Just for fun, do a quick analysis of the basic recruit syllabus from your local or regional academy. There's no doubt you ll find countless hours on such important issues as search and seizure, deadly force, laws of arrest, sexual harassment and traffic enforcement. But how many hours does the average recruit spend studying how to deal with speed freaks, crack heads or other chemically impaired skells prowling the streets of cities today? Not many. Those topics are usually reserved for specialized courses in narcotics law enforcement.
Having spent over three-quarters of my professional law enforcement career in the 1970s and '80s working graveyards (in one form or another) as a street dog, detective and first- and second-line boss, I know a little bit about the personalities of city night crawlers. My stint in undercover narcotics, also worked mostly at night, taught me even more about the day-to-day (and dusk-to-dawn) activities of dopers. Needless to say, it isn t a pretty picture. Sanitary conditions aside, it s also a study in officer safety issues. (See Talkin Tweakers Fast Facts below)
How to Spot a Meth Head
So let s identify some of the most common characteristics of speed freaks and meth heads to make your next encounter a little safer. This information comes courtesy of former Honolulu and San Diego street narc Sergeant Fred Wilson via retired San Diego Sergeant Steve Albrecht's book, Surviving Street Patrol: A Guide to Safe and Effective Policing.
Body odor: As I mentioned earlier and as Fred Wilson reinforces, personal hygiene is not a priority among dopers, especially meth heads. To put it plainly: Speed freaks stink. Chronic meth use causes tweakers to sweat constantly. In addition to the odor of methamphetamine oozing from their pores, their hair and skin are usually greasy. With their priority being to get more speed (or money to get more speed), they don t spend a lot of time taking care of personal hygiene.
Twitches: Meth heads usually have more tics than an ACLU lawyer at a police clambake. Think of attorney Alan Dershowitz walking into a PBA Pig Roast. Methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant. Just imagine continually ingesting speed to the point where your pulse is doing cartwheels. Speed freaks constantly move their head and look around, left, right and behind. Their hands will be constantly busy too; they constantly touch themselves and their hair, and adjust their clothing. They'll also be continually shifting their weight from foot to foot. Minor street noise that wouldn't bother Joe Normal may cause Terry the Tweaker to jump out of his skin. Like other stimulants, meth intensifies the senses.
Rapid pulse: Tweakers and crack addicts usually have a very rapid pulse. Cops know that anyone may have a rapid pulse simply because they're nervous about being stopped in the first place or maybe they have something in their pocket or socks they shouldn't have. That's not what I'm talking about. It's not uncommon for speed freaks to have a pulse rate in the mid to high 100s. Sometimes, the veins in their neck will be pulsing visibly. If you've made an arrest and these folks are going to be in your care and custody for a few hours, take their pulse rate a couple of times during booking. A normal doper's pulse rate might come back to close to normal during the booking process; a speed freak's pulse may stay elevated for hours.
Dilated pupils: If you encounter a tweaker during daylight hours (they do emerge during normal business hours), have them remove their sunglasses. A wise man once said, The eyes are the window to the soul. Well, eyes without iris color (just big black holes on huge white eyeballs) are a clue to drug use. Long-term use of meth may result in weakened eye muscles; therefore, a speed freak s pupils may not open and close with regularity.
Speech and dry mouth: Another very common characteristic of tweakers is their speech pattern. Meth heads do talk ... and talk ... and talk. They have rapid, paranoid and disconnected conversations. You may have to gag them just to get the Miranda read. Even then, they'll still be flapping their jaws. That's fine, too. While somewhat annoying, they may just blurt out something they didn't intend to, which of course, you might find advantageous. Best advice? Listen.
Although it's not as obvious as the other visible signs, chronic meth users suffer from frequent dry mouth. You may see a slimy, white coating on their lips, tongues and sides of their mouths. Although I didn't see this sign as frequently as the other signs during my narc days, I've been told that the frequent licking of the lips to remove that milky coating is fairly common. So watch for it.
The Bottom Line
This column isn't intended to be a full lesson plan for the next roll-call training session on dealing with druggies. My hope is that it will create a desire on your part to learn more and perhaps arrange for a street narc to come into the roll calls and give a short presentation on tweaker dangers and recognition. If you're reading this and you're a boss, contact the Drug Unit to see if a detective is available to put on a short class about speed freak recognition. Your officers need this information.
If you're a narc cop, offer your services to the street dogs on this all important topic. Not only may it save a few lives, but the next field interview or traffic stop could produce a quality informant. There's an old saying in narcotics law enforcement: A narc is only as good as his next snitch. It holds some truth.
Until next month, stay safe!
Talkin Tweakers Fast Facts
Law enforcement personnel know that drug dealers, mules and many users are frequently armed. It's for a simple reason, really: They don't want to get ripped off. Carrying a weapon also allows for the possibility that when they find themselves in a temporary cash flow problem and they feel the urge to make a quick withdrawal from the local Stop n Rob, they have the necessary tools. Those facts make for some dangerous issues to keep in mind when approaching, stopping or arresting a suspected speed freak.
The latest figures from the FBI Officer Killed/Injured Summaries show that of all drug-related police murders, one-third (33%) of those killings happened during buy-bust (hand-to-hand) situations; another third (32%) during raid executions; and the remaining third (30%) occurred during other enforcement activities, including vehicle stops. A small percentage of the murders (about 5%) were to prevent the officers from testifying in court.
By the way, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the most likely day you'll come face to face with a drug courier is a Saturday, and Sundays and Mondays are the least likely days (2%). The DEA found that almost half of all hard drug seizures occur on a Saturday.
Author s note: Special thanks to Sgt. Steve Albrecht (SDPD, retired) for his information on methamphetamine users in his book, Surviving Street Patrol, and also to Chuck Remsberg, author of Tactics for Criminal Patrol.