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Volunteer drunk driving group appears to be curbing fatalities in Anchorage

Jerzy Shedlock
Anchorage police investigate a possible drunk driver. Nov 2, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Officer Block with the Anchorage Police Department conducts a field sobriety test on a suspected drunk driver. Drunk driving is a major problem in Alaska's largest city. Nov 2, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Officer Block with the Anchorage Police Department conducts a field sobriety test on a suspected drunk driver. Drunk driving is a major problem in Alaska's largest city. Nov 2, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Officer Block with the Anchorage Police Department conducts a field sobriety test on a suspected drunk driver. Drunk driving is a major problem in Alaska's largest city. Nov 2, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Officer Block with the Anchorage Police Department conducts a field sobriety test on a suspected drunk driver. Drunk driving is a major problem in Alaska's largest city. Nov 2, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Anchorage police perform a field sobriety test during a suspected drunk driving stop. Nov 2, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Officer Block with the Anchorage Police Department conducts a field sobriety test on a suspected drunk driver. Drunk driving is a major problem in Alaska's largest city. Nov 2, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Officer Block with the Anchorage Police Department conducts a field sobriety test on a suspected drunk driver. Drunk driving is a major problem in Alaska's largest city. Nov 2, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Officer Block with the Anchorage Police Department arrests a suspected drunk driver. Drunk driving is a major problem in Alaska's largest city. Nov 2, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
After failing a field sobriety test, the suspected drunk driver's truck is towed. Drunk driving is a major problem in Alaska's largest city. Nov 2, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Anchorage police arrest a man for suspected drunk driving. Nov 2, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Officer Block writes a report after arresting a suspected drunk driver. Nov 2, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Officer Block with the Anchorage Police Department pulls over a suspected drunk driver. Drunk driving is a major problem in Alaska's largest city. Nov 2, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

The police chief of Alaska’s largest city said the ultimate goal of a 3-month-old program meant to curb drunk driving is no deaths caused by those drivers. And so far, 20 or so volunteers appear to be preventing more alcohol-laden tragedies.

Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew announced the volunteer group’s implementation in August at a somber candlelight vigil to recognize drunk driving victims. The group, consisting of Anchorage Citizen Police Academy alumni, would continue indefinitely, he said.

Police and volunteers have struck a balance. As the Anchorage Police Department works to dig itself out of a staffing shortage, more volunteers may have a limited impact. For now, about 10 volunteer duos hit the city streets every weekend, calling in reports of drivers who may be intoxicated, following the culprits and backing off when police arrive. Their efforts have nabbed 23 drunk drivers as of mid-November. 

A sudden rash of OUI-related deaths prompted police to establish the volunteer group. APD now refers to all drunk driving arrests as OUIs, operating under the influence.

“We had to do something,” Mew said. “We had to do something fast.”

Rash of drunk driving deaths

Various entities have made strides combating drunk driving in Anchorage over the last two decades. In the late 1990s and creeping into the new millennium, annual drunk driving deaths in Alaska's biggest city floated in the teens -- even as high as 20 deaths some years.

A plethora of public awareness campaigns and a focus on drunk driving enforcement caused a gradual decrease in that total. By 2011, only three deaths occurred. The next year, there was a single death. Anchorage Police were closing in on their zero deaths goal, but the New Year brought unexpected tragedies.

Citari Townes-Sweatt, a 20-year-old who died June 30 after a drunk driver ran a red light, was the first person to die in Anchorage in 14 months.

Two weeks after Townes-Sweatt’s death, a pickup rollover in east Anchorage killed 32-year-old Marcia Mausali. Twenty-nine-year-old Andre Clinton was reportedly driving eastbound on Commercial Drive when he lost control of a Chevy truck around a curve. The vehicle rolled multiple times, and Mausali was ejected. Clinton now faces a second-degree murder charge.

But public outcry over drunk driving peaked in August when an Anchorage man lost control of his truck while intoxicated, veered off a roadway and killed two teenage girls.

Then another OUI-related death occurred the night the volunteer group’s implementation was announced.

High impact, low recognition

Since that fifth incident, no other drunk driving deaths have happened in Anchorage. Mew contends the volunteer group is fulfilling its purpose. He admits there are other reasons the numbers may be low, such as safer cars, the ongoing drum beat of public information campaigns and improved medical techniques. Still, he thinks the group acts as a deterrent.

“It makes a compelling case that the public will respond to increased pressure,” he said.

Mew worries that the volunteers may burn out, and the police chief said he hopes they don’t get tired of the low-recognition nature of the job. 

The police department recently awarded pins to some repeat volunteers.

Since Mew’s August announcement, the citizens’ academy alumni have organized an additional class to teach volunteers how to take part in busting drunk drivers. Alumni Nick Hornshuh said he’s organizing a third class.

A core group of volunteers show up every weekend. They work Fridays and Saturdays, 12 hours each night. They're people who tend to volunteer for anything and everything, Hornshuh said. The more they’ve been out looking for law breakers, the more they’ve learned.

Hornshuh is a volunteer himself. He said the group looks out for more than drunk drivers. They call in disturbances, drunks passed out in the cold and other suspicious activity -- anything to help the police, he said. No one wants to give it up, he said. “Nobody’s whining about it. It’s almost like a competition. When we catch someone we feel we’ve done our part.”

Number of OUI arrests falling

The Anchorage police and the Alaska State Troopers face larger issues when it comes to drunk driving. Federal dollars funneled through the state and on to the two law enforcement agencies are drying up.

One way the agencies get extra resources is through the Alaska Highway Safety Office. But the office recently changed its programs and the way it allocates money, something the police and troopers have no control over. On Tuesday, the troopers put out a press release urging drivers to be careful during Thanksgiving. Don’t drink and drive. Wear a seatbelt. The usual advice. What was different is that the agency did not tout increased OUI enforcement over the holiday -- often a time of copious drinking that commands extra attention from local and state police.

Despite the new volunteer efforts, the number of APD’s annual OUI arrests have declined in recent years. Money and staffing shortages are taking a toll. In 2008, a year with eight drunk driving-related deaths, Anchorage police made 2,777 OUI arrests. That total has fallen by more than 100 each year since. In 2012, the total was 1,875 arrests.

As of mid-August, 1,049 drivers had been arrested for getting behind the wheel after having a few -- or more -- cold ones. Mew said with the help of the volunteers the total may increase for the first time in years.

The issue is complex, but it’s disheartening to see the decline in arrests occur, Mew said. A steady rise in OUI arrests juxtaposed against the gradual decline in deaths was a great trend for his department, he said. Now, he hopes the opposite doesn’t happen.

The volunteers may prevent that scenario from happening. The temporary increase in officers patrolling downtown during bar break should help, too.

Other unsung heroes in the fight against impaired driving may be everyday, concerned citizens. Drivers calling in suspected drunk drivers have resulted in more than 150 arrests, and that’s just from the start of the volunteer force.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms.