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Back to Archives | Back to August 2006 Contents 

Austin Police Department DWI Enforcement Program

By Vic White, Lieutenant, Kyran FitzGerald, Planner, and Sharon Bauer, Planner, Austin Police Department, Texas

istorically, the Austin experience is similar to other communities' efforts to enforce driving while impaired (DWI) laws. Austin's DWI enforcement was originally the sole responsibility of patrol officers. But call-driven patrol duties make it difficult for officers to enforce DWI violations as proactively as they would like. In addition, processing a DWI arrest can take up to four hours, further limiting the officer's ability to respond to needs of their assigned districts. Caught between responding to urgent calls for assistance and removing impaired drivers from the street, many officers have little or no time to actively seek out the intoxicated drivers.

Making Change
The first change occurred in January 1998, after a study of alcohol-involved crashes in the city precipitated the creation of a DWI task force. The goals of the task force were twofold: to seek out impaired drivers and to alert the public that they were watching. Officers were reassigned from their normal duties, on a rotational basis, and spent time actively seeking out impaired drivers. When available, task force officers relieved patrol officers of DWI arrests, allowing patrol to respond to calls for service.

The DWI Task Force focused on areas where offenses were likely to occur and during peak hours when impaired driving was most prevalent. Task force officers worked as two-person units. Two teams patrolled Sunday through Wednesday nights, and four teams worked Thursday through Saturday. On Saturday night, officers hired through the DWI Traffic Selective Enforcement Pro-gram (STEP) supplemented the teams.

In the four years prior to 1998, DWI arrests by the Austin Police Department averaged 229 per month. From 1998 to 2004, DWI arrests averaged 397. In 2005 the Austin Police Department arrested 5,732 impaired drivers, or an average of 478 DWI arrests per month.

In September 1998 the DWI Task Force was replaced with a DWI Enforcement Team, which operated under the direction of the traffic administration section. The team was initially staffed with one sergeant and eight officers specially trained in the detection of impaired drivers. All officers assigned to the DWI team were trained and certified as intoxilyzer operators and were certified in conducting standardized field sobriety tests (SFSTs). Officers devoted the first two days of each week to conducting initiatives in which all members of the team deployed to the same general area, targeted drunk drivers, and, with high-visibility tactics, deterred others from driving while impaired. The team was deployed citywide during the remainder of each week.

The Highway Enforcement Command Concept
In the spring of 2004, a highway enforcement command was created to address growing concerns related to traffic safety. The DWI Enforcement Team, along with air support, highway enforcement (license and weights), highway response (targeting hot spots), and vehicular homicide (traffic investigation), brought about an integrated approach to daytime and nighttime traffic safety.

In mid-2004 the Austin Police Department purchased a used special-transit bus that was modified to create a mobile DWI processing unit. This Breath Alcohol Testing (BAT) unit was purchased with funds from the City of Austin's interlocal agreement with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It was designed to include multiple workstations and one intoxilyzer instrument. A video system was installed to record suspects during processing. Several video monitors were available for officers to view their in-car tapes depicting SFSTs conducted on suspects. By year's end, the BAT unit was deployed two nights per week in various locations throughout the city, with officers bringing suspects to the vehicle for processing.1

The successes of the DWI Enforcement Team led to its expansion in March 2005. The newly formed DWI Enforcement Unit consists of two teams, each with seven senior patrol officers, one corporal, and one sergeant. A dedicated highway enforcement lieutenant oversees both teams.

In April 2005 the Austin Police Department hired a retired police officer who was trained as a certified intoxilyzer operator to manage BAT unit operations, relieving DWI officers of that duty. The civilian position allowed BAT unit operations to expand from two to four nights a week. Currently, the BAT unit deploys Wednesday through Saturday nights, accepting suspects between 9:30 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. Consistently deploying the BAT unit, along with using two centralized locations, has proven to be more efficient and accessible to officers through-out the city. Off-duty Austin City marshals are hired to provide transport and security for BAT unit operations. Suspected DWI drivers delivered to the BAT unit are assigned to the custody of the marshals. After processing, up to four suspects at a time are transported to the central booking facility. In this way, patrol officers are virtually relieved of time-consuming arrest-processing responsibilities as soon as they arrive to the BAT unit. Once paperwork is completed and approved by an assigned supervisor, the patrol officers are free to return to their normal duties. Supervisors retain all paperwork until it is delivered to arrest review. In 2005, approximately 1,657 suspects, 30 percent of total DWI arrests, were processed in the BAT unit, with an estimated savings of 2,487 patrol person-hours.

DWI enforcement officers are not call driven and can proactively seek out impaired drivers by focusing on speed, reckless or erratic driving behavior, and other traffic violations. The DWI unit uses both traditionally marked and unmarked patrol units. All DWI units are equipped with moving radar and digital video systems.

Unit officers are available to assist patrol officers with traffic stops when impaired driving is suspected. The DWI enforcement officer arrives at the scene of the traffic stop and assumes responsibility before SFSTs are administered, allowing the patrol officer to return to his normal duties. The DWI enforcement officer initiates the offense report to which the patrol officer writes a supplement report of their observation and actions. The collaborative working relationship between the DWI Enforcement Unit and patrol officers has reduced the time patrol officers spend on DWI arrests and has improved efficiency by using specially trained officers to investigate impaired driving offenses.

Focusing on Growth
Austin's diverse population is growing at unprecedented rates, and the DWI Enforcement Unit anticipates increasing its training, resources, and personnel to parallel this growth.

Training: Officer training, as well as public education, is integral to the success of DWI enforcement efforts. The curriculum of the Austin police academy now includes DWI detection and standardized field sobriety test course for all officers. Upon graduation, officers are required to spend two weeks assigned to the DWI Enforcement Unit. These officers receive a 10-hour SFST refresher class prior to deploying with the unit and spend the remainder of the two weeks improving their DWI enforcement abilities under the guidance of experienced DWI officers.

Due to increased instances of driving while under the influence of drugs, several DWI officers have been trained and certified as drug recognition experts (DREs). DREs expand the unit's ability to detect drivers whose performance is impaired by substances other than alcohol, including recreational drugs and prescription medication. A goal of the Austin Police Department is to certify all DWI enforcement officers as DREs and to certify select officers from day, night, and evening patrol shifts as well.

Arrest Forms Automation: The Austin Police Department constantly looks for innovative and effective ways to reduce incidents involving impaired driving and the time associated with processing DWI arrests. In an effort to reduce the time officers spend on DWI paperwork, Detective Michael Cowden was instrumental in developing the APD Forms Automation SysTem Equals Rapid (FASTER) DWIs program. This system enables officers to enter pertinent suspect information one time. The officer uses a dropdown menu to select the necessary forms and in about two minutes all forms are automatically filled and printed. The Austin Police Department estimates that this program saves 1,900 person-hours, valued at $96,000, each year.

Selecting DWI Unit Officers: When a vacancy occurs in the DWI Enforcement Unit, it is posted and all eligible officers within the department may apply. As the DWI Enforcement Unit requires specialized training and the acceptance of an atypical workload, the selection process involves a thorough review of the work history of each candidate as well as an oral board session. It is explained to the candidates that each DWI team works night hours, from 8:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. It also explains that the exclusive daytime scheduling of court appearances for DWI and administrative license revocation cases results in a considerable burden during off-duty hours. Surprisingly, there has been little turnover in the DWI Enforcement Unit, due in large part to the dedication and commitment of officers selected for these positions.

The Regional Alcohol Issues Network
The unit maintains regular communication with prosecutors, the courts, hospitals, local schools, and other law enforcement agencies. In an effort to improve lines of communication and effectively address issues related to alcohol and drug abuse, the Regional Alcohol Issues Network (RAIN) was created. The network includes law enforcement, prosecutors, health care providers, mass transit, and the private industry. The three broad goals of the network are to identify current issues and trends related to the abuse of alcohol, to identify and discuss current initiatives being conducted by various agencies and to consider possible joint initiatives, and to communicate across agency lines. RAIN members meet on a quarterly basis, regularly communicating by phone and e-mail between meetings.

The Austin Police Department has made a long-term commitment to overcoming issues related to impaired driving. The DWI Enforcement Unit continues to examine the best practices of departments nationwide and incorporates lessons learned into the programs established internally. The department's DWI Enforcement Unit continues to collaborate with outside agencies and research new technology in an effort to achieve their ultimate goal: to save lives.   ■

1 The Austin Police Department is in the process of purchasing a new full-service breath alcohol-testing unit. The new testing center will be specifically designed and built for processing impaired drivers. The unit will house two intoxilyzer stations and provide substantial workspace for officers. In addition to using the BAT unit to test impaired drivers, the department views the vehicle as a mobile billboard to be displayed at public events, such as school functions and parades.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:
The Impaired Driving Division at National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) seeks to work cooperatively to save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce traffic-related health care and economic costs resulting from impaired driving (alcohol and other drugs). NHTSA collaborates with many criminal justice and community organizations to sponsor impaired driving campaigns such as Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk and Zero Tolerance Means Zero Chances.

Beginning in 1975, NHTSA sponsored research that led to the development of standardized methods for law enforcement officers to use when evaluating motorists who are suspected of driving while impaired (DWI). Since 1981 law enforcement officers have used NHTSA's standardized field sobriety test (SFST) battery to help determine whether motorists who are suspected of DWI have blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) greater than 0.10 percent; the SFST battery was further validated for use at the 0.08 BAC level in 1998. NHTSA's SFSTs largely have replaced the unvalidated performance tests of unknown merit that once were the officer's only tools in helping to make DWI arrest decisions after traffic stops. NHTSA's SFSTs presently are used in all 50 states and have become the standard procedures for evaluating DWI in most law enforcement agencies.

IACP Highway Safety Committee:
The IACP Highway Safety Committee's mission is to study, consider, and evaluate all matters pertaining to policies, practices, standards, and rates of state and municipal police organizations relating to traffic accident investigation, traffic records, traffic patrol, traffic law enforcement, organization and administration, and other highway safety functions that may be responsibilities of the membership of the association; report to this association for dissemination to its members and interested agencies information and recommendations for the improvement of police traffic management and the promotion of highway safety; make recommendations to the Traffic Institute of Northwestern University relating to its traffic police training programs; and make recommendations to the association and other interested organizations and agencies of needed research projects essential to optimum highway safety programs by police agencies.

The Century Council:
Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the Century Council is an independent advisory board made up of distinguished leaders in business, government, education, medicine, and other relevant disciplines. It promotes responsible decision-making regarding alcohol and fights alcohol abuse, focusing on drunk driving and underage drinking problems. Operating on the philosophy that collective action can have a greater impact than individual efforts, the Century Council involves beverage alcohol wholesalers and retailers, law enforcement, public officials, educators, insurers, health care professionals, and private citizen organizations in the fight against alcohol misuse.



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 8, August 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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