LARGO — With deep budget cuts looming in the spring of 2008, Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats warned that he would have to cut back on DUI enforcement. And that would mean fewer drunken drivers taken off county roads.
That's exactly what has happened, according to numbers recently released by the Sheriff's Office.
Since the agency's DUI unit was originally disbanded in 2008, drunken driving arrests are down 62 percent.
During the first quarter of 2008, when the agency had six deputies dedicated to DUI operations, 408 arrests were made. During the first quarter of this year, 156 arrests were made by patrol deputies, who are now responsible for DUI enforcement along with their other duties.
"Is there an impact? Sure there is," said Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri. "There has to be an impact. There's fewer deputies; there's less enforcement."
In early 2008, the agency had a unit of 13 deputies assigned to "selective traffic enforcement," including DUIs and other traffic issues.
Seven of the deputies focused on traffic infractions, such as aggressive drivers, red light runners and speeding in neighborhoods.
The other six deputies targeted drunken drivers through checkpoints and "wolfpack" operations, where deputies and local police departments saturated certain areas. They also responded to complaints and patrolled roadways looking for inebriated drivers.
In 2007, the Sheriff's Office conducted seven DUI checkpoints. Since then, there have been none, Gualtieri said.
In early 2008, with budget cuts on the horizon, the agency eliminated the traffic and DUI units to save about $1.5 million, Gualtieri said. Later that year, a smaller unit was restored, with seven deputies assigned to handle both areas.
But when further budget cuts were directed by the County Commission, the unit was again disbanded in spring 2009.
The drop in DUI investigations and arrests can be traced to various factors, including fewer deputies, lack of time and lack of specialized training for deputies.
"The DUI deputies become experts in it. Now you've got deputies who are running from call to call, trying to pick people up on warrants, trying to enforce general traffic laws and serving injunctions," Gualtieri said.
It's unclear if decreased DUI arrests have affected the number of alcohol-related fatalities. Statistics for Pinellas DUI fatalities in 2009 will not be released by the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles until this summer.
But Cheryl Henrion, the senior victim advocate for the Pinellas County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said she has seen a dramatic rise in the number of victims seeking support.
Henrion said she generally receives inquiries from 20 to 25 people per month. In April, that number skyrocketed to 49, the highest ever.
Henrion said she felt "terror" when she learned the Sheriff's Office was cutting its DUI unit.
The 10-year MADD veteran said she has been on hand for dozens of DUI checkpoints run by the Sheriff's Office over the years. No more checkpoints means more drunken drivers going undetected.
And it has other consequences, Henrion said.
"Not only do they catch impaired drivers on the road," she said, "but they make arrests for outstanding warrants, illegal contraband and other infractions."
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.