FARMINGTON — Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said that over the coming year his department is prioritizing lowering the number of alcohol-related traffic crashes.
Hebbe said his department has rearranged officers' shifts to better target drunken drivers leaving bars late at night. But, he said, the department cannot solve the problem alone. He is urging residents to report suspected drunken drivers by calling 911, and, if it is safe to do so, follow the drivers and keep officers informed of their whereabouts.
"We will break off officers and make those arrests," he said.
He said residents should not use the state's Drunk Busters hotline at #DWI, because police can respond quicker through the county's dispatch service.
"I am tired of the calls after hours that say someone is mangled in an alcohol-related crash," Hebbe said. "It just shouldn't be happening."
Hebbe said San Juan County has made significant progress over the past 20 years in reducing the number of drunken drivers on the road, but the problem persists and agencies statewide are making fewer arrests.
In 2013, San Juan County's per capita arrest rate for drunken driving was almost 54 percent higher than the state's, according to data collected by the New Mexico Traffic Safety Bureau. About 13 San Juan County residents per 1,000 were arrested on suspicion of a drunken-driving offense in 2013, compared to about 6 residents statewide per 1,000. Both statistics are based on population numbers recorded in the 2010 U.S. Census.
The number of drunken driving arrests made by local agencies has also dropped significantly in the past five years.
The Farmington Police Department in 2013 made about 15 percent fewer arrests than in 2009, dropping from 715 arrests in 2009 to 606 in 2013, according to data collected by accountablegovernment.org.
The San Juan County Sheriff's Office's arrest rate for drunken driving has fallen by nearly half in the past five years, from 630 arrests in 2009 to 326 arrests in 2013. New Mexico State Police's drunken driving arrest rate in San Juan County fell by about 40 percent during the same period, from 276 arrests in 2009 to 166 arrests in 2013.
Sheriff's Office Lt. Brice Current said he believes the reduced rate of arrests was partly because there were fewer inebriates on the road. But he acknowledged the budget cuts that followed the recent recession could also be affecting enforcement.
Current said his agency requested state funds last year to increase the number of officers focused on drunken driving, but the grant was not approved. He noted a cultural shift toward safer drinking and increased community awareness have both helped curb the problem.
New Mexico State Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hebbe said his department alone made about 1,200 drunken driving arrests in 2002, higher than the total number of drunken driving arrests made by all law enforcement agencies in San Juan County in 2013.
But Hebbe also acknowledged the county's drunken driving problem cannot be "arrested away." He said punishments for repeat offenders need to be stricter, and talks about closing the county's DWI Center concerned him.
"Law enforcement needs to be given the heads up that somebody is on the road," he said. "We will break off officers and go make the arrest. But then, as we go down the road, we need to focus on the treatment, and we need to focus on the recidivism. We cannot tolerate four, five or six DWIs, and just shrug our shoulders and say it's normal."
Hebbe said his department will keep track of the number of citizen reports made regarding drunken driving, as well as the number of alcohol-related crashes in Farmington.
"I cannot tell you when we will see a swing, but I tell you this: We will see a swing in those numbers," he said. "It might not be until late next year, but we will see a swing."