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Anchorage police unveil new unit dedicated to busting impaired drivers

  • Author: Chris Klint
  • Updated: July 25, 2016
  • Published July 25, 2016

The Anchorage Police Department is deploying a group of officers focused on fighting the scourge of drunken driving, in a long-term project announced Monday and paid for with state and federal funding.

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, APD Chief Chris Tolley and state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner Marc Luiken announced a $2.1 million grant funding the new DUI unit during a press conference at police headquarters Monday morning. The unit will include a sergeant, six sworn officers and a clerk, all to be drawn from within the department's ranks.

By comparison, police spokeswoman Anita Shell said APD's existing traffic unit, which patrols for moving violations and investigates major collisions, includes a sergeant, 10 sworn officers, three community service officers and a clerk.

According to a statement from the city, the DUI unit will be funded in part by Alaska's State Highway Safety Office as well as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Its priorities will include "DUI detection, enforcement and public education."

"The effect of that should have a significant impact on bad driving, dangerous driving," Berkowitz said.

Tolley said the program took about two years to set up. It will initially see officers deployed between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., based on research indicating overnight hours were the most efficient time to do so. It will represent a significant boost in enforcement in the late-night and early-morning hours; Shell said two traffic enforcement officers currently work the midnight shift.

"Know that in this city if you drive impaired, you will get caught," Tolley said. "Don't risk it."

Berkowitz said the municipality will bear most of the new unit's up-front costs, which Shell described as things like the vehicles, equipment and fuel used by the officers. The grant will decrease by 20 percent every year for five years until the city is funding the program, she said.

The officers will still be able to respond to non-DUI calls, according to Shell, who said that "… if an incident warrants the officer to act outside of their primary mission, the grant money ceases paying the officer for whatever time period the officer is on the other call."

Local authorities will explore ways to broaden the grant's funding base, in a bid to support the unit beyond its original scope.

"Our experience is that when you show positive development it's easier to attract federal funding, federal involvement and possibly even money from the private sector," Berkowitz said.

Both police and Alaska State Troopers routinely deploy more patrols during major holidays, using overtime funded by federal authorities, in an effort to pull over more people driving under the influence. DUI-related deaths in Anchorage have increased in recent years, however, with four in 2012, six in 2013, 11 in 2014 and nine in 2015.

The August 2013 deaths of teenage girls Jordyn Durr and Brooke McPheters, struck while walking along Abbott Road by drunken driver Stacey Graham, were a watershed moment for Anchorage police. Graham later pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder, receiving a 32-year sentence in the case.

Shortly after the Abbott Road crash, teams of Anchorage Citizens Police Academy alumni began to patrol local streets, relaying Report Every Dangerous Driver Immediately calls to on-duty officers for action. Then-police Chief Mark Mew credited the program, which Shell said is still in effect, with helping to prevent fatal DUI-related crashes for three months after McPheters' and Durr's deaths.

Ultimately, Tolley said, police hope to measure the new unit's value by the lives it may save in averted DUI crashes.

Tolley also urged Anchorage residents to do their part to prevent DUIs by naming designated drivers, taking keys away from drunken people who want to drive and using 911 to make REDDI calls.

"We cannot do this alone," Tolley said.

If the Anchorage Assembly approves the grant for the DUI unit, its funding will be effective Aug. 1.