PROVIDENCE – Matt Oriani received the call from his friend, Lincoln Patrolman Kyle Wingate, at about 11:20 a.m., Wednesday.
That's when the officer asked him if he would participate in the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests instruction course, otherwise known as a live alcohol wet lab, being taught at the Providence Police Academy, located on Chad Brown Street.
Oriani acquiesced, and – less than 50 minutes later – he began drinking light beer.
“I was surprised, but it's my day off, so I said, 'Sure,'” stated Oriani, a 23-year-old Lincolnite and co-owner of his hometown's Overtime Bar & Grille with father Rick and brothers Jonathan and David. “I volunteered because I think it's important for people to understand the affects of alcohol, and to be aware of how much they're drinking.
“With me working in a bar environment, I need to know this stuff,” he added. “If somebody's had too many, I can almost always tell, and – at the end of the day – the safety of our patrons is very important.”
While sipping on his eighth beer, someone asked Oriani how he felt about “catching a buzz” at such an early hour. He chuckled, “Hey, it's 5 o'clock somewhere.”
Wingate laughed, too. He knew Oriani was supporting him in his endeavor, as well as 13 others statewide, to become SFST-certified. After passing this five-day, 40-hour workshop, he then would be eligible to teach the three tests to recruits and others at the Rhode Island Police Academy at the Community College of Rhode Island-Lincoln.
“We're monitoring Matt and how much he drinks,” he noted. “The amount is all based on his body weight as well as the percentage of alcohol he drinks in the span of 2 ½ hours. This is like a 'Train the Trainer' program, and, if we pass this course, we'll be certified as instructors.
“This goes along with everything else I've completed,” he continued. “I finished the D.R.E. (Drug Recognition Expert) program in June in Providence and Arizona. They sent all of us out to Maricopa County to perform drug evaluations on their prisoners.
“I want to do this so I can pass on my knowledge; that way, upcoming officers can better evaluate suspected intoxicated drivers. I also want to keep my SFST skills sharp. I know Matt works in a bar environment, and he's the type of person who can assist us in becoming more educated, but that's not all. He too is learning, and he can pass on his knowledge on to fellow employees and his patrons.”
Donald Decker, a drug recognition expert program coordinator and Nahant, Mass. police officer, is teaching this course along with Col. Rick Sullivan, a law enforcement liaison for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation's Office on Highway Safety.
Among those area instructors seeking certification: Wingate and officers Ken Dolan of Pawtucket, Peter Sweet of Cumberland, Jay Berthelette of Woonsocket and John Beausoleil of Smithfield.
“The first two days, we teach the officers basic concepts and principles of training other adults, then we go over what's entailed in the entire curriculum,” Decker indicated. “On this particular (Wednesday), we're instructing them on how to run a live alcohol workshop. We have three (drinking) volunteers, and – if they want – they can play cards, watch sports on TV, listen to the radio or just do whatever they want while they're drinking. Of course, within reason.
“Two guys are drinking beer, with one of them switching to run and coke, and another guy is drinking wine,” he added. “All are being monitored, then we'll move to administering the SFST. One key is that the candidate instructors must understand how people learn and how to teach them. There are no secrets or tricks. We're trying to see if they have the ability to convey what they know to others.
“A good example? Say I'm a going to college and taking a history course. The professor who's teaching me must know his material, but also how to present it to students so they can learn. This, however, is just one specific aspect of policing; there are dozens of others.
“(Today), we'll have them teach detection of people who are driving impaired, what some of the characteristics impaired drivers exhibit, like using a left turn signal and turning right; swerving; turning with a wide radius; etc.
“We'll also study what they may say or do, what they smell like and what some of the signs they're exhibiting. Our certified instructors will tell them, 'This is what we're going to do,' then they'll tell them again while showing them. After they demonstrate it again, they'll have the (candidate) instructors come up and demonstrate themselves what they've learned.
“The reason we're using volunteer drinkers is the (candidate) instructors get to apply their skills to people who are actually drinking; it creates a more realistic setting.”
Sullivan admitted only those officers who pass a rigorous application process are considered to take this course.
He and Decker base acceptance on a lengthy interview and past experience in detecting impaired drivers; and they must be endorsed by their police chief.
“The key here is that each of these officers are making a commitment to teach fellow officers or recruits the standard procedures for detecting, arresting and prosecuting impaired drivers,” Sullivan stated. “Not only have they committed to us and themselves, but also to their police departments, so it's a double commitment.”
One of the most prosecuted crimes in the country today is DUI, Decker said.
“They not only have to be proficient in field sobriety testing, but they also have to truly determine if someone is impaired, and articulate that impairment on their police report for court,” he offered. “More important than that, by using the best field tests available (the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, the “Walk-and-Turn” and “One-Leg Stand”), the officer will be able to determine if a driver is not impaired.
“You can't just go on whether a guy smells of alcohol. He might have had one beer at a friend's house. There are many indicators of impairment, and that's what we're teaching here.
“You know, there's also the medical aspect,” he added. “They may stop someone who they suspect has been drinking, but it could be a medical problem, one that simulates alcohol or drug influence. Those people belong in a hospital, not jail. We don't teach them to diagnose medical issues, but how to recognize symptoms of alcohol or drug impairment.
“Every person we have as a volunteer drinker during the course of this class, we encourage them to share this experience with family members and friends. That way, we hope, they don't end up in a serious crash – or arrested.”
Also attending was James E. Barden Jr., RIDOT's Highway Safety Coordinator, and he indicated the three imbibers all fit into the target audience aimed at by law enforcement agencies nationwide.
“That audience is males between 21-34, and – even within that demographic – we're buying media ads particularly targeting blue-collar males in that same age group,” Barden explained. “The federal government has done research studies that indicate that's the prime age group in which most first-time DUI offenders hail.
“We can't put a police officer on every corner, naturally, but by putting additional enforcements in place during key periods of the year – like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve – we're letting people know police are out there,” he continued. “We don't want to ruin anybody's good time, but we are asking them to plan ahead: Designate a sober driver, take a taxi or, if you're at a party and you've had too much, sleep over.
“Obviously, spending a holiday in jail isn't going to be a good time. We have a very serious alcohol-related fatality problem in Rhode Island. Look at the national statistics of the total amount of automobile accidents or crashes, and the percentage of those involving alcohol is astounding.
“Here in our state, it's 46-47 percent that involve alcohol. It's less than 50 percent, but not by much, so that's a huge number. You compare us to the other 50 states, and we're in the top five of the highest percentages of alcohol-related crashes.”
When candidate instructors shuffled off Oriani to the Breathalyzer test in another room, he blew a blood-alcohol content level of .121, that after eight beers. Fellow volunteer Ken Berthelette, 24, of Millville, the brother of Woonsocket Patrolman Berthelette, claimed he blew a .056, but that came perhaps 90 minutes after he stopped imbibing four beers and three rum and Cokes.
Immediately, the candidate and already-certified instructors brought the drinkers to another room to administer the SFSTs.
North Kingstown Patrolman Robert Hazard “pulled over” Oriani and asked him if he wore glasses or contacts, then began the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus. He held a stimulus 12-15 inches from his face and asked him to follow it with his eyes, not head, with hands by his sides.
He then asked some candidate instructors what they detected, such as lack of smooth pursuit, or distinct and sustained nystagmus (impairment).
“The candidate instructors are observing how Bob, a certified instructor, administers the test, but he's also throwing them some curveballs, like not holding the stimulus at the proper length from the face,” Sullivan said. “If they see something that's not right, they say, 'Pardon me, but from our training, we learned what the exact procedure was. Can you do it again?'
“You don't say, 'That's incorrect,'” he added. “Nothing negative is said.”
He also maintained that people go out on a Friday night for four or five beers, and they believe that's their legal limit.
“But they don't know what their blood alcohol content is in that particular circumstance,” Sullivan stated. “He may believe his legal limit is five beers, but the Breathalyzer says it's two. That's the true limit. People should strive for not drinking and driving, and – if they're going to drink – seek an alternate way home.
“Look at Matt,” he continued as Oriani went through the “Walk-and-Turn” test. “He's doing nearly everything right. Still, he didn't with the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus. His eyes couldn't hold steady on a moving target or a fixed target. That indicates central nervous system impairment, but maybe not alcohol impairment.
“We as police officers have to take into consideration other factors: Admission to drinking; the smell of alcohol emanating from him; glassy, watery or bloodshot eyes; slurred speech; short-term memory issues; etc. All the things we put him through may or may not indicate intoxication, but the cues through our training have number values. Those numbers are compared to control studies done by several research groups.”
Stated Decker: “There's a lot of detail to this, and the candidates must get it correct.”
When it was over, Oriani mentioned he learned a few things from the “other” side.
“I realized that I was impaired earlier than I thought I would be,” he offered. “I also learned eight beers is way too much to drive. I used to do two or three and drive, but now I know even that's not OK. If you don't have any, that's OK.
“Now I know just being able to recognize when someone's impaired is critical in my business,” he added. “I've always been pretty good at that, but now I feel like I can get better at it.”