Volunteers get drunk to help deputies with DUI training

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comOctober 18, 2012 

— Grandmother-of-three Tammy Hill usually drinks a couple of Bud Lights every other weekend when she’s off work.

On Wednesday, it took four cups of Coca-Cola mixed with Bacardi rum to send her blood alcohol level to .11 before lunchtime.

That’s exactly where Sheriff’s deputies wanted her.

Hill, a 44-year-old York County dispatcher from Rock Hill, was one of three volunteers to gather at the York County Sheriff’s Office training center Wednesday to drink until their blood alcohol levels matched numbers deputies used to train up-and-coming officers and some law enforcement veterans on DUI detection.

Deputies chose the blood-alcohol concentration levels they wanted each participant to reach before they would send them to undergo routine field sobriety tests.

Hill was supposed to drink until her level reached .11, well over the legal limit of .08. Shannon Thomas, a 28-year-old 911 dispatcher from York who insisted she doesn’t drink “much at all,” was supposed to drink until her blood-alcohol level reached .05.

Her husband Wesley Thomas — who prefers Jack Daniel’s or Wild Turkey whiskey — aimed to drink until his reading was “borderline” on the legal limit, said Lori Kimble, a Sheriff’s deputy who acted as a bartender in the makeshift drinking lab.

Beginning with breathalyzer readings at 0.00, they each took their first drink at 8:40 a.m. Each volunteer, all of whom signed waivers when they agreed to participate, were allowed to bring their own liquor as long as it was 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol, Kimble said.

Hill and Shannon Thomas, co-workers who wanted to take a day off and drink so they’d know what it’s like to be on the other side of the DUI call, both started with a mixture of rum and Coke. Wesley Thomas, currently unemployed, began with a combo of Jack Daniel’s and Pepsi.

For the remainder of the da, the volunteers would be joined by deputy escorts until they sobered up, no matter how long it took.

As the three drank, Kimble monitored their blood alcohol levels by administering a breathalyzer test in 20- 30 minute increments. She took their drink orders, blending their sodas of choice with their liquors of choice, usually measuring the alcohol between one-and-a-half to 2 ounces.

By the time they were downing their second cups, Wesley Thomas didn’t feel a thing; Hill said she felt “good”; and Shannon Thomas said, “This one is strong.”

Then came her buzz. After her third cup, brief hiccups and 5 ounces of alcohol, Shannon Thomas reached .053.

Body weight and height make much of the difference when determining how long it’ll take for an individual to get drunk, Kimble said.

Shannon Thomas stands at 4 feet 10 inches. Her husband is 5 feet 10 inches. And Hill, 5 foot 3 inches, said, “I keep it (beer) at the house. I usually don’t drink liquor.”

When Wesley Thomas left the military in 2002, drinking “a bottle of Jack was nothing,” he said.

His drinking habit went on the decline when Rock Hill’s Long Branch nightclub, where he “religiously” went to hang out, closed down for a short period. Now that’s its reopened, he drinks less often but takes advantage of their food and a chance to “B.S. with everybody.”

On Wednesday, he grew anxious after finishing his second cup.

“I feel like an ant under a magnifying glass,” he said.

Master Deputy Jon Osborne, who heads the DUI detection training, said DUI’s remain a huge problem in the county, state and nation.

So far this year, deputies have made 85 DUI-related arrests in York County, Osborne said.

When the volunteers met their goals, Osborne performed a pre-emptive horizontal gaze nystagmus test where he looked for six indicators that someone was over the legal limit. Both Hill and Wesley Thomas showed all six.

Drunks can master the one-leg stand and walk and turn tests, Osborne said.

“The truth is in the eyes,” he said.

The volunteers stepped into a large gym, where Rock Hill, Fort Mill and Clover police officers gave the tests. They had to gauge which volunteers were over the limit and decide if they’d arrest them in a real-life situation.

If they were wrong, instructors evaluated what steps they should’ve taken. Students will get a second chance with another set of drinking lab volunteers Thursday before taking their written exam Friday. If they don’t pass, Osborne said, they won’t receive certification.

“This is where we want them to do wrong,” he said. “We don’t want them to do wrong out there.”

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