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Back to Archives | Back to July 2005 Contents 

Sobriety Checkpoints:
Doing More Checkpoints with LESS

By Captain J. F. Bowman, Commander, and Jerry Stemler, DUI Coordinator, Traffic Division, Fairfax County Police Department, Fairfax, Virginia

o the Fairfax County Police Department's Traffic Division it was clear: a comprehensive impaired driver enforcement program had to include sobriety checkpoints. It was also clear that conducting sobriety checkpoints only three or four times each year during special holidays was not sufficient. More had to be done.

Embracing the concept of deterrence through sustained high visibility enforcement and armed with the results of sobriety checkpoint effectiveness research, the division set out to make sobriety checkpoints a routine tool for traffic law enforcement in Fairfax County. The challenge for the traffic division was to convince the department's command staff of the value of conducting at least one sobriety checkpoint every week year-round.

Based on sobriety checkpoint experience throughout the mid-1990s, the traffic division identified three key areas limiting the efficient use of sobriety checkpoints in Fairfax County: exposure, cost, and support. Until these issues were satisfactorily resolved, the challenge would never be met.

Exposure: The Impact of Sobriety Checkpoints on the Public
Police administrators have long known of the halo effect in traffic enforcement; compliance will linger after the visible or direct enforcement is removed, but not for long. When drivers no longer feel threatened, they will resume the illegal or unsafe behavior. It is only when enforcement is frequent and regular at a specific location or stretch of road that drivers will begin to adjust their performance based on expectation.

But there was little expectation, on the part of those willing to drink and drive, of being caught in a sobriety checkpoint in Fairfax County. The conclusion was clear. More sobriety checkpoints had to be conducted, checkpoints had to be conducted on a routine basis, and they had to be highly publicized. Drinking drivers needed a compelling reason to reassess their risk of being caught.

Cost: The Impact of Sobriety Checkpoints on the Department
Fairfax County's checkpoints in the late 1990s often ran for five hours, involved 30-40 officers, and required overtime pay. While this early procedure for the checkpoints was supported by a state highway safety grants, the grant funding ended and the full cost of each checkpoint became a county responsibility. Soon the sobriety checkpoints began draining the department's overtime budget. Even when a new plan was developed to staff checkpoints with only 12-15 officers, the need to draw officers from active street patrols became a problem. Station commanders felt that they had many competing enforcement demands and their personnel were already fully committed to duties. Sobriety checkpoints were not high on the must-do list of station commanders.

Support: The Impact of Agency Policy on Sobriety Checkpoints
Numbers, as a quantitative measure of problems and performance, are important in law enforcement. Calls for services, complaints handled, traffic citations issued, and arrests made-these numbers and others regularly influence patrol areas and resource allocation. The numbers also play a role in an officer's evaluation.

Sobriety checkpoints are not about numbers, at least not arrest numbers. Police commanders are reluctant to institutionalize something that is justified on the value of general deterrence when every thing else they do is dependent on quantified performance data as measured in numbers. Couple this with staffing disruptions and the overtime drain, and it is easy to understand why station commanders and shift supervisors were reluctant to schedule sobriety checkpoints. Patrol officers were also opposed to volunteering for checkpoints because of the long hours, the presumption that they would make (and get credit for) few arrests, and likelihood of unpleasant weather.

The Solution
A key element for improving DWI enforcement was to recognize the role and value that sustained, high-visibility traffic enforcement contributes to violator deterrence. By the end of 2002 the traffic division had adopted a new philosophy for dealing with DWI enforcement, one that combined the principles of deterrence with the traditional methods of violator detection, and it is modeled after national research sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

The division began an aggressive and persistent effort to sell this new philosophy to department administrators and commanders using all available research supporting the value that sobriety checkpoints have in reducing drinking and driving. At the same time the division also brought the use of sobriety checkpoints to the public's attention through demonstrations at county fairs, health fairs, high schools, shopping malls, and corporations.

Low Manpower Staffing: In searching for a way to reduce operational costs and increase checkpoint frequency, the traffic division began experimenting with mini checkpoint configurations in the mid-1990s. At the time, the concept of low manpower staffing for sobriety checkpoints was not well recognized around the nation and sobriety checkpoints were thought of as big events to be held occasionally.

Encouraged by results of the checkpoint size, location, and frequency experimentation, the department reduced the number of officers detailed to a checkpoint by 50 percent, to 10-12 per checkpoint. The number of checkpoints increased from eight per year to two per month by the beginning of 2000. But even at this reduced staffing level, station commanders and shift supervisors continued to express strong opposition whenever their district had to conduct a sobriety checkpoint. A district station could not sustain this staffing disruption and the overtime costs.

The solution surfaced when the traffic division began looking at the delivery of each checkpoint as a cooperative effort between the eight separate district stations instead of the responsibility of just one. By standardizing the staffing size of checkpoints to eight screening officers, each station would have to provide only one officer per week for checkpoint duty, typically for no more than five hours of his or her 11 1/2 hour shift. The district station in which the checkpoint was being held would furnish the supervisor for each checkpoint.

There are tradeoffs to adopting low manpower staffing of checkpoints. The number of screening officers is minimized, which means there could no longer be officers in reserve to relieve or replace those working on the screening line. Nor is there an opportunity to provide breaks and still maintain an efficient flow of traffic. To address officer mental and physical fatigue the division reduced and standardized the operational time of each checkpoint from five hours to three hours.

Using fewer screening officers means that traffic volume, traffic direction, and number of lanes become major considerations when determining the location of a sobriety checkpoint. Fewer officers also means that the basic functions involved in conducting a sobriety checkpoint have to be minimized, combined, and streamlined.

Management Centralization: The practice of having eight district stations operate independently of each other to develop and conduct sobriety checkpoints was eliminated. The new approach centralizes within the traffic division the program management, site selection, checkpoint setup, and development of the operation plans. Thus shifting responsibility and burden of checkpoint preparation away from the station first-line supervisors. The patrol bureau, through each of its eight district stations, became responsible for staffing each checkpoint and for executing the checkpoint operation plans.

Centralization produces marked benefits through document standardization, which helps with planning, data collection, and court testimony. Additionally, by centralizing program management, the department can better use its auxiliary police officer (APO) program. When available, two to four APOs supplement a checkpoint squad to assist with equipment, traffic control, vehicle inventory, and vehicle towing. By policy, an APO cannot be used for driver screening.

Responsibility for equipment and setting up each checkpoint site is also centralized within the traffic division. A sobriety checkpoint trailer, containing innovative lighting, signs, electric generator, and the required equipment and technology, allows for easy mobilization and comprehensive checkpoint support. Special graphics on the trailer provides a visual public alert to the department's aggressive DWI enforcement activity.

Safety vs. Mobility
In a metropolitan community like Fairfax County, with more than one million residents, 850,000 licensed drivers, and continuous traffic delays, motorists place a high priority on unimpeded mobility.

Even the most ardent supporter of sobriety checkpoints does not want to be held up in traffic for long periods of time. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its decision that sobriety checkpoints are constitutional, said there should be no "unreasonable delays."1

To create a balance between safety and mobility, the department established the five-minute rule. This rule supports the position that no driver should have to contribute more than five minutes of travel time in order to pass through a Fairfax County Police Department sobriety checkpoint. To accomplish this, checkpoint supervisors must open the checkpoint when traffic backs up more than 300 feet prior to the entrance of the checkpoint and allow traffic to flow freely at two-minute intervals until cleared. The use of two-minute intervals eliminates unfettered discretion to determine when to restart the checkpoint screening process.

Although standard police work has to go on regardless of the weather conditions, sobriety checkpoints cannot. Common sense and the U.S. Supreme Court require attention to public and officer safety.

Several Fairfax County sobriety checkpoints have been cancelled due to rain, snow, or simply frigid temperatures. To address this reality, and still sustain regular and frequent public exposure, the department established a checkpoint makeup policy: "If a checkpoint is canceled before vehicle screening can begin, it will be rescheduled for the following Thursday under authority of the same Operations Plan. If it is canceled after screening begins, it will not be rescheduled."

As a result, no weekly checkpoint is sacrificed and the timeframe for a rescheduled checkpoint facilitates use of the officers from the same shift and squads originally scheduled.

Quantifying Deterrence
Innovative use of technology has enabled the traffic division to document the number of vehicles going through its checkpoints as well as the number of vehicles going past the checkpoint in the opposite direction, when traffic volumes permit screening in only one direction. This is accomplished by using special electronic stealth pads, as they are known, to count and classify vehicles in each lane. In the checkpoint lanes, the equipment is used to distinguish between the number of vehicles screened and the number of vehicles allowed through without screening, in order to prevent unreasonable traffic delays.

This same technology permits the traffic division to survey potential sobriety checkpoint locations, in advance, to ensure that traffic speeds and volumes do not exceed the capability of the new, lower staffing levels. This not only contributes to operational efficiency, but also helps to quantify potential traffic backup concerns.

Innovative Use of Affordable Technology
When a department undertakes sobriety checkpoints it is important that the latest technology be deployed to ensure safety and efficiency of the checkpoint. Fairfax County finds the following technology affordable and needed at the checkpoints:

  • Using the latest developments in strobe light technology has eliminated the use of the standard road flare. Flares are needed in police work, but new lighting technology is preferred at sobriety checkpoints.

  • Digital orthophotography technology provides a photographic image of a selected checkpoint location. These photo images are used to plan a specific site layout and to determine safety concerns. Replacing hand-drawn graphics with these photo images more accurately communicates the operational layout to participating officers as well as to those responsible for setting up the site.

  • Passive alcohol detection technology is used to improve drinking driver detection, especially those at lower blood alcohol content levels. Working with the developer of the technology, Fairfax County tested and used the new generation PAS IV passive alcohol test flashlight. Trained officers also use these sniffers, as they are called, during their regular nighttime traffic patrol.

  • The innovative application of vehicle counter technology enables the department to document the number of vehicles that go through each checkpoint as well as those exposed to the educational aspect of only witnessing the DWI enforcement activity.

The Results
The new system confronted, and in many cases resolved, the issues of cost, support, and public exposure.

One Checkpoint per Week, Year-Round: Today, checkpoints are standardized at eight screening officers and one supervisor. Sobriety checkpoints typically run three hours and require no overtime money or highway safety grants.

In 1993 the department struggled to conduct one sobriety checkpoint every three months. By the end of 2003 the department was scheduling at least one checkpoint every week. By the end of 2004, after 18 months of low manpower operations, the department had conducted 71 sobriety checkpoints, screened more then 48,000 drivers, arrested 186 DWI offenders, and vividly exposed more than 88,000 drivers to DWI enforcement activity.

Crash impact: Assessing the impact sobriety checkpoints have on alcohol crash reduction is a long-term measure at best, especially when detection and deterrence seek to influence the risk-assessment process of those who drink and then choose to drive.

The short-term raw-number indicators as part of a total DWI enforcement program are encouraging. In 2002 the department conducted 15 sobriety checkpoints, in 2003 there were 30 checkpoints, and in 2004 there were 46 checkpoints. Over the same three-year period, DWI arrests increased 12.2 percent and alcohol-related crashes decreased 17.9 percent.

The Pacific Institute for Research and Education of Calverton, Maryland, conducted a five-year time-series analysis of crashes involving drinking drivers occurring in Fairfax County. Preliminary data shows that with the introduction of the new sobriety checkpoint program the last 18 months of the five-year study, the involvement of drinking drivers in crashes decreased 11 percent.

Public Attitude: Because it carefully plans for and implements strategies in the sobriety checkpoint system, and because it is sensitive to public attitudes toward drinking drivers and traffic delays, the department receives very few complaints.

Department Attitude: By all measures, the attitude of senior commanders in Fairfax County Police Department toward sobriety checkpoints has turned around. Staffing problems and budget concerns are all but nonexistent. Increasing acceptance of the value of deterrence through high-visibility enforcement is growing throughout the department, especially in the Patrol Bureau.

Supporting the National Branding Effort
The department's new sobriety checkpoint system was initiated in 2003 in concert with the NHTSA Region III Checkpoint Strike Force Program in order to support that important and innovative approach to alcohol crash reduction. The department continues, however, to conduct checkpoints each week beyond the six-month periods designated by NHTSA. The department also continues to work with the Virginia State Police and surrounding jurisdictions to encourage joint checkpoint operations.

The Future
Although much has been accomplished to improve the department's sobriety checkpoint system, more remains to be done. High on the list of issues to be addressed:

Public Information: There must be an aggressive public information campaign to support and operate in conjunction with a sobriety checkpoint program. This type of campaign goes beyond the weekly media notice of a pending checkpoint. Ideally, this type of campaign would be financed, developed, and delivered by an entity other than the department.

Supervisor Training: With the continuing turnover of first-line supervisors, through promotions and transfers, a training program for first-line supervisors must be established. The training needs to convey to those who will serve as sobriety checkpoint supervisors the department's commitment, program strategy and legal foundations for checkpoints. These supervisors will build, through their leadership and among patrol officers under their command, the support for sobriety checkpoints specifically and DWI enforcement in general.

Officer Skills: Because a sobriety checkpoint arrest for DWI does not have "driving behavior," it is important that impairment detection skills are maintained and supported by (1) standard field sobriety test (SFST) refresher training and (2) passive alcohol sensor flashlight use.

Reduced Court Involvement (Testimony) of Command Officers: Supervisors and the commanders who review and approve checkpoint operations plans are increasingly being called into court by defense attorneys, creating a growing expenditure of administrative down time. Efforts are being made to ensure that only the personnel legitimately needed for court testimony are summoned. ■

The leadership of the Fairfax County Police Department remains committed to institutionalizing sobriety checkpoints in its patrol operations. As time and experience increases, so will the evidence and the opportunity to prove the program's value. The early program impact indicators on drinking drivers and alcohol crashes are encouraging.   

1 Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990).



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 7, July 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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