Over the limit, under control, on purpose: Controlled testing for OWI
My bucket list doesn't include getting drunk in a room full of cops. It also doesn't mention anything about drinking 11 ounces of vodka and nine shots of cheap liquor before 2 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon.
But I just can't pass up a unique opportunity for experiential journalism, and it is the final day of OnMilwaukee.com's Bar Month. I figured I might as well go out with a bang. A .132 percent blood alcohol content sort of bang, actually.
You're welcome, Milwaukee taxpayers.
Before you criticize what seems like – and normally would be – a horrible lack of judgement for a mostly responsible adult, please understand that this wasn't a self-sanctioned or unsupervised midweek bender. Rather, this was a very controlled environment, set up at the Milwaukee Police Academy, designed to train recruits on the identification and testing of potential OWI offenders.
This "wet workshop" is an annual event, three full days of a testing program that occurs about two-thirds of the way through police officer recruits' training. It's sanctioned by the National Transportation Safety Board, so it's standardized from state to state. Participants are usually friends and family of the recruits.
And, in this case, one nervous journalist.
Sgt. John Scheerer, a 10-year veteran of the program, says the event is helpful to the recruits, because it gives them a real-world look at what it's like to test impaired suspects. And, while recruits themselves used to be the subjects, Scheerer enjoys spending the day watching his fellow Milwaukee citizens get drunk, then taking (and usually failing) field sobriety tests.
"I wouldn't do it if I didn't like it," he says.
Also behind the pretend bar set up at the academy is Sgt. Jay Karras. He says his job is to get the group drunk enough that they're not incapacitated but "impaired enough to see the signs that (officers) will see on the street."
Turns out Karras didn't have that hard of a job today.
Our group of eight assembles at 10 a.m. and is ushered into the "bar," which I find pretty amusing. It's been moved and rebuilt this year, and it's decorated with vintage beer signs, a jukebox and old records on the wall.
There's an antique and non-functioning cash register at the bar, with a tip jar next it to, stuffed with fake money. In one corner is a working slot machine. The police have brought bar dice, cribbage boards and just about all you'd need to stock a real bar. But it's bright inside this room, both because it's morning and because all the fluorescent lights are on.
In all, it's probably about the least inviting drinking scenario I've ever been a party to.
At 10:40 a.m., Karras asks us to finish our paperwork and explains the ground rules. First, we are reminded that we need a ride home – my good humored wife dropped me off and would pick me up at 4. I'm already not looking forward to that woozy trip.
Beyond that, basically, we are told to drink as much as we want until about 1:45 p.m. We can drink anything in the well-stocked police bar, except beer. They have about all one could desire, too, from rail to call liquors, and plenty of specialty bottles for shots. We each get cups with our names on them, mostly for record-keeping. By and large, this isn't a heavy drinking group, and the ages range from a few in their 20s to a couple in their 60s.
We're informed that we'll all get breathalyzed before taking the field sobriety tests when they walk us up to the cadets at 2 p.m. As we get started, the young cadets are literally in classrooms at the academy, learning the tests they'll subject us to later.
When we're done, we'll get tested again, and at 4 p.m., we'll be released to our designated drivers. Everyone, cops included, has a good attitude today. I'm probably the most quiet of the group, both because I'm taking notes and because, though I'm a willing participant, I'm not really looking forward to getting drunk.
After what feels like an eternity, Karras asks the participants for our choices. One person requests a gin and tonic. Dave asks for a Long Island iced tea, but when Karras shakes his head, he requests vodka cranberry. Another participant, Tang, brought his own bottle of Grey Goose, so he'll be drinking vodka and Sprite. Laurie requests Bacardi and Diet Coke, while others order Southern Comfort and Sprite, and one person goes for a 7 and 7.
As for me, I order a screwdriver after my request for a Mimosa is laughed off. It's still morning, after all. "Let's light this candle," I say, only half kiddingly. By now, I just want to do this thing.
At 10:50 a.m., as Karras pours our drinks into red plastic cups, we're given our final instructions: Don't try to trick the recruits. Don't try to get hammered. Do eat the pizza and snacks. No wandering the halls, and we'll need an instructor if we want to to leave the room for a bathroom break. "Keep it quiet in the hall; in here, you can be loud."
I ask one of the officers how drunk he'd like us to get. "We're trying to get you between .08 and .1 percent," he says.
I'll do my best.
At 11 a.m., I "enjoy" my first drink, a rather stiff screwdriver, and it calms my jangled nerves. At first, the cops are pouring two ounces of liquor in every cocktail, so these are technically "doubles." I take a peek behind the bar and see that my vodka is the less-than-high-end Skol. Tang was wise to bring his own booze in.
This group becomes friendly very quickly. Some are playing cribbage while the radio plays Spin Doctors, then thankfully gets switched to oldies. I suck my drink down fast. At 11:14 a.m. I request my second drink. I'm suddenly not nervous anymore.
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