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Drinking for the job: Recruits learn to perform field sobriety tests with help from colleagues and others who volunteer to imbibe

The Maryland State Police Academy in Sykesville holds "wet lab" training where police academy recruits practice field sobriety testing on individuals who have volunteered to spend the afternoon drinking alcohol while having their blood alcohol level monitored. (Dylan Slagle/Carroll County Times)

SYKESVILLE — I drank three beers and two shots of rum over the course of a few hours. I then blew into a device used to measure blood alcohol content and registered a .15. An hour later, my BAC had only dropped to .13.

If I had been driving and pulled over, I would have been arrested and charged with driving under the influence — the threshold for DUI in Maryland is a .08 BAC.

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But, in my case, the police provided the alcohol.

I was one of eight who volunteered recently for a standardized field sobriety test practical, or "wet lab," at the Maryland State Police academy, run by the U.S. Park Police. We were supposed to drink enough to reach a certain blood alcohol content then allow recruits in several academies to administer standardized field sobriety tests on us.

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The recruits were learning how to perform field sobriety tests and how to recognize the clues for when someone is under the influence. The volunteers drank to a certain level so that the recruits could practice on us, instead of just watching videos or looking at pictures.

I went with one other Times reporter. Of the other six volunteers, five were members of law enforcement. We were bused to the academy — because we were drinking, we weren't allowed to drive there or home.

Once we got inside, Sgt. Adam Zielinski, with the Park Police, explained that we needed to be medically cleared before drinking. They tested our blood pressure and heart rate. We were also tested for pupil size and for involuntary shaking of eyes, and we were each given a preliminary breath test.

Once cleared, we were told to go to the "bar," a table with different types of alcohol served by two Park Police officers.

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I started off with a light beer. I had initially been trying to stay on the lower end of drinking, but those running the tests requested I drink a little more. So by the end of the session I had finished two more beers, one full shot of rum and one partial shot. Based on the type of beer and the amount I drank, the experts said I consumed roughly 3 1/2 drinks.

And then I blew one of the highest BAC numbers of the night.

That probably shouldn't have surprised me given my size — I'm not quite 5 feet tall and weigh just under 100 pounds. But it did.

I could feel the nystagmus, or the involuntary shaking of the eyes, which is the first standard field sobriety test. I was asked to look at the top of a pen, and as the pen moved farther into my peripheral vision it would disappear and reappear as my eyes shook.

The recruits were looking for the shaking. If I was sober, my eyes would have had smooth motion as I followed the pen.

Baltimore Environmental Police Officer Silas Phillips, right, checks Carroll County Times reporter Heather Mongilio’s progress drinking beer as she plays a game of beer pong with Carroll County Sheriff’s Deputy Kyle Sheeks at the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions center in Sykesville, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Carroll County Times reporters Heather Mongilo and Megan Woodward volunteered to drink alcohol and have their BAC monitored while volunteering as test subjects for police academy recruits to perform field sobriety tests on.
Baltimore Environmental Police Officer Silas Phillips, right, checks Carroll County Times reporter Heather Mongilio’s progress drinking beer as she plays a game of beer pong with Carroll County Sheriff’s Deputy Kyle Sheeks at the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions center in Sykesville, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Carroll County Times reporters Heather Mongilo and Megan Woodward volunteered to drink alcohol and have their BAC monitored while volunteering as test subjects for police academy recruits to perform field sobriety tests on. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

Nystagmus happens when there is alcohol in the body. It's uncontrollable, but it only signals that there is alcohol in the system, not that the person is under the influence, according to the previous Times reporting, which is why the recruits also learned the walk-and-turn test and the one leg stand test.

I thought I did better on the walk-and-turn test, which required me to walk nine heel-to-toe steps before turning around and walking back with nine more heel-to-toe steps. I had difficulty turning, but I didn't think I was too bad.

Next was the one leg stand test, which required holding my leg up 6 inches above the ground and counting to 30. For some reason, counting was difficult. And while I didn't fall, I tended to shuffle while trying to maintain my balance.

I knew the recruits found four out of four clues on the nystagmus test, meaning I had completely failed it, but I wasn't able to see how poorly I did on the other two tests.

At the end of the night, I sat before all the recruits. The recruits who tested me read out my test results. And if it had been up to the recruits, and I had been out on the road, my night would have ended in handcuffs.

But I didn't feel drunk. In fact, I could still recite the tests to the recruits, including the number of clues they were looking for on each test.

Although I didn't feel "drunk," it shouldn't have come as a surprise that my blood alcohol content was as high as it was, Zielinski said in a later interview, based on how much alcohol I had consumed.

Alcohol is broken down by enzymes. It is absorbed into the blood stream and then dispelled through respiration, sweating and urination, Zielinski said. People smell like alcohol because of alcohol exiting the body through respiration, he noted. An alcoholic odor or glassy, bloodshot eyes are signs that a person might be under the influence, he said.

Carroll County Sheriff's Office Master Deputy Tom Vanik goes through the steps of the department's field sobriety test to evaluate suspected impaired drivers.

People metabolize alcohol differently based on heredity, race, sex, age, height, weight, medical conditions, medications and other genetic factors. So while a 12-ounce beer that is 4 percent alcohol is roughly equivalent to a 5-ounce glass of wine or a 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor, because of all the factors involved, it is difficult to calculate how many drinks it takes for a given person to exceed the legal limit.

On average, alcohol leaves the body at a rate of .015 grams per 100 milliliters of blood per hour, or 0.015 BAC per hour, according to Zielinski. It leaves everyone's body at roughly the same rate, regardless of size.

"Drinking coffee won't help. A cold shower won't help. Exercise won't help," he said. "The liver takes its time burning up the alcohol."

People can choose how quickly alcohol enters their blood by slowly sipping drinks or quickly tossing them back, drinking on a full or empty stomach and the number of drinks consumed, he said.

"But once the alcohol gets into the blood, there is nothing we can do to affect how quickly it leaves," Zielinski said. "Coffee won't accelerate the rate at which our livers burn alcohol. Neither will exercise, or deep breathing, or a cold shower. We simply have to wait for the process of metabolism to move along at its own speed."

Drinking water doesn't help either. It just prevents feeling dehydrated in the morning, Zielinski said.

To get all the alcohol out of my body after three beers and two shots would have taken about 8.6 hours.

"So that's a long time," Zielinski said. "Most people try to get eight hours of sleep, and you have to go past that to get to normal levels, to get triple zero [BAC]."

By comparison, Detective Cory Vandegrift with the Carroll County Sheriff's Office estimated he had 10 beers and one shot during the training. He blew a .12 BAC.

But as he told me, he is more than a foot taller than me and more than double my weight.

"What's weird is I thought I was OK, like, I would have been fine to drive," Vandegrift said.

While Vandegrift said he didn't consider himself drunk, he knew he slipped up on the walk-and-turn test.

"I'll be quite frank, I didn't realize I had that many drinks until they told me," he said.

But while Vandegrift said he thought he might have been OK to drive, he said it did not change his opinion on drinking and driving.

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People might feel as if they are OK to drive, but they aren't after consuming those quantities of alcohol. Many of the people he pulls over have "liquid courage," he said, meaning they didn't think they were that intoxicated because they didn't feel drunk. So even those who feel they are fine to drive after drinking, shouldn't drive, Vandegrift said.

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That's a sentiment with which Zielinski agreed.

People handle alcohol differently, so while one person might be fine after one or two drinks, others won't. It also depends on the type of drink. A Long Island iced tea, for example, will have more alcohol than the average beer, he said.

"My personal opinion is that if you're drinking, you should not be driving," Zielinski said.

But because people do drink and drive, the law enforcement recruits were learning how to identify which of the volunteers would've needed more testing and, in some cases, to be arrested, had they been encountered out on the road.

As part of the practical, each drinker went to two or three groups of recruits. One recruit would administer the test while the other two would look on. Each group also had an instructor with them.

The standard field sobriety test practical allows the recruits to gain confidence about conducting the tests. Recruits need to feel confident and comfortable with the tests, Vandegrift said.

"You need that practice also because it helps you in court," he said.

Carroll County Sheriff's Deputy Douglas Kriete was one of the instructors for the tests. He said the tests allow the recruits to experience a "real-life scenario."

Zielinski said the recruits learned the standardized field sobriety tests on Monday, practiced on volunteers on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then were tested.

Carroll County Sheriff's Office Detective Cory Vandegrift, executes a behind-the-back toss while playing a game of beer pong with Baltimore Environmental Police Officer Silas Phillips, right, at the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions in Sykesville, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Vandegrift and Phillips were drinking alcohol and having their BAC monitored while volunteering as test subjects for police academy recruits to perform field sobriety tests on.
Carroll County Sheriff's Office Detective Cory Vandegrift, executes a behind-the-back toss while playing a game of beer pong with Baltimore Environmental Police Officer Silas Phillips, right, at the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions in Sykesville, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Vandegrift and Phillips were drinking alcohol and having their BAC monitored while volunteering as test subjects for police academy recruits to perform field sobriety tests on. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

The first night, the recruits practice on volunteers who are part of a scenario in which they have been hanging out at a bar, so the tests are run for three or four hours, roughly the average amount of time people spend at a bar, Zielinski said. That allows the recruits to see what people smell and look like when they get pulled over after drinking, specifically the alcohol on their breath and their glassy, bloodshot eyes, he said.

"So we try to make it as realistic as possible," he said.

On the second night, they run mock traffic stops, Kriete said. So instead of reading about people who drink and drive or watching videos, the recruits experience it for themselves, he said. There are a lot of instructions and steps the recruits have to remember in addition to the clues they look for, Kriete said.

The volunteers sit behind the wheel at the Sykesville academy, and the recruits treat the situation as if they had just pulled someone over.

"It's just like anything else," he said. "When you learn it, you have to practice it."

The standard field sobriety test practicals provide the recruits a chance to practice before they graduate. Once on the road, it is also a part of field training, Kriete said.

Kriete said while the recruits needed to work on remembering and explaining all of the instructions, they accepted criticism well. The recruits get the instructions in a five-hour block of time, and the hardest part is learning the instructions, Kriete said.

"We have to say certain things, and it's lengthy," he said.

Vandegrift said he would volunteer for a standardized field sobriety test practical again to help the recruits practice and get experience, which helps them gain confidence.

I think I would, too, because while the practicals were meant to teach and help the recruits, I learned a lot about my own alcohol tolerance.

heather.mongilio@carrollcountytimes.com

410-857-7898

twitter.com/hmongilio



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