Starting next month, folks in downtown Raleigh who have had one drink too many have another reason to think twice before getting behind the wheel: Raleigh police plan to deploy a squad of officers whose sole purpose is to detect and arrest impaired drivers in the city, particularly downtown.
The Raleigh Police Department will soon receive a $525,270 federal grant for DWI enforcement from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The cash will fund the creation of a unit that will include four officers and one sergeant outfitted with new vehicles, uniforms and portable breath testers. Federal money also will pay for salaries, training and additional equipment for three additional years, police spokesman Jim Sughrue said.
Lt. Tim Tomczak, who helped develop the grant proposal, said the department has tossed about the idea of a DWI squad for several years. He said a chief reason for the squad is downtown Raleigh’s growing night scene.
“Raleigh has a large number of bars, restaurants and nightclubs. It seemed to be a logical place to start,” Tomczak said. “When we are working DWI checkpoints in other jurisdictions – we were in Holly Springs Friday night – some folks who we are charging with DWI are telling us they’re coming from Raleigh.
“The majority of people who are coming from downtown are fine, upstanding citizens, but you have others who don’t understand the dangers of drinking and driving.”
It’s a significant and deadly danger. Tomczak said 30 percent of all fatal crashes in Raleigh last year involved alcohol.
The idea for the DWI squad really began to take shape after an early-afternoon crash on St. Patrick’s Day, when a motorist accused of drinking and driving ran head-on into a car on Wade Avenue. The collision killed an elderly couple who were going home to watch the ACC basketball tournament after spending the morning at church services.
More arrests foreseen
The police department already conducts monthly DWI and seat belt checkpoints, and patrol officers regularly check for drunken and impaired drivers as part of their duties.
But members of the DWI squad will have only one duty: the apprehension of impaired drivers. The officers do not have to answer any other 911 calls unless they involve violence.
“Part of the grant requirement is the officers have to spend the majority of their time doing DWI enforcement or else we lose the grant,” Tomczak said.
Raleigh police expect the number of DWI arrests to increase with the new team. The department currently averages about 1,500 DWI arrests a year. Tomczak thinks a DWI squad’s presence on Raleigh’s highways could increase that number to 2,200 to 2,300 arrests a year.
The federal grant is monitored by the N.C. Governor’s Highway Safety Program. Don Nail, the highway safety program director, said the state got its first DWI squads in 2010 in Robeson and Columbus counties, in the southeastern part of the state, and Forsyth County – places that highway specialists determined had the highest incidence of driver-impaired vehicle crashes.
Other counties that later adopted the program include Brunswick, New Hanover and Guilford. Buncombe and Mecklenburg counties are among the applicants for this year’s funding.
During the summer’s Independence Day weekend-long “Booze It & Lose It” campaign, DWI squads accounted for 455 of the state’s 1,731 DWI arrests, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation.
The addition of a DWI squad helped Guilford County nearly triple the number of Independence Day weekend arrests this year, to 146, according to DOT.
Tomczak said the Raleigh department will hire officers passionate about getting impaired drivers off the road. He hopes their work will help create awareness that will prevent impaired people from getting behind the wheel.
“We want the public to understand we may not get you tonight, or on another night,” Tomczak said. “But one night, we’re going to get you.”