Experts on the Lookout For ‘Drugged Drivers’
A specialized group of officers in Mendham and Chester, known as Drug Recognition Experts, are called in to spot those under the influence on the roads.
Chester Township and Mendham Borough have one and Mendham Township has two, with a third in training. They are drug recognition experts, specially trained officers who are called in to assess driver suspected of driving under the influence of drugs.
Mendham Township’s Lieutenant Vito Abrusci went through the training in 2004.
“The program started out of California in the late 80s. Officers on the street working for the LAPD were seeing similarities in addict behavior,” Abrusci said. “A training program was brought out to New Jersey in the 90s.”
According to Abrusci, Mendham Township has always had a proactive approach to drug enforcement, but still saw room for improvement.
“We saw that there were things we were missing,” Abrusci said. “So we were looking into new ways to find the drugged driver, which is why I went into the training program.”
Abrusci’s personal interest in the subject came from his involvement in drug investigations in Mendham.
“I was involved in some drug investigations here that involved distribution,” Abrusci said. “Basically there were some big time dealers out of the high school. Getting into the program was the next step from what I was seeing and learning on the enforcement side.”
Soup Kitchen Screenings
The program itself is run by the State Police, under the auspices of the Attorney General’s office and involves ten days of in-depth classroom training and three days of field experience out in the street.
In an average year, 60 officers get trained generally in three classes of 20 that are split in batches from the northern, southern and central part of the state.
Currently, the field training is held in Camden, but when Abrusci went through the program, it was in Patterson.
“The screening subjects are volunteers who get a $10 gift card to McDonalds and then they are screened in a soup kitchen,” Abrusci said. “The officers put them through a 12 step drug evaluation which includes clinical and physical.”
The officers perceptions are then checked against a urine test to see the officer’s proficiency. After a series of 12 evaluations in the field, the officers then are put through a final examination.
“You really need to be proficient in how to take pulses and blood pressure, the size of pupils and other physical reactions,” Abrusci said. “It’s just as important as the ability to interview somebody.”
Once certified, DREs are involved in regular trainings.
“We have a network and are the first state to have an association,” Abrusci said. “We bring in guest speakers like eye doctors, for example, every six or eight weeks. “
It wasn’t long after completing his training and applying those skills in the field that the state police inquired about Abrusci becoming a DRE instructor. As an instructor, Abrusci does his best to stay on top of developing drug trends and new street products, but most fall into recognizable categories.
“We classify the drug. Like looking for signs of someone on an opiate or a stimulant,” Abrusci said. “I can’t say someone is on crack cocaine but I can say a stimulant.”
Abrusci’s most recent trip down to Camden gave the lieutenant a chance to catch up on the latest trends.
“Down there we see wet marijuana, PCP and it keeps you fresh,” Abrusci said. “They take one thing to speed them up and another thing to slow you down.”
Abrusci said that there is a grant in Morris County that pays for DREs to go out on calls for departments that don’t have their own, and he himself has been called out to Morristown, Florham and Boonton in the recent months.
Abrusci has seen repeat offenders like a woman who every time he makes the trip down to Camden is five or six months pregnant and on heroin.
“I also saw one guy who was screened who said he was 10 months clean,” Abrusci said. “Hopefully there are some success stories out there.”