“The paper says eight, but I thought it was less than that,” said Davison, 40, an assistant with the Arizona State Capitol Police.
It was about 8:45 p.m. on Oct. 23, and Davison was among about two-dozen people who had volunteered to be plied with alcohol by local police. The drinks were free, and so were the pretzels, chips and salsa.
Sounds odd, right? But it was all part of an exercise to train 31 Valley police officers on the most reliable methods to determine whether a driver is intoxicated beyond the legal limit. And, according to Capitol Police Chief Tim Lane, the training is very effective.
“This is the best way to teach officers how to determine if someone they encounter has had too much alcohol to be driving,” he said. “And it’s fun for the volunteers.”
It’s also safe. Each of the volunteers was required to have a designated driver, and the five hours of drinking took place in a highly monitored environment at the Phoenix Police Academy.
The training instructors called it a “wet lab,” and it was designed to test levels of intoxication as the volunteers imbibed everything from Bud Light to vodka.
Any officer can use field tests such as the walk-and-turn and the one-leg stand, but only those who earn certification at one of these events can use the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test – that’s the one where you follow the pen with your eyes.
Capitol Police Corporal Nathan Clark, one of the course instructors, explained how the test works, and he said it’s been shown to be 88 percent accurate. Basically, he said, you are not allowed to move your head while tracking the movement of a pen with your eyes, and officers move it back and forth to see if your eyes jiggle (my word, not his) when the pen reaches the outskirts of your peripheral vision.
“The officers are usually proficient (in DUI testing) as it is,” Clark said. “This training just enhances their abilities.”
It’s actually a lot more complex than it sounds. The training takes place during three days and includes 24 hours of instruction and testing. This time, officers from Buckeye, Phoenix, Mesa, Springerville and the Department of Public Safety took part.
It’s a popular program. Twenty-nine officers who signed up were turned down and will have to wait for the next training session. Police departments across the Valley take turns leading the training, which occurs once or twice per month. The course on Oct. 21-23 marked the first time the Capitol Police had organized it.
“The people who work for me are some of the best-trained and most-motivated officers around,” Lane said. “A lot of effort goes into setting this up, and they really deserve to be recognized for what they do.”
The officers were trained in a classroom setting, packing into a room at the Police Academy for six hours at a time to receive instruction, study heaps of documentation and take proficiency tests. They did not drink – that was for the volunteers, who were largely friends and relatives of police officers.
Periodically, the officers would wait in an adjoining room to test the volunteers using only the “gaze” test. Each officer was required to conduct the test on five individuals and then determine whether they had reached a point of intoxication that would render them unable to drive properly. If the officers incorrectly assessed the volunteers twice, they would fail the course. They also were required to conduct 35 positive gaze tests in the field before certification.
“After an officer has received the training and when they say a subject is over the legal limit, it should be corroborated by a breathalyzer,” Clark said.
Meanwhile, back at the wet lab, volunteers played card games and drank heavily for the public good. Every couple of hours, each of them was asked to mosey on over to a breathalyzer operated by a DPS officer to test the level of alcohol in their system. Many of them drank from beer bottles as they waited in line.
Lindsay Hoffman, a 27-year-old from Phoenix, said she was invited to be a volunteer by a friend who is a police officer. She had eight drinks – hard liquor, beer and wine coolers – by the time police oversaw last call at about 9:30 p.m.
“We came into this thinking it was going to be lame,” she said. “But it was awesome. They had chips and salsa. Period. That’s the end. That says it all.”