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Our View: With keen eyes and cool heads, DUI patrols may work

Some critics have accused the Anchorage Police Department, and Chief Mark Mew in particular, for "knee-jerk" response in deploying police citizens academy graduates to watch for drunken drivers on weekends.

Mew has a good response.

"We've had five people killed in eight weeks. I can't wait around," he said Thursday.

Anchorage police made about three dozen DUI arrests last weekend. Citizen patrols yielded one of those arrests.

"I think this is a learning curve," he said.

Mew said he fully agrees that increased enforcement is not the only answer to drunken driving, and he supports more education and treatment. But "the thing we can do, frankly, is enforcement."

More arrests will get attention, but more important for Mew and the rest of us is deterrence. Let the public know that police and citizens will be out in force keeping watch for erratic driving, and maybe a few people who might have driven drunk will think better of it -- or have a friend who will think for them.

The police, Mew said, would much rather deter than arrest.

The patrols are just an organized extension of what cellphones have long provided -- a way to call 911 from anywhere. People have used cellphones to call in dangerous driving reports, and been encouraged to do so. There's nothing sinister in that.

As for any citizen going cowboy and playing wannabe cop, police have made it clear that the citizens are a neighborhood watch on wheels, not a vigilante group.

Mew said some of the citizen patrol calls police responded to turned out to be people searching for road signs or elderly drivers. He said such drivers weren't field-tested -- "Just because we're looking harder doesn't mean we're going to behave differently" -- and that ongoing training of the citizens should make them more discerning.

As long as citizens keep a sharp watch and cool heads, this is a program worth trying.

"It's a classic community policing project," Mew said, with businesses covering gas and citizens helping police.

As for the learning curve, may this project school those inclined to drive drunk.

BOTTOM LINE: Citizen patrols done right may make for safer streets.