California Cops Are Using the Homeless for Hands-On Training

The homeless say they're given an ultimatum: be arrested or participate in the program. Officers deny that the homeless are given a choice and say that they're booked even if they do participate.

Jun 30 2014, 7:18am

Photos by the author

A California Highway Patrol (CHP) program aimed at identifying drug users has been using the homeless as subjects in training exercises for officers. The program has been ongoing for several years, but those who have participated claim that they have exchanged participation for freedom from arrest.

The Drug Recognition Evaluator Program (DRE), for which the CHP is the statewide coordinator, is a training process designed to teach officers to identify what substance a person is on—meth, heroin, marijuana, or just alcohol. Ordinarily people learn this by being college students, but the CHP has seen fit to come up with a formal program.

“What makes the class very effective and in a lot of ways unique is that not only is it comprised of a classroom portion, but there is also a clinical side,” said Sergeant Gilbert Peirsol, the DRE instructor in Fresno, CA. “They actually have hands-on training in evaluating people under the influences of controlled substances.”

Under the police’s discretion, and provided there's probable cause, DRE officers will pull up to someone who is perhaps walking too close to the highway, carrying an open container, or seemingly under the influence. Thanks to a new city ordinance, officers in Fresno can also stop someone for having a shopping cart on the grounds of probable theft.

Calvin Utley, 25, a “scrapper” who frequents a recycling center near the CHP office, says people are given the option of either participating in the testing, or getting booked in jail downtown. He said they pick up stragglers around the freeway. "They tend to get an ultimatum, whether they want to go to jail or go get tested,” he told me. 

Downtown Fresno

Peirsol says Fresno is a prime area for the certification process, and the DRE program as a whole has set the precedent for various agencies from around the world. Trainees come to the CHP to learn the steps involved in drug recognition and identification at a few different sites throughout California.

It begins with a week-long classroom instruction, followed by field testing. This is where the residents, homeless, transients, or anyone suspected of being under the influence are used in the DRE program. Trainees don't have to go far to find them. 

A block north of the CHP office is Motel Drive, a desolate strip of motels, homeless encampments, and liquor stores that run parallel to Highway 99. “The area that surrounds our office is historically known for drug activity,” said Peirsol. 

Within the community around Motel Drive, there are some backers of the DRE program, but it's a divisive issue.

Forty-one-year-old Shannon Downey, a homeless woman who resides in the area, told me, “I’ve been asked to do this, and I refused, because I wasn't on parole or probation. Nor was I high or holding any drugs.” 

Downey believes that the process of picking up people for the DRE program could potentially be useful, but that police officers are exploiting the often powerless homeless population.

“It’s a free pass if you're out here being stupid, but it’s kind of cheap labor in a way, to use people they know have to say yes. So it goes both ways,” said Downey, referring to the same ultimatum Utley described. Many homeless mention being given this option, but. Peirsol asserts that it's not the case, that regardless of their participation, those in question are charged and prosecuted. 

“We don’t do a lot of bartering,” Peirsol said. “It’s illegal. What we're arresting the folks for is illegal. Health and safety codes say you can’t be under the influence. If I see signs and symptoms of drug influence, you can be arrested,” he added.

Charlotte Ward

Charlotte Ward, who has been homeless off and on for the past 20 years, was not given an option. One day while working part-time doing yard work for a local motel, she was picked up and taken to the CHP facility where they do the DRE testing.

“They just pulled up like Dukes of Hazzard and was like, ‘I think you’re high, and I'm gonna test you’ and stuff like that. I told them I was at work, and they didn't even get me a chance,” said Ward.

Ward said she had to leave all of her work tools behind, and couldn’t tell her boss that she was leaving. But if she explained why she was being picked up, that would have caused another set of problems. “I was humiliated because I was at work. I could have lost the job due to them.”

She added, “I felt like I was under their shoe, like some gum.”

Letting people choose to be either booked or suddenly included in a training program sounds like a devil's bargain, but the leniency could help out with overcrowding in the California’s prison system, which leads the nation in locking up drug offenders. Combined with the recent California measure to reduce sentences for those committing non\violent crimes, which are often drug-related, the effort could be a step away from hard-line positions left over from the heyday of the war on drugs.

Utley remains ambivalent. He described the experiences of some acquaintances and told me, “They feel it’s better than going to jail. But also they feel their rights are kind of being violated, you know?” He added, “I feel like they should be put in front of the judge before all that.”