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Highway Patrol Trooper Tarek Chase is state coordinator for the drug recognition expert program. Chase is based in Bismarck at the North Dakota Law Enforcement Training Academy. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

Recognition experts aim to keep drug-impaired drivers off North Dakota roads

BISMARCK — North Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Tarek Chase is vigilant, constantly gauging the sobriety of people around him, even when he's off duty.

He can't help it.

It's the result of his drug recognition expert training, a rigorous, internationally utilized program that helps law enforcement to identify drivers impaired under the influence of drugs other than alcohol.

Chase oversees North Dakota's drug recognition expert training program as state coordinator. North Dakota has 60 DRE law enforcement officers spread out over about 20 agencies.

Law enforcement agencies across the state will have extra patrols for the "Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over" campaign beginning Friday, Aug. 16, and running through Sept. 2.

Both the Bismarck Police Department and the Burleigh County Sheriff's Department have a drug recognition expert within their ranks. Neither the Mandan Police Department nor the Morton County Sheriff's Office have a certified DRE officer, but both utilize officers from nearby agencies when needed.

"All officers when they go out on the street, they all have some form of basic impairment training," Chase said. "The drug recognition expert is the pinnacle of that type of training. It our highest form of identifying impaired subjects."

Although statistics don't show how many DUI arrests are the result of drug-impaired driving, Chase said law enforcement officers statewide have noticed an increase in drug-impaired driving.

"To me, it seems like we've been able to get that word of mouth out talking about alcohol impairment," Chase said. "That’s been preached for many years. But I think there is a bit of a misconception when it comes to drug impairment."

DRE officers follow a systematic, 12-step protocol using clinical signs to determine whether a driver is impaired, whether the impairment is caused by a medical issue or drugs, and if drug use is suspected, what category or categories of drugs may be the cause of the impairment.

"We can’t go in predisposed that the person is intoxicated," Chase said. "This person may be having a medical event, so the DRE is also used to identify that, instead of wrongfully arresting someone and bringing them to jail."

It's expensive to become a certified expert, so proficient officers must apply and be selected to undergo three weeks of intensive training. The cost to train one officer to become an expert is about $4,000, according to Sgt. Travis Skarr, former state coordinator of the program.

The first two weeks of training, which take place in Bismarck, are book-heavy but include two "wet labs," where volunteers are dosed with enough alcohol to cause impairment, then brought in along with a sober control group for officers to identify who is impaired by alcohol.

For the final week they head out of state to the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix, Ariz., where the high number of bookings gives officers plenty of opportunities for practice. Recently booked inmates volunteer to be tested for impairment.

"We can take people that have ingested illegal substances, and we will test them on site," said Chase. "No additional charges, we don't even know who they are. But it gives us real world training on drugs, not just alcohol."

Chase said the reason officers go through the training is to keep North Dakota's roadways as safe as possible.

"That's our No. 1 goal, especially those of us that work the road. That's why we do the impaired driving stuff — so people don’t get hurt," he said.

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