The mother of a man who says he was given drugs by a police officer as part of a statewide training program said she suspects it was more than marijuana, as the police officer allegedly claimed.
Christin Olivier said she watched a video of her 20-year-old son, Forest, taken shortly after his encounter with the officer and that his behavior was too jumpy to be the result of marijuana alone.
"We still have no idea what my son was given," said Olivier, who lives in Minneapolis.
Olivier's question was just one of many to arise this week after the state Department of Public Safety launched a criminal probe against a Hutchinson officer, placed a state trooper on leave and suspended the state's Drug Recognition Evaluator (DRE) program, a staple of law enforcement training that's been around for 20 years.
The allegation that officers were distributing drugs, first made by local Occupy Minnesota protesters in Minneapolis and initially denied by state law enforcement officials, was given new life this week after an officer came forward with similar allegations, according to the state Department of Public Safety. The DRE program itself has come under fire elsewhere from criminal defense attorneys questioning its science, and a court in Maryland two months threw out such tests, saying they were unreliable.
A spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety said Friday that the investigation continues. The spokesman left open the possibility that the investigation could grow to include more than the two officers facing allegations that they were present when drugs were handed out.
Watching the investigation will be Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon, who spoke publicly about the DRE program after he was approached by the mother of one of the test subjects. Gordon said he's been left with a series of questions: How did the officers get the drugs? How many officers were involved? How long has this gone on?
"From the accounts that I heard it just seemed like this was the normal way that they were doing it," he said. "Nothing said to me, 'Oh, this was just a one-time, freakish incident.'"
The allegations have shined a light on a law enforcement program that would be familiar to anyone who's been stopped for suspicion of driving while drunk or high on drugs.
The 12-step DRE protocol begins with a breath alcohol test. If it's negative, a DRE officer then conducts the remaining steps to determine which drug the person may have taken. The officer will look at a person's eyes, take his or her temperature and pulse, administer "psychophysical tests" such as the one-leg stand and finger-to-nose exercise, and interview the suspect and the arresting officer.
A court in Maryland two months ago ruled that the DRE program does not work. Alex Cruikshank, a Maryland public defender, was one of two attorneys there to challenge the test on behalf of 40 defendants. Using expert witnesses including doctors from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, Cruikshank argued that the DRE tests were invalid. "We just thought it was junk science to begin with," he said in an interview. "The problem is that if you flip a coin you've got a better chance of getting it right than the DRE."
The court's finding is at steep odds with police practice in Minnesota and elsewhere.
"We have a lot of faith in the program," said Earl Sweeney, the chair of the DRE oversight panel at the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Sweeney, assistant commissioner for the New Hampshire Department of Safety, said he's never heard of allegations like those coming from Minnesota.
Calling the program "extremely accurate," Sweeney said DRE training programs are usually done in conjunction with a rock concert, motorcycle rally or prison release program where law enforcement agents are likely to find chemically impaired people. If the police can't find subjects to test, videos are available to conduct the training without live subjects, he said.
Sweeney said his panel is not investigating the problems alleged in Minnesota, but would step in if asked by state officials.
At least three young men have come forward to say they were picked up by law officers at Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis, taken elsewhere and given marijuana to smoke. Some were examined at a warehouse in Richfield as part of the training program.
Where did drugs come from?
"I think their DRE test should not be given," said Christin Olivier. Nothing was in writing, she said, and she doesn't know what medical supervision was on hand, what drugs were used, and whether people understood their rights when her son and others were used as test subjects. "There's a lack of accountability here," she said.
Forest Olivier lives with his mother, and couldn't be reached for comment. On May 2, he appeared at a City Council hearing and described his experience with the DRE program. Video of his testimony was posted online that day, and Christin Olivier said watching her son on the video was difficult.
"That was very disheartening to see because I was so worried for my son. I was very, very worried," she said.
Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747