suspect follows an officer’s finger far to each side.
Although officers will often use this to determine alcohol influence, Drug Recognition Experts can recognize subtleties that help indicate, if it isn’t alcohol, it might be.
The training to become a Drug Recognition Expert is rigorous, Beuerlein said. And officers are required to have follow-ups every two years.
The initial training includes a 16-hour pre-school, a 56-hour actual school and completing 12 drug evaluations under the supervision of another Drug Recognition Expert.
Beuerlein said the 12 drug evaluations are not role playing – to do it he flew to Phoenix, Arizona., to evaluate actual suspects at the city jail.
The suspects were blood-tested so the results of Beuerlein’s assessment could be matched. To pass the course he had to correctly assess 75-85% of the suspects he evaluated in two weeks of testing.
There is no one thing that says this is the type of drug a suspect is under; it’s “the totality of the circumstances,” Beuerlein said.
When a suspect has been charged with impaired driving, Beuerlein sometimes tells them: “This may not be the best day of your life, but you can make it better if you want to.”
“Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t,” he said.