How to Stay Safe When Doing DRE/DAR Exams

DAR and DRE Safety

Many officers are hurt each year while evaluating people under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Many of these injuries are avoidable if officers practice good officer safety techniques. From the initial field contact to the controlled DRE/DAR examination, officers must never forget that the person they are dealing with is unpredictable due to their drug induced state. Dealing with drug impaired suspects necessitates a higher degree of vigilance than in almost any other case.

With the emergence of newer designer drugs, poly drug use has become the norm. During the Los Angeles Field Validation Study for the DRE program (1985), 72% of suspects evaluated had more than one drug in their system. 45% of these suspects had two or more drugs other than alcohol on board. During field certification training in New York City (1989), 67% of suspects had two or more drugs other than alcohol in their body. Even though we may suspect that a person has only been using marijuana, the suspect may have been using PCP as well.

DRE and DAR safety

DRE/DAR Field contact

Our evaluations start even before a formal field contact is initiated. As an officer approaches a suspect, the officer is already evaluating the suspect’s clothing condition and personal appearance. This is when the officer will notice if the suspect is acting passive and docile, or fidgety and paranoid. If the officer believes that the suspect is under the influence of drugs, another officer should be called for cover as soon as possible. Officers should not deal with intoxicated suspects alone.

The officer should also evaluate if one officer is enough. If the suspect is acting paranoid to the point that they may flee or fight, then two officers may not be enough to handle the threat. If the suspect becomes combative, the officer should never rule out a tactical retreat. This remedy is only temporary until a sufficient number of officers arrive to take the suspect into custody.

A few years ago, an officer on patrol was sent to a report of a naked male in the middle of a major thoroughfare. When he arrived, the naked man was attacking passing cars with a belt. The officer, who has prior experience as a narcotics officer, immediately recognized that the suspect was exhibiting behavior of being under the influence of PCP. The officer requested several units to assist in taking the suspect into custody. Suddenly, the suspect attacked the officer’s car. The officer drove in reverse for several blocks with the suspect in pursuit. The officer intentionally had the suspect chase his cruiser until the suspect was tired out and a sufficient number of units arrived. With the suspect fatigued and several officers present, the arrest was made with no injuries sustained.

When DRE’s/DAR’s conduct an evaluation, they have to get close to the suspect to check pupil size, pulse, and a myriad of other conditions. The drug examiner should use the utmost vigilance while checking these conditions. The best way to predict an attack from a drug user is by looking at when most attacks occur. These attacks occur in the field when we check for initial signs of influence, during the dark room examination, and during the toxicology phase.

While talking to the suspected drug user, officers should use the contact and cover technique. One officer should be responsible for conduction the evaluation while the other officer stands at a position of advantage ready for any problems that may occur. The officer conducting the interview should talk to the drug user in a voice that it non-threatening. The officer should keep in mind that the suspect is completely unpredictable due to their drug induced state.

While conducting a preliminary drug evaluation, it is common for officers to check for horizontal gaze nystagmus and vertical nystagmus. This is when several attacks on officers occur. While checking for nystagmus, it is common practice for officers to use a pen or pencil as a stimulus for the suspect to follow. Unfortunately, several officers have been stabbed with these objects. Most have sustained major injuries. To avoid giving the suspected user a weapon to initiate an assault, officers should think about using something with a blunt tip, such as a pen light. Since most drug abusers have a hard time following the stimulus, the light at the end of a pen light can help focus the drug user at the task at hand. It is also difficult to use against the officer as a stabbing weapon.

Examination in a controlled environment

After the suspect has been arrested, he is usually transported to a facility where the DRE/DAR examination can be completed. If the suspect is showing signs of potential violence, then the examining officer should decide if he needs a cover officer present during the examination. The drug that the suspect took will also dictate how the officer will conduct the evaluation. For example, if the suspect is under the influence of PCP, then the examining officer should have a cover officer present during the examination.

If the suspect is exhibiting signs of emotional instability or paranoia, it is a good idea to leave the suspect handcuffed during the examination. At all times, the suspect should be handcuffed during the dark room examination. There is too much potential for an assault to occur when you can barely see the suspect. There is no reason to take a chance when you do not have to.

The last chance for an officer to become the victim of an attack is during the toxicology phase of the DRE/DAR examination. Ask any correctional officer, and they will tell you that the worst attack is a “gassing”. This is where the suspect throws their urine or feces onto an unsuspecting officer. It is a good idea to have the suspect provide a urine sample, place the cap on the bottle themselves, and then leave it on the toilet or sink. Have the suspect step away and then recover the sample. This can all be done while you are at a distance. If the suspect tries to “gas” an officer, the reactionary gap should be extended so the officer has more time to react to the threat.


With the emergence of new drugs, and the resurgence of old drugs like PCP, officers are coming into contact with drugged suspects on a daily basis. By using tried and trued officer safety methods, officers can better avoid an attack. These officer safety systems are in place for not only your safety, but the safety of your partner and other officers.

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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