Police to use unmarked volunteer patrols to nab drunken drivers

khopkins@adn.comAugust 16, 2013 

Anchorage police plan to deploy dozens of civilian volunteers to prowl the city in unmarked cars Friday and Saturday nights, searching for drunken drivers.

Police Chief Mark Mew said the new tactic, announced Friday evening at a West High School rally, will be an ongoing attempt to end the spike in drunken-driving wrecks that have killed four people in two months.

"We've got to do something innovative. People are being run down in broad daylight on the sidewalk," Mew said in an interview.

So far, 45 volunteers have signed up to drive their own cars, pickups and SUVs in the weekend patrols. They will team up in pairs -- one partner behind the wheel, one on a cellphone -- calling 911 when they spy someone who looks to be driving drunk.

The group assembled for a hastily arranged training session Thursday. More than 200 graduates of the Anchorage Citizen Police Academy, an 11-week course that teaches about basic police work, received an email earlier in the week asking if they were interested in joining the effort .

"This will be, like any big, new idea, fraught with errors and bumps and will not go silky smooth," deputy chief Steve Hebbe warned the crowd.

Don't break any laws while trying to get enough detail to report a suspicious motorist to police, he told them. No "half-assed pursuits ... just break off," Mew interjected.

No high-speed chases, no running red lights. No yelling "freeze police!" Hebbe joked.

In a state known for packing heat, he didn't say whether the volunteers can carry guns while on patrol for the police department.

"We're not going to get into big Second Amendment debates with you. But I will tell you we do not want a Zimmerman-type incident here in Anchorage," Hebbe said.

One new DUI patrol volunteer, Lillian Mercer, 40, said she called 911 to report a drunken driver on her way home from the training meeting. She planned to bring her daughter's Rottweiler, Reba, on patrol with her Friday, buying 99 cent coffee refills to stay awake.

Mercer learned to drive wary after years of chauffeuring to 4 a.m. hockey practices, the early morning streets filled with cars making strange lane changes, driving too slowly. "You get to the point where you come to expect that you're about to get hit. You check all the intersections before you go through them," she said.

With cellphones now ubiquitous, Anchorage police records show tips called in by other drivers account for more than 15 percent of DUI arrests so far this year. Department records show drunken-driving busts and fatalities dropped in Anchorage in each of the past three years until a spate of high-profile crashes put new focus on drunken-driving prevention this summer.

Prosecutors say Lane Douglas Wyatt, a 22-year-old airman at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, never hit the brakes before blasting through a red light on June 30, killing driver Citari Townes-Sweatt, 20, in East Anchorage.

A grand jury indicted Wyatt on second-degree murder charges this month. The daughter of a longtime Mountain View family who worked at Costco and was excited to be driving her first car, Townes-Sweatt was the first person killed in an alcohol-related crash in 14 months.

Mew has said police believe Andre P. Clinton, the 29-year-old driver of a Chevrolet Avalanche, was impaired when the big pickup crashed July 12, killing Marcia Mausali, 32, in East Anchorage. Clinton was facing a March 15 drunken-driving charge at the time of the crash, court records show.

Investigators believe alcohol played a role in the single-vehicle wreck but have not filed charges, a police spokeswoman said. The driver was still hospitalized as of Friday and police generally do not charge someone with a crime until he or she is released from the hospital.

One week ago, friends Brooke McPheters and Jordyn Durr, both 15, died when a speeding truck driven by Stacey Allen Graham lost control, slamming into the girls as they walked beside Abbott Road, according to police. Graham's blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit, police have said.

This week officers began placing magnets with pictures of the apparent drunken-driving victims on squad cars. The new civilian volunteers, who have no special police authority but are being organized by the department, will be harder to spot.

"You guys are going to be the eyes out there that our patrol officers generally don't get to be," Hebbe told the group as they sat at folding cafeteria tables in the South Anchorage police training center.

In the crowd, 60-something women in floral blouses listened beside young men with sunglasses perched on their scalps. Mew saw BP employees and a paralegal in the room, retirees and aspiring police officers.

The idea to use citizen police academy graduates to report drunken drivers popped up in a cellphone conversation with Hebbe, his deputy chief.

"I'm not saying nobody else has done this, but we weren't copying anything," Mew said. "Someone suggested, 'Well let's use the citizens academy to do something. I said, 'Let's use the citizens academy to go find drunks.' ... We were just what-iffen."

There is little evidence that other departments make widespread use of volunteer "DUI watch" patrols.

A volunteer program composed of senior citizens assists Oceanside, Calif., police with drunken-driving checkpoints, according to the city website. Authorities in Mesquite, Nev., rely on civilian volunteer squads in city-owned vehicles to check on vacations homes while owners are away, while a police district in Fairfax County, Virginia, asked volunteers to attend a training to spot drunken drivers in June.

A spokeswoman for the Fairfax police department called that effort a small-scale program. She said she had not heard of any organized patrols like those Anchorage police are testing.

Mew said the department will track the results of the weekend patrols to learn if more or fewer volunteers are needed. Five additional police officers will be added to the 23 to 25 officers normally on patrol on the weekend to help collar drunken drivers, he said.

Those overtime bills will be paid with an Alaska Highway Safety Office grant that lasts only through Sept. 2. Police will continue to deploy overtime patrols on weekends -- at the department's expense -- as the civilian patrol program continues indefinitely, police said.

Among the early tests for the volunteer patrols: Will DUI calls swamp dispatchers and delay responses to calls reporting life-threatening emergencies such as heart attacks?

Mew told the volunteers that police may tell them to switch to a non-emergency number if dispatchers, already juggling a busy summer of 911 calls, become overwhelmed.

The first patrol was expected to run from 10 p.m. Friday to 4 a.m. Saturday morning, resuming on the same schedule Saturday night. Police expected as many as 20 volunteer vehicles to be on the road at any given time.

Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

About this story

Reporting for this story, part of ongoing coverage of the impact of alcohol in Alaska, was supported by the Recover Alaska Media Project fund at the Alaska Community Foundation. Contributors to the fund are Alaska Children's Trust, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Bristol Bay Native Corp., Providence Health & Services Alaska, Mat-Su Health Foundation, Wells Fargo and Rasmuson Foundation.

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