Barricaded and High on Drugs

It is a common theme among barricaded suspects. It could happen before the suspect takes hostages or throughout the incident. The suspect uses drugs, including alcohol. A majority of barricaded incidents involve the use of drugs by the suspect.

A survey of post-critical incident reports submitted to the NTOA during 2005 shows that the primary suspect was under the influence of drugs or alcohol in 80 percent of submitted incidents. Alcohol, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana were the drugs most commonly used.

When a suspect sparks up a crack pipe and is holding a gun to the head of a hostage, a SWAT officer should know how that drug may affect the suspect’s actions and decision-making. Since many states do not have an internal possession law, SWAT officers are not required to know how the human body reacts to these substances, but having a good working knowledge of drug physiology will help the officer anticipate how the incident may unfold and make decisions accordingly.

When a suspect uses drugs, or is just coming off of drugs, the operator needs to know if that particular substance is going to make the suspect more impervious to pain, more motivated towards a violent resolution with police, or if it will make him more passive during the incident. This knowledge will allow a SWAT team to better understand how the suspect’s drug use will affect the “Three Ts” (Time, Talk and Tactics). Knowing which drug the suspect is using and his level of influence will let the team know how much time they have, how to talk to the suspect and what tactics to use while progressing toward a resolution.

When a suspect sparks up a crack pipe and is holding a gun to the head of a hostage, a SWAT officer should know how that drug may affect the suspect’s actions and decision-making.

Why suspects use drugs during an incident

Perpetrators have their own unique reasons for using drugs during an incident. Some use drugs because they are addicted and could suffer withdrawal if they don’t keep using. Some take drugs to help them gain courage in attacking officers or carrying on with the mission they began. A good example of this is the insurgents in Iraq, who are given methamphetamine by their handlers to help them get the courage they need to carry out their attack.

Some suspects use drugs during an incident as an escape from pressure. They can’t handle the stressors put on them from hostages, the negotiator and the looming entry team waiting outside. Their temporary escape is to use drugs to help alleviate some of the stress.

Lastly, some suspects may take drugs to help them stay awake and alert during the incident. With time as the primary tool in the SWAT tool box, many suspects become worn down during the incident. To alleviate this, they will take a stimulant drug, such as methamphetamine or cocaine, to raise their alertness. However, this can be a dangerous proposition as it can make suspects more paranoid than they already are.

Drugs and drug physiology

The tactics that SWAT teams use to resolve barricade situations with a drugged suspect should depend on the drug that the suspect is using. Each drug has its own effects upon the human body. Methamphetamine will cause the suspect to become more hyper and possibly more paranoid. Heroin and large amounts of alcohol will make a suspect slow down and lose fine motor skills.

Following is a breakdown of the more common drugs, effects on an individual’s cognitive and motor functions and their impact on a critical incident. With this information, please keep in mind that there are variances that need to be accounted for. This includes the suspect’s tolerance to the drug, how much was used and the potency of the drug that the suspect has taken. With that said, there are commonalities among these drugs that can lead to predictable behaviors.

Methamphetamine and cocaine: These drugs are central nervous system stimulants that affect the sympathetic nervous system. Stimulants will cause the pupils to dilate, raise the suspect’s pulse and blood pressure, raise his body temperature, quicken his breathing and heighten his alertness. A suspect’s use of methamphetamine will continue this raised alertness up to six hours. Additionally, the suspect will begin to become paranoid. He will start to imagine that people might be in hiding waiting to get him, or that someone has planted a bomb to try and kill him.

It is important to know this during a critical incident involving a suspect using methamphetamine or cocaine. As the suspect uses more and more of the drug,

the more paranoid, agitated and unreasonable he will become. He may start to take actions that are unpredictable and he will be difficult to negotiate with. With this intelligence, you will realize that if the suspect has a large amount of drugs at the scene and he starts to use the drug, an expedient resolution is probably best.

Alcohol: Alcohol is the most abused drug in the United States and undoubtedly is the most popular substance in barricaded subject call outs. It is classified as a central nervous system depressant but many of us in law enforcement know from experience that there is nothing worse than fighting a mad drunk. When we are in these fights, alcohol does not seem to act as a CNS depressant, but more like a stimulant.

There are reasons for this type of behavior and the symptoms are somewhat predictable. With lower amounts of alcohol, we see more agitation, faster pulse and a definite lowering of inhibitions. As the suspect drinks more and more, he will begin to lose motor skills and will become slower in his reactions. Ultimately, the suspect could pass out due to intoxication. This is beneficial for an entry, but SWAT operators should remember that the suspect can still wake up and pose a threat to the entry team and innocents.

As police officers, we are all familiar with blood alcohol levels. We know that the higher the blood alcohol level, the more impaired the subject is. By knowing what the suspect’s approximate blood alcohol level is, we can figure what type of impairment the suspect might have.

It is important that tactical team personnel try to monitor the suspect’s alcohol intake. We can do this through remote cameras placed surreptitiously by team members, or rely on information from people recently released from the barricade site or long rifle/observer teams.

With this information, we can calculate a probable outcome based on the suspect’s intake. The average male will obtain an approximate blood alcohol concentration of .015 per drink (one standard shot of whiskey, one standard glass/can of beer, or one standard glass of wine). We also know that the following BACs generally correspond with the following signs of impairment:

.02% Pleasant feeling, sense of warmth and well-being


.04% Relaxed, energetic and happy; time passes quickly


.05% Observable effects, lightheaded, giddiness, impaired judgment


.08% Impaired muscle coordination and reaction time, D.U.I.


.10% Deterioration of coordination .15% Severe impairment of reactions .20% Marked depression of motor and sensory capability


.30% Confused or stuporous


.40% Usually unconscious, near death

The tactics that SWAT teams use to resolve barricade situations with a drugged suspect should depend on the drug that the suspect is using.

Marijuana: Like stimulants, marijuana is a drug that affects the sympathetic nervous system. The suspect will have an increased heart rate, high blood pres- sure and dilated pupils. Often we think of marijuana users as giddy, laughing and having the munchies. But we also know the violent crime that surrounds marijuana users. The marijuana of the 1960s was at most five percent THC, the active ingredient that causes the high for marijuana users. Recently, marijuana has been recovered with a THC level of 34 percent. The newer and more potent marijuana will cause a user to become intoxicated faster than the marijua- na of old. The symptoms of use will become more intense as well.

We also know that marijuana slows the reflexes of the user and the user will have difficulty in dividing his attention. This can be used to our advantage. If a user is under the influence of marijuana only and an entry needs to be made, a series of simultaneous distractions in multiple areas will over- whelm the senses of the marijuana user. The suspect will have difficulty managing all of the external stimuli and will not be able to adequately divide his attention towards all of the threats present.

Heroin: Heroin is a double-edged sword for SWAT. When the user is under the influence, it affects his parasympathetic nervous system and he is very relaxed. His pupils constrict, his pulse and blood pressure go down, and his muscles become flaccid. The user may go on the nod and be in a state of semi-consciousness. His eyes may close and he may appear to be sleeping.

If an entry is made while the suspect is on the nod, care should be given as the suspect is not really asleep. He can still hear what is going on around him and could react if necessary.

The other edge of the sword is withdrawal. The suspect’s sympathetic nervous system kicks in. He will become agitated and start to sweat. Body tremors will set in, the suspect will start vomiting, and then severe cramping and diarrhea will come. Think of the worst flu you have ever had and multiply that by 10 — that is how heroin withdrawal feels. The suspect will become irrational and unpredictable. Imagine if you have not eaten in 10 days. Would you be willing to fight through a SWAT yeam if you knew there was a big steak waiting on the other side?

PCP: PCP affects the sympathetic nervous system. Although rare in barricaded suspects, it is still a factor in some and knowledge of the drug is paramount. If a suspect is using, or has used, PCP during a barricade incident, expect that he may hallucinate, become overly agitated, or he may become overly passive. If the suspect is passive, outside influences can make the suspect become aggressive and angry.

Negotiating with a person under the influence of PCP is difficult at best. PCP is a dissociative anesthetic. The user will have the feeling that he is separated from his body and will have an out-of-body experience. This will not be an easy person to negotiate with. If an entry must be made, keep in mind the drug was originally made to operate on a person while awake. If deadly force is authorized, the suspect may not feel a gunshot and will continue until he bleeds out. A good central nervous system shot is indicated in a situation such as this.

When entry is made, flash/sound diversionary devices may adversely affect the PCP user. The loud noise and the bright flash may agitate and confuse him and make matters worse. Lights on weapons and loud verbal commands can cause the user to become suddenly aggressive. Care should be given upon entry.

Drug combinations: Many drug abusers use more than one substance at a time. This is often referred to as poly-drug use. In 1985, the Los Angeles Police Department conducted a Field Validation Study of their Drug Recognition Expert Program. This study is often referred to as the 173 Study. A study conducted by LAPD in 1985 found that 70 percent of people arrested under the influence of drugs were found to have more than one drug in their system. The most common drug combination in barricaded suspects is marijuana and every other drug mentioned above. Other popular drug combinations are stimulants and heroin (often called speedballing) and alcohol and marijuana.

When dealing with suspects who have consumed multiple drugs, just look at the information listed previously in this article. If a suspect consumed cocaine and heroin, you can expect behavior from either of those drug categories. However, their behavior depends on their tolerance to the particular drug, the time the drug was taken and the length of time the particular drug creates its individual high.

With someone that has consumed heroin and crack cocaine, the behavior can be predictable. Crack will create a high that lasts about ten minutes. When that high wears off, the heroin will kick in and the subject will exhibit symptoms consistent with the parasympathetic nervous system.


Having a solid foundation on drug physiology is important in any decision- making process during a barricade incident. With 80 percent of barricade suspects under the influence, drug use must be taken into consideration when planning a successful resolution to any standoff. With this information, you can make informed decisions that will reduce risk to officers, hostages and suspects.

Author: 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 DRE 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 use, 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. 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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