You Are Now Under the Influence

At a police academy, future officers learn to test drivers' intoxication levels by testing the legal limit themselves.
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(Photo: David Brandon Geeting; Styling: Priscilla Jeong)

(Photo: David Brandon Geeting; Styling: Priscilla Jeong)

One hundred and fifty miles up the Hudson from New York City, in a three-building complex known as the Academy on Albany’s 400-acre state-office campus, some 200 recruits are sworn in as state troopers every year. They start basic school as greenhorns and, 26 weeks later, having demonstrated at least 75 percent proficiency in their core exams, receive their badges and their Glock 37s.

They rise before 6 a.m. for physical training, attend a full slate of classes, grapple with each other in defensive tactics training, take their meals in the campus cafeteria, and retire to their shared dorm rooms for 10 o’clock lights-out. They are constantly ordered around, evaluated, and threatened with disciplinary measures by their drill sergeants, who generally practice the “Sir, yes, sir” brand of the Socratic method.

For the gold-star recruits, though, the leashes slacken once a year. Their uniforms are swapped for cool gray sweatsuits, and they’re invited into the lounge to kick back for an evening. They cue up Old School on DVD and nibble Doritos and pizza—the less-greasy kind, from the nicer place—and the beer flows. (While the trainees have a say in which beer they’re served, Sergeant Doug Paquette says, “We keep it within reason.” That means cans, not bottles, and no microbrews.) Tonight they’ve chosen Labatt Blue and Heineken. Their servers are the badge-wearing veteran state troopers who, on any other day, would be barking orders at the neophytes as they shakily simulate bad-guy pursuits.

It’s cozy in the lounge. But this is just the pre-game. This is just the getting-ready part. Once a fair amount of the recruits are good and drunk, they’re ready for the main event. “It’s clear,” shouts a sergeant, leading a different platoon through practice simulations down the hall. “Snap the corner ... keep moving down this road. Slow it down ... clear!”

With the hallway clear, it’s game time. The now-drunk recruits are escorted from the lounge into a gymnasium sparsely decorated with the rubbery upper body of an Archetypal Bad Guy and a crash-test dummy in camouflage pants. The awkward part (or perhaps the main draw) is the woefully sober group of fellow recruits already gathered in the gym, awaiting their teetering entrance. These are the drinkers’ future partners in law and order, the ones for whom they will soon pledge to take a bullet. They’re wearing their uniforms and toting clipboards. Officer-chaperones hover closely over their shoulders.

By now, the drinkers are eight or 10 beers deep, maybe more. Too many to count, or else too many to remember to keep counting. They’re so drunk! Now they’re divvied among sober squads, who are not yet too professional to be amused. As the drinkers struggle, the clipboards laugh. “You should have a video camera for this one!” they say.

Halfway through, the officers in charge turn off the overhead lights and the gym goes dark. The sober squads unholster their flashlights, and suddenly things feel less like a meet-and-greet, more like an inquisition.

They surround a drunk at half-court, order him this way and that, overwhelm him with instructions for some esoteric choreography he’s in no shape to perform. He counts his steps unsurely and begins to wobble. “I’m pausing for your entertainment,” he says. They do not appear entertained. Now his English deserts him. “Sólo conozco el español, señor,” he says. “¡Adiós, buenas noches!

One drinker is so far gone that the press liaison, here to ensure that this curious departmental ritual reaches the public in the most flattering light possible, concedes, “She has no idea what she’s saying at this point.” The sober crew scrutinizes her. “Her eyes are bloodshot,” an inspector notes. She averts her gaze, and her cheeks blush too. The inspector produces something from his pocket and waves it in front of her face. He turns to his cohort. “Yes and yes,” he says. They scribble something on their clipboards. One of them leads her through a heel-toe number, and it’s clear she’s got a case of the sways, but she keeps her feet.

Before they’re dismissed, the drinkers repeat this brain-deadening rigmarole for every last group of inspectors; by the eighth round, any attempts they’re still making to lighten the mood have long since ceased to get a laugh.

Then the lights come back on and the drinkers are thanked for being good sports and, finally, fed the big, meaty gyros they’ve been promised. They’re escorted to their dorms, entrusted to their roommates, and put to bed before lights-out. For their efforts, they get to sleep through the next morning’s training.

They’ve played a crucial role in what Paquette considers “the best training we have for the students here”—the DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Course, a.k.a. the controlled drinking lab, through which the sober cohort has learned to conduct the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the walk-and-turn, and the one-leg stand on their drunk test subjects. Collectively, these form their toolkit for attaining probable cause in DWI cases (“deewees,” in cop speak).

As real cops, they’ll administer this three-test battery to the drunk-seeming drivers they catch swerving or forgetting to signal. Drivers who have “that disheveled look” or who slur their words will be asked to exit their vehicle. The cop will hold up a pen and instruct the driver to track its movement from side to side as he watches for nystagmus—the involuntary jerking of the eye—a telltale sign of intoxication that’s impossible to hide. “The eyes don’t lie,” Paquette says. Jot down any truths they reveal.

Next is the walk-and-turn, the first of two divided-attention tests: nine heel-to-toe steps out, counted aloud, a turn-around, and nine steps back. Count any validated “clues” the suspects reveal—they’ll start stepping early, stop briefly, miss their toe with their heel, or miscount; two or more suggests impairment.

Finally, the one-leg stand: Raise one foot six inches off the ground, keep your balance, and count to 30. “One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three,” and so on. If they say “one-Mississippi,” jot that down; that’s a clue. If they set down their foot, sway, hop, or flail their arms for balance, those too are clues, and you need just two.

Most cops can spot a drunk with the naked eye, but gut sense hardly holds up in court. These tests, on the other hand, are a proven, 91-percent-accurate way of knowing whether the suspect is above or below the 0.08 percent blood alcohol content threshold. That’s better than preliminary breath tests they keep in their cars, but only as long as the cops adhere strictly to protocol, nailing everything from the verbiage to the wave of the pen. That’s why they’re here.

After the third test, tabulate the suspect’s mistakes and consult the rubric. If their clue tally exceeds the limit, you are hereby designated to drive them to the holding cell. If not, they’re free to go, and you’re left to question your instincts.

But don’t abandon them, because when it comes to spotting drunkenness, your own experience goes a long way. Or, to borrow from Paquette, “Society is what it is, and you’re gonna see stuff, just, out there.”

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