The Torrington, Connecticut, police chief is pushing to train more drug recognition experts (DRE) — officers who are trained to identify people under the influence of various drugs — within his department.
The department currently only has one trained DRE, which is less than the required number based on the town’s population.
DRE training began nationally in 2018 and is required by all police departments. Depending on a city or town’s population, departments are required to have a certain number of trained DREs on staff to respond to accidents with injuries or fatalities.
The training has become more useful for officers in Connecticut after recreational marijuana was legalized in 2021. While officers can use a breathalyzer test to detect a person’s blood alcohol level, officers require specific training standards to detect whether someone is under the influence of a drug like marijuana and whether they are too impaired to drive.
“We’d like to have as many officers trained as we possibly can,” Chief William Baldwin told the City Council. “I want DREs assigned to our accident investigation team.”
City Councilwoman Keri Hoehne asked the chief how many fatal accidents there were last year and whether DREs are required for every accident.
“We did have five or six fatal accidents last year; their severity is increasing,” Baldwin replied. “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.”
Baldwin said that while saliva tests are being developed to test marijuana levels, they are not yet available to police.
“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.”
According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the DRE training program consists of a three-phase process with 56 hours of classroom time and 40 to 60 hours for Field Certification.
The training guidelines rely on Standardized Field Sobriety tests, which test drivers’ physical and mental coordination.
“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,” the IACP stated. “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.”
DREs must be able detect the kinds of drugs involved in impaired driving accidents, and therefore are required to name and understand all seven drug categories and their effects. They are also trained to conduct psychological and physiological evaluations, prepare reports and testify in cases if needed.
The next two-week training program will take place in Arizona in mid-June.
The only barrier for police departments is the cost of training and convincing city officials that the expense is necessary.
“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 continued. “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.”