DRE’s are Risking Their Safety With This Ancient Habit


I first went to Drug Recognition Expert School (DRE) way back in 1993 (my IACP number is 3292) and DRE Instructor School in 1998. I have kept my certification up to date this entire time. Now, bear with me as I take you down the road of how DRE’s will get hurt by a habit we refuse to change.

it was a terrible idea then and it is still bad now

Way back in ’93, I was taught how to do eye examinations in the dark room. When I was in Stockton, CA doing my field certifications, I was about to do my first dark room examination. For those that do not know, this is where we take a suspect into a small dark room, close the door, wait about one minute and then check their pupils in near total darkness, direct light and (back then) indirect light. As I was about to go into a room with a guy whacked out on crack cocaine, I started to handcuff the prisoner so we could go in this very dark, very small room. My instructor at the time told me to leave him unhandcuffed. When I asked why, he told me that the suspect would feel comfortable to talk to me.

I couldn’t believe what I had heard. I was a young, impressionable officer and told him that was the dumbest thing I had ever heard. I watched as every DRE student was taught by more than one instructor to keep the suspects unhandcuffed in the dark room exam. You read that right. Go into a dark, small room with a guy high on crack, meth or any other drug we encountered.

the problem with the dark room exam

I felt that this was obviously a bad tactic. People on drugs do unpredictable things. When you are an addict, you are not the same person you are when you are not an addict. There are issues like Meth Psychosis that you have to contend with. There’s also paranoia, anxiety and hallucinations with a number of drugs that these people are taking. It makes no sense to enter a dark room for the sake of the suspect’s comfort. We are putting the suspect’s feelings ahead of our own safety. You are also putting the suspect at risk with a use of force. Why use force when you can avoid the whole situation in the first place? 

what happens when you don’t listen

In 1998, I became an instructor and I vowed to end this horrible tactic. I instructed every DRE I had the opportunity to teach to stop walking into a dark room with unhandcuffed prisoners. I would always start with, “Do you think it’s a good idea to go in there with this guy, whacked out on drugs, and not handcuff them?” I watched as other instructors at field certification sites continue to tell people to not worry about handcuffing prisoners. These were in high crime areas like the Mission District in San Francisco, Stockton and Oakland. All of these places are notorious for their drug violence.

In 2002, I did a DRE update and reminded everyone to stop doing this. Sure enough, one DRE Instructor senior to me said that I was wrong and that he would continue the practice so that he could, “Get what I need” out of the suspect. Two months later, during the dark room exam, the suspect attacked him and slammed his head repeatedly into the cell floor causing severe head injuries. His help call over the radio went unheard because of the thick walls of the holding facility. Yes, he was in that dark room alone with no cover around.

change your tactics now!

Look, I never imagined 25 years later that I would have to write an article telling people to stop doing this. As I travel the country doing DRE updates, I still hear about a vast majority of DRE’s doing dark room examinations by themselves in a dark room with unhandcuffed prisoners. Just ask yourself if you think this is a smart idea. Why do you do it? Most DRE’s can’t give me an answer beyond, “That is what I was taught.” It was a bad idea 25 years ago and it still is today. Except today it is more violent!

If you are a DRE instructor, train these guys right. You have a responsibility. If you are an agency coordinator, make it a mandate that suspects be handcuffed when you are going into a dark room with someone high on drugs. If you are a state coordinator, make it happen. You have no excuse not to.

OK, I’m getting off of my soap box now. Take care and stay safe.

KEITH GRAVES – Keith is a retired Police Sergeant and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for 29 years. Keith was named as California’s Narcotics Officer of the Year and is a prior winner of MADD’s California Hero Award. He has years of experience as a Narcotics Detective and a Narcotics Unit Supervisor and is a Drug Recognition Expert Instructor (IACP #3292). Keith teaches both the Drug Recognition Expert course and the Drug Abuse Recognition Course and has taught at the Police Academy. He has developed several drug courses for the California Narcotics Officers Association, California POST and California Colleges and currently consults POST on drug investigation procedures. Keith has held other assignments besides narcotics including Training Sergeant, Patrol Sergeant, COPPS Officer, Traffic Officer, and 20 years as a SWAT Team member and Sniper Team Leader. Keith has taught thousands of officers and businesses around the world about drug impairment recognition, drug trends, compliance training and drug investigations. He is recognized as an international drug expert and has testified as an expert in court proceedings on drug cases, homicide cases and rape prosecutions as well as an expert witness for the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Keith earned a BA in Business Management from Saint Mary’s College of California and a MA in Criminal Justice. Keith is the Founder and President of Graves & Associates, a company dedicated to providing drug training to law enforcement and private industry.

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