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How Cops Learn to Catch Drunks

Say the alphabet backwards. Hop on one foot. How do officers assess whether a driver is over the limit? The Fix visits the Austin Police Training Academy to find out.

Image: 

Austin police cadets scientifically boozing their
volunteers. Sobriety test photo via Shutterstock.
This photo courtesy the author.

By Jeff Winkler

02/04/13

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Witnessing a roadside sobriety test can be a sad—or sadly hilarious—affair. But watching about 60 simultaneous sobriety tests administered by Austin’s soon-to-be-finest in the early evening? Mesmerizing. Particularly when the officers’ tiny flashlights oscillate and bounce in the air, like an army of wizards conjuring an ominous spell, or club ravers dancing in slo-mo.

The cadets of the Austin Police Training Academy aren’t quite that impressive or dangerous. They are simply diligent students finishing up their week-long DWI training session with a “live-fire” scenario: administering Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFST) to yellow-vested volunteers operating under varying levels of sobriety—and drunkenness.

“It’s their first time doing it with somebody who’s actually been drinking,” Austin Police Academy Coordinator Sgt. Zac Pruett tells me. “They’ve been practicing on each other sober all week, so now they’re actually seeing the booze.”

In the interest of good journalism, I volunteer to go over the legal limit. During my admirably performed sobriety tests, I am just barely over .08 BAC.

But unlike your average college weekend, the police academy officials don't just hand out shot glasses and demand that volunteers start playing Quarters. In fact, the entire process is very scientific—scales, beakers and plenty of official forms included. Volunteers are weighed, asked if they wish to be over or under the legal limit, and then given Solo party cups marked with specific numbers, to indicate how much hard alcohol each participant will receive during the hour-and-a-half drinking regimen.

And it is a regimen: no eating after 2 pm (class started at 6 pm); “pre-gaming” is forbidden; blow into this breathalyzer before picking up your next drink; hand your cup to the officer, who will carefully measure and pour each shot; go back to your seat; and please have a chaperone escort you wherever you go—even the bathroom.

While the initial atmosphere inside the police academy gymnasium seems about as much fun as an SAT test, the future suspects all make the best of it. Periodically, the instructors call upon the volunteers to have their Solo cups filled with liquor of their choosing. There is decent whiskey, vodka, gin—you name it. Purely in the interests of good journalism, I volunteer to go over the legal limit.

Many of the volunteers have obviously been here before. Some are friends of officers, some are civilian employees of local law enforcement agencies and some consider this a weird weekend adventure. Those not foolish enough to bring fine-print reading material keep themselves occupied with a loud and colorful board game. Even at the smokers’ spot just outside, things are getting festive. One volunteer confidently recites the alphabet backwards, an apocryphal roadside sobriety test. Twice.  

Shortly afterwards, all the drinkers are summoned, given one more breath-test and then escorted outside. There, we fan out on the parking lot moments before a herd of cadets comes forward, politely asking us if we mind being temporarily detained.

For those who are blissfully unfamiliar with the process, the SFST, devised by the National Highway and Transportation Safety Authority (NHTSA), is comprised of three basic tests. There’s the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmu (where cops use their wands to detect involuntary eye-twitching, which increases with intoxication), the “Walk and Turn” and the “One-Leg Stand.”

Easy enough, right? Nevertheless, the NHTSA suggests 24 hours of training to be certified. And, in keeping with the state’s unofficial motto (“Everything’s Bigger in Texas”), the Austin Police Department requires twice as much training, both for roadside sobriety tests and the Austin Police Academy as a whole.

“Yeah, we tend to get more than enough [training],” laughs Cadet Arika Austin, a few days after the live-fire night. Although Cadet Austin was previously a cop in Illinois—where, during academy, she did her sobriety homework by practicing on friends and family—she had to take part in the academy like every other rookie. And it wasn’t necessarily easy.

“The funny thing is, even still, I did have some nervousness because it had been a while,” she said. “So I can only imagine what it would have been like for someone for whom this was brand new. Because it is a lot of pressure as far as making sure we know the signs and also knowing the indicators [of inebriation], and making sure that we apply it right.”

Since the “suspects” are merely volunteers—intoxicated or no—and because academy instructors are prowling around watching for mistakes, it is the police cadets who are noticeably on edge. For at least one volunteer, this table turn of the normal, late-night sobriety interrogation is immensely satisfying.

“Some of the main things you’ll see is [the cadets] learn to interact with people, which is pretty tough in and of itself,” says Sgt. Pruett. “You have to get over that nervousness and just be able talk to a perfect stranger about whatever. It’s going to mess them up because they’ve been practicing their speech ... for some time, but now they’re nervous so they mess it up.”

And the cadets do mess up. While performing the HGN test, one trainee is gently chided for moving his wand so high in the air that the suspect’s eyes roll back into his head. The same cadet is corrected shortly thereafter when, during the Walk and Turn, he follows the suspect’s footsteps with his flashlight rather than pointing the beam a few feet down the line, as per protocol.

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