Gloria Mansfield Averill had a background in child welfare and nonprofit leadership before taking on traffic safety as Target Zero Manager (TZM) in Region Five (Pierce County). We sat down with Gloria to discuss Region Five’s program to certify law enforcement officers in phlebotomy to facilitate timely blood draws from suspected drug-impaired drivers.
Q: Tell us about the traffic safety problem are you trying to address?
A: Impairment from multiple drug use is the most common type of impairment among Washington drivers now. There are many drivers today who die in crashes with more than one drug in their system compared to not many years ago when impaired collisions involved primarily alcohol. When we began to see in the last few years that drugged driving deaths and injuries were eclipsing those involving only alcohol, we needed an approach to help us better identify the presence of drugs in the blood of drivers.
Q: How does that switch impact enforcement?
A: Until the beginning of our project in the city of Lakewood two years ago and our expansion of the project throughout the County last year, officers had to take their arrestee to a hospital or clinic to draw blood. Then those medical facilities began adopting policies that required arrestees to be checked in along with all the rest of the waiting patients. In some cases, policies were developed to charge for the blood draw. The bottom line was that the process was going to take more time and money than law enforcement agencies in Pierce County could afford.
Q: And there’s importance in getting the blood drawn quickly, isn’t there?
A: Yes. For example, with marijuana you need to get the blood drawn within an hour or the first 90 minutes before the impairing part of the drug starts dissipating. So, the closer you do the blood draw to the observed impaired driving the better.
Q: With increasing numbers of multidrug, or polydrug impaired drivers and increasing difficulty in getting timely blood draws, what did you do?
A: We developed a program to train officers to do the blood draws themselves. One of the officers in Lakewood who often does DUI patrols with the task force heard about this approach and was enthusiastic about trying it here. We worked together, and I did some research, made some phone calls and I wrote a grant on behalf of the Lakewood Police Department to the Traffic Safety Commission to set up the first law enforcement phlebotomy project in Washington. It was enthusiastically funded!
Q: So how do the blood draws happen under the program?
A: Law enforcement set up a room at the station much like a room in a hospital, with a special chair for blood draws, equipped with draw supplies, and a camera, because everything is recorded. An officer who has been trained in the same way as all certified phlebotomists in the state of Washington does the actual draw.
But it doesn’t have to be in the station. During the state fair the Puyallup City Library opened their doors and let the trained officer phlebotomists bring a portable unit they developed that could be brought to special task force emphasis patrols or events.
Q: What kind of training is involved for the officer?
A: They go to a local technical college and take a course that meets State of Washington Medical Assistant-Phlebotomist Licensing requirements. This lasts several months, with classes only several times a week. But officers are actually required to do additional practice draws, than are required by the training program for all other students. We go the extra mile so no one can come back and question the program.
Q: What is the status of the program now?
A: We started as a pilot in Lakewood, and from there expanded out into Pierce County. Three phlebotomy sites in the County have already been established. Three more are in the works, including possibly the Puyallup jail, the Gig Harbor Police Department and the Tacoma Police Department. The Tacoma Police Department is coming on board with five of their officers training this fall. So far, we have 20 trained phlebotomists, but anticipate more in the coming year.
Having the program region wide, not just city by city, is what will really make it work. It’s an on-call 24/7 system, and so by going region-wide we have enough phlebotomists available to the WSP and all Pierce County allied agencies.
Q: What does the grant cover?
A: It covers the equipment, like the blood draw chair, the supplies, camera, as well as tuition and class materials and overtime for officers to take time from their regular duties to attend the phlebotomy classes and prepare for the final exam for certification.
Q: Earlier you spoke of the trend towards impairment from polydrug use. You recently dedicated one of your DUI enforcement patrols to a victim.
A: It’s a really sad case. The mother of a three-year old, Brody Debenning, was high on three different drugs and she crashed head-on into a truck, with Brody in the car. And there had never been any other family members in his life other than his impaired mom. Brody was actually placed in foster care for a time, and I helped find the two foster moms who took him in while his mom was trying to get clean. But it wasn’t long after Brody’s biological mom regained custody that the crash occurred.
Q: Tragic cases like that really underscore the need for raising awareness about polydrug impairment, and the need for enforcement tools like the one you’ve created in Pierce County.
A: Yes. I’ve found traffic safety extremely seductive. There are real opportunities if you are creative and willing to try new things, like this phlebotomy program. It’s really worthwhile. Hopefully, we will eventually see the impact of the approach as we gather the data. No one should have to die at the hands of an impaired driver.
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