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DUI testing class is valuable officer training

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BELLEVUE - This spring I wrote a story about Snoqualmie Police Officer Jason Weiss. Weiss offered to walk me through what happens when someone is pulled over for drunk driving, which is one of the most common offenses with which Snoqualmie police deal. Talking with officer Weiss revealed an expensive and unpleasant process no one would want to go through, drunk or sober.

There is nothing like the real thing, though, and Weiss, along with fellow officer Sean Absher, attended a class last week to get a more face-to-face experience. Along with officers from other municipalities, Weiss and Absher got time administering field sobriety tests to people who were actually drunk. To get subjects, the officers don't hang around outside of bars and weddings in hopes of finding a volunteer, especially on a Thursday morning. Rather they invite a few people to come to Bellevue Community College (BCC), where the classes are held, to get drunk. I was asked to volunteer and I accepted.

I arrived at the classroom on the BCC campus late and joined three other participants who had already started. After signing some paperwork, I started drinking rum and Cokes. Our administrator was Swinomish Chief of Police Tom Schlicker, who was there to monitor our drinking and make sure we didn't hurt ourselves. After I had about two drinks, I wanted to ask Tom some questions and inquired if I could put him in the story. He told me to sit down and then said he doesn't like dealing with drunks and he doesn't like talking to the press. No comment from Tom.

Realizing I wasn't going to get a lot out of Tom, but feeling a little friendlier nonetheless, I asked more questions of the other participants. All were employees of BCC who had been asked by a campus safety officer to participate. Everyone thought it a little odd to be drinking at 10 a.m., but were interested in the process of how someone is deemed to be driving under the influence. For one participant, it was a little more personal. A drunk driver killed her mother in 1997, and her first husband drowned in Lake Washington while swimming with some drunk friends in 2001. She rarely drinks, but said she wanted to do whatever she could to help out.

Faced with the challenge of getting as drunk as we could by 1 p.m. while in front of Tom, we had to kill some time so we decided to play drinking games. We got to eat chips and sandwiches, and although the classroom had all the atmosphere of, well, a classroom, it was a pleasant time. Whenever our drinks got low, Tom would swoop in and refill us, and everyone was jovial enough to make the most of what was happening.

By lunchtime we could tell we were loosening up. Some of us were downright loopy, while others just seemed to have the occasional realization they were drunk. Tom had steadily been giving us breath tests, but he wouldn't tell us what our readings were. After one final breath test we were led outside to a courtyard of police officers who had just finished up their third day of training. The rules were simple. Each of us went to one group to complete a series of tests before being passed onto the next group.

The tests were like I imagined. There was the follow-the-pen-with-your-eyes test, the walk-in-a-line-on-one-foot-after-the-other-and-turn-around test and the raise-one-leg-for-30-seconds test. Other groups had additional tests, but those were the three that we were graded on that determined whether or not we would be arrested.

Each test had specific indications of how a driver could fail it, which the officers looked for and recorded. If we exhibited a certain number of indicators, we had failed the test. When I went to the first group of officers, I could tell I was in trouble early. My eyes couldn't stop shaking when I was instructed to stare at the pen and I started giggling.

The officers' methods and personalities varied, but they knew what they were doing. Some were more stern than others, but they were all well trained and well rehearsed for the task. The last test I took consisted of me having to stretch my arms out and then placing one hand on the inside of my elbow. Then, I was instructed to place my other hand behind my other elbow so I had my arms crossed in front of me. By the time the officer told me to put one hand behind my head, I realized he was (jokingly) instructing me to do the Macarena dance.

After we completed the tests, we were brought into the classroom with the officers who were being instructed by Swinomish Police Officer David Smailes. Smailes has been teaching "wet labs" since 1998 and said the experience is invaluable to officers. Making a DUI (driving under the influence) arrest is actually based on a culmination of factors, not just a breath test reading. Smailes teaches the officers what factors to look for before and after they pull a driver over. It is training that every police officer must go through in Washington; a state, Smailes said, with some of the toughest DUI laws in the nation.

As the participants' scores were tallied on a board, Smailes' training became clear. Some of us who acted drunk actually had not had much to drink. After finishing four rum and Cokes in just over two hours, I never blew above the legal blood alcohol limit in Washington (.08), although I got close with a .078. Four of the five groups of officers, however, said they would have arrested me. Given their training, they found out something I have known for years, which is that a little alcohol goes a long way when I drink. If I were actually pulled over, I would have been arrested and it would be up to the prosecutor as to what to do with my .078 reading. My license wouldn't have been revoked, as it would have with a .08, but I could have been charged.

Before we were driven home, Smailes told us that we helped save lives by being a part of the group. He said an average of 65 people are killed every day in the nation in drunk driving accidents, a number that doesn't include injuries. The thought of us saving lives by drinking booze and eating Lays all afternoon seemed strange, but we did feel as though we provided a community service.

I did, however, realize the day was more than just a couple hours of fun for the woman whose mother and former husband had died in alcohol-related accidents. Snoqualmie Police Officer Kim Stonebraker drove her and myself home and we stopped at her house before Kim took me to Seattle. When we arrived, the woman's infant son was outside with the baby sitter. That child will never know her grandmother because of a drunk driver and there were two other children who will never see their father again. When you see who drunk driving affects, it doesn't seem so academic anymore.

Ben Cape can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at ben.cape@valleyrecord.com.

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