In what the Garden Grove PD says may be a first for a law enforcement agency, all officers on the GGPD’s Motors Unit are certified Drug Recognition Experts.
So-called DREs are officers who go through intense and specialized training to recognize impairment in drivers under the influence of drugs other than, or in addition to, alcohol.
Having all its motor officers certified as DREs is critical, top brass say, as the GGPD, facing a blowup in traffic-related fatalities last year, seeks to make its streets safer. In 2016, there were 14 traffic-related deaths in Garden Grove, compared to four the year before. So far in 2017, there have been three.
The recent additions of Motor Officer Mike Elhami, who started on the GGPD’s Motor Unit on April 21, and Motor Officer Danny Mihalik, who started in February, is good timing as May is National Bicycle Safety Month — with alcohol-saturated Cinco de Mayo just a day away.
“The unit has been functioning at a very high level, and I cannot be more pleased,” said Sgt. Patrick Gildea, supervisor of the GGPD’s Traffic Division. “There are over 170,000 people in our city, and the volume of traffic issues and complaints never ends, which keeps us very busy. Having an entire unit that is DRE certified and is dedicated to the safety and traffic flow within our city is great.”
Other members of the GGPD’s Motors Unit are Officers Kathy Anderson, Tom Capps, Paul Ashby, Ronnie Reyes and Investigator Royce Wimmer.
Both Elhami and Mihalik were trained as DREs in the Fullerton PD’s heralded DRE program. Although it is an international standardized program taught by many other agencies outside the county and state, the FPD is the only police agency in Orange County offering DRE training.
The Fullerton PD, California Highway Patrol and LAPD are the only agencies in the state that offer POST-certified DRE training. And the training is provided at no cost to police agencies, said Sgt. Jon Radus of the FPD.
The prerequisites for DRE training are Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) and Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE).
SFST involves three tests: Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN), One-Leg-Stand and the “Walk & Turn.”
ARIDE is a two-day training focusing on both legal and illegal drugs that impair driving.
The second half of DRE training consists of Field Certifications in which students are required to apply classroom knowledge to actual arrestees suspected of being under the influence of one of the drugs from seven categories (depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, dissociative anesthetics, narcotic analgesics, inhalants and cannabis).
Numerous drugs fall into each category – for example, alcohol as well as prescription anti-anxiety drugs fall under the depressants category.
Master Officer Elhami, a GGPD officer for seven years and member of the agency’s SWAT team, said he wanted to become a motor officer to make a difference in reducing traffic-related fatalities and injuries.
He and Mihalik, a four-year GGPD veteran, believe being certified as DREs is important following the recent decriminalization of marijuana in the state, the increase in abuse of illegal and prescription drugs, and the continuing problem of distracted drivers.
Both have pulled over drivers who were stoned — one took a bong rip right in front of Mihalik — who thought it was OK to smoke marijuana and drive in California.
“He had just gotten off the freeway and taken a hit,” Mihalik said of the bong-bearing motorist, “and wasn’t under the influence yet. But it ended up being a good stop. I found a handgun and an assault rifle in his car.”
In late April, Mihalik responded to a call about a motorist who had driven into someone’s front yard and was passed out behind the wheel when he arrived. Based on his DRE evaluation, Mihalik believes the driver was under the influence of heroin.
To become a motor officer, the GGPD first puts applicants through a month of motorcycle-riding training in the parking lot of Angel Stadium. Then the wanna-be motor officers attend two weeks of Motor School in San Bernardino to master the fine art of maneuvering 900-pound beasts around city streets.
It’s a dream job, Mihalik and Elhami said.
And being DREs makes them more confident while on regular patrol as well as directed-enforcement assignment in such trouble spots as Haster Street between Chapman Avenue and Garden Grove Boulevard, an area plagued by jaywalkers and a dip in the road that makes it difficult for motorists to see pedestrians crossing outside of a crosswalk — especially at night.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do in my career — it’s an exciting job,” said Mihalik, whose father, Danny, is a motor officer in Anaheim and whose sister, Dallas, is a recently hired deputy with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Said Elhami: “This is a nice change of pace from being a regular patrol officer.”
Jessica Peralta contributed to this story.
For more information about Bicycle Safety Month, click here.