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Busted: 911 outperforms state's DWI hot line

Data shows dialing 911 is most effective method of reporting drunken driving

Steve Garrison
stgarrison@daily-times.com
Farmington Police Department Cpl. Jason Thornburg investigates a suspected drunken driving car crash on South Butler Avenue between East Main Street and East Broadway Avenue on Wednesday evening.

FARMINGTON — Data obtained by The Daily Times suggests the state's Drunk Busters hot line, which costs taxpayers $195,000 annually, is less effective at combating drunken driving in San Juan County than simply urging residents to call 911.

The Drunk Busters hot line, also known as #DWI, which you can dial on a phone, received 11,219 calls from the public to report erratic driving in 2015 — approximately half as many calls as the program received in 2010, according to data available on the New Mexico Department of Public Safety website.

Of that total, only about 2 percent, or 230 calls, resulted in a drunken driving arrest, according to the data.

The New Mexico Department of Public Safety spends $195,000 a year to operate the toll-free hot line, according to New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas. The Albuquerque Journal reported in December 2005 that the hotline was created with a $250,000 appropriation from the state legislature.

Meanwhile, the Farmington Police Department racked up more drunken driving arrests last year through a cost-free program that encourages residents to call 911 instead of the state hot line.

"We felt that the time delay of going through the state hurt our ability to catch offenders," said Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe.

Motorists in San Juan County dialed 911 to report erratic driving 4,555 times in 2015, which resulted in a total of 292 DWI arrests by Farmington police, an arrest rate of 6.4 percent, according to statistics provided by the Farmington Police Department.

In December, 40.6 percent of the Farmington Police Department's total number of drunken driving arrests for the month came as a result of tips from the public, according to those statistics. In November, it was 39.13 percent of the department's total DWI arrests.

Farmington Police Department Chief Steve Hebbe speaks on Tuesday during an interview at the department's headquarters in Farmington.

Aisha Smith, state executive director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said, given the local data, the Drunk Busters program may need to be reevaluated so that funds can be used more strategically.

"I think we should always look at how we are spending our money with drunk driving," she said.

DPS Cabinet Secretary Greg Fouratt declined to be interviewed about the Drunk Busters program, as did Kassetas.

"On this particular one, we are going  to rely on a written statement," Fouratt said, when reached by phone.

Kassetas said in a statement emailed to The Daily Times on Friday afternoon that the Drunk Busters hotline is an "important weapon in our war against drunk driving."

He said 1,355 motorists have been arrested for outstanding warrants, revoked licenses and other violations due to the hot line. That number includes the drunken driving arrests.

He said the hotline also helps alleviate the burden drunken driving calls place on local dispatchers.

"So, as you can see, it's a valuable tool for making New Mexico's roads and highways safer."

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez announced several legislative proposals last month to increase the criminal penalties for drunken driving and expand the state's habitual offender laws to include felony DWI offenses. Martinez's spokesman, Michael Lonergan, declined to comment on whether lawmakers should continue to fund the Drunk Busters program.

Since September 2014, the Farmington Police Department has encouraged local residents to call 911 to report drunken driving through its RADD program (Report Aggressive and Distracted Driving).

Farmington police Lt. Taft Tracy said calls to the Drunk Busters hot line are first routed through a call center in Albuquerque before being forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement agency.

He said that routing delay can cause officers to receive a resident's tip five or 10 minutes after it is first reported, rendering it almost useless.

"There is a lot of distance that can be traveled in that time," Tracy said.

From left, Farmington Police Department Lt. Taft Tracy and Chief Steve Hebbe discuss the Report Aggressive and Distracted Driving, or RADD, program on Tuesday at the police department's headquarters in Farmington.

Sgt. Terry McCoy of the San Juan County Sheriff's Office agreed that the state hot line's call center was slow to forward tips. He estimated it took anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes for a call to be routed back to local dispatchers.

By comparison, he said calls from the public to 911 were answered within 30 seconds to a minute.

The New Mexico Department of Public Safety employs three dispatchers, paid between $11.55 and $12.49 per hour, to manage tips to Drunk Busters, according to public records obtained by The Daily Times.

The state's dispatchers are required to obtain information from the caller about the suspect vehicle, including make, model, color and license plate, according to New Mexico State Police policy.

Dispatchers also need to know what road the caller is on, the direction of the suspect vehicle, the nearest mile marker, town, or intersection, the behavior of the suspect vehicle and the name and phone number of the reporting resident.

Calls are then referred to the state police district where the suspected drunken driving offense occurred. If that district cannot handle the call, it is sent to a city or county law enforcement agency.

Michelle Slayden, the San Juan County Communications Authority dispatch supervisor, said callers need to repeat the information to local dispatchers when the call is forwarded by the state, which causes the delay.

Slayden said — despite Kassetas' assertion that the state hotline alleviates call traffic — that tips from the public were not a burden on local dispatchers.

"Even before RADD and even before the Drunk Busters push, 911s were 911s. They are normal calls and we are going to answer them as the policy requires us to," she said.

Lt. Tracy also disagreed with the state police chief's argument.

"I, personally, as a citizen, feel like these types of calls are an emergency," he said. "And I think the general public is going to feel the same way."

Farmington Police Department Officer Brian Johnston makes an arrest after conducting a field sobriety test on Wednesday evening after responding to a car crash Wednesday evening on Butler Avenue between East Main Street and East Broadway Avenue.

In 2007, the state hotline's second year, 16,282 motorists called to report erratic driving, according to state data. In 2008, the hotline received its highest number of tips — 22,663 calls.

However, the hotline has never netted the state police a significant number of drunken driving arrests, and in, some years, less than 1 percent of calls resulted in a drunken driving arrest. Calls to the hot line have also declined steadily since 2010, when 22,411 residents made reports.

McCoy said he thought the Drunk Busters program was good, "but I think it has a lot of flaws that get in the way of doing the good it needs to do."

"I think the big thing was the state realized we had a problem and they wanted to try and help," McCoy said. "So they (located) the central dispatch in Santa Fe, because that's where these things usually go in government, and in the attempt, they didn't really realize what it was going to do."

Hebbe said it was not his intention to get "crosswise" with the state, but he said any top-down solution to such a diffuse problem as drunken driving was going to be a challenge.

He said the state resources earmarked for the Drunk Busters program would be better spent by local law enforcement departments.

"I do think your best policing is at your grassroots level, between your local departments and your communities," Hebbe said. "While I get the effort to have something out of Santa Fe, and I like the state pushing the issue of DWI and making our streets safer across the state, in the end it's generally better to help local agencies connect better with their communities."

Hebbe pointed to a personal experience in discussing the issue of getting tips from the public.

He said in August 2014 he was on a ride-along with Navajo Police Lt. Phillip Joe, part of a broader effort to improve relations between the two departments. During the evening hours, they were on patrol and received, through dispatchers, a tip from the public about a suspected drunken driver in Shiprock.

Hebbe said he and Joe pursued the tip, but could not find the vehicle.

Less than an hour later, dispatch advised that the suspect vehicle had rolled over on Indian Service Route 13 headed toward Red Valley, Ariz.  Hebbe and Joe were the first officers on the scene and discovered all three occupants were ejected from the vehicle.

Hebbe said two occupants were airlifted to nearby hospitals, but survived, which he described as "unbelievably lucky."

"That is the danger of not being able to catch up with these folks," he said, adding later. "DWI — you can get complacent with it, but very quickly, it ends up costing people their lives."

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644. 

Farmington Police Department Officer Brian Johnston conducts a traffic stop on Wednesday evening in downtown Farmington.

BREAKING DOWN THE NUMBERS

The Drunk Busters hotline has received significantly fewer calls in recent years than in the past. 

22,663 residents called the hotline in 2008, the most of any year since the program started in 2006.

22,411 residents called the hotline in 2010, when calls began a steady decline. 

11,219 residents called the Drunk Buster's hotline in 2015. 

Those calls have not resulted in a significant number of arrests: 

In 2010, about 9.3 percent of Drunk Busters calls resulted in an officer making contact with the suspected drunken driver. Only 385 arrests resulted from those 22,411 calls, which is a 1.7 percent arrest rate. 

In 2015, about 10 percent of Drunk Busters calls resulted in an officer making contact with the suspected drunken driver. Only 230 arrests resulted from those 11,219 calls, which is a 2 percent arrest rate. 

In September 2014, the Farmington Police Department started the 'Report Aggressive and Distracted Driving' program, which encourages people to call 911 rather than Drunk Busters.  

In 2015, 4,250 residents called 911 to report suspected drunken drivers. Farmington patrolmen made 292 arrests as a result of those calls, a 6.8 percent arrest rate. 

Tips from the public have accounted for a significant portion of the Farmington Police Department's total drunken driving arrests. 

In December, 40.6 percent of the police department's DWI arrests resulted from 911 calls.

In November, 39.13 percent of the police department's DWI arrests resulted from 911 calls.