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DUI arrests increase as squad hits road

The numbers don't necessarily mean more people are driving drunk, officials said, only that officers are getting better at stopping them.

Police are arresting drunken drivers this year at a record pace thanks to a squad of officers specializing in DUI enforcement.

Through November, Clearwater police arrested 708 people on drunken driving charges, according to department figures. That eclipses by 200 the number of drunken driving arrests through November of last year; it also bests the 581 drunken-driving arrests made for all of 1999.

The Clearwater numbers don't necessarily reflect that people are drinking and driving more, but that police are getting better at arresting those impaired behind the wheel, police officials said.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, by comparison, has arrested 1,240 people through November this year for drunken driving. That compares with 1,577 arrested last year, according to spokesman Cal Dennie. He referred questions to a supervisor in the traffic division, who could not be reached for comment last week.

Clearwater officials attribute the increase in arrests there to a five-officer squad that focuses on DUI enforcement. The squad was formed in 1999, but was tripped up a little its freshman year because the squad sometimes was summoned to partake in special details. Two officers, one of whom became a new father, needed to take some personal time off as well.

But the squad mostly has been left alone this year, resulting not only in more arrests, but better arrests, said Sgt. Robert Wierzba, the squad's supervisor.

"Quite frankly, the group has gotten quite good at what they do," Wierzba said. "We're being left alone to do our jobs."

That means fewer breaks for impaired drivers. More drunken drivers are getting carted to the Pinellas County Jail rather than getting a ride home in a cab.

Police spokesman Wayne Shelor said the squad works mostly nights and weekends, when national estimates are up to one out of every 10 drivers on the road is driving impaired.

Shelor said the public demands strict traffic enforcement, according to surveys the department has conducted in previous years. Residents indicate in those surveys that traffic is one of their biggest concerns, he said.

Wierzba said three members of the DUI squad will be on duty tonight. He said the squad made only a few arrests on New Year's Eve last year. St. Patrick's Day is the worst holiday for drunken driving, while Memorial Day and Labor Day are also bad, he said.

Wierzba said he thinks people are more responsible on New Year's Eve than those other holidays, though he fears a win by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Philadelphia Eagles this afternoon could result in heavy partying and unwise decisions to get behind the wheel.

Wierzba said he hopes Clearwater will gain a reputation as a place you don't want to drive drunk.

"If we get the reputation that we're tough on DUIs and we'll find you if you're driving drunk and you'll go to jail, that won't break my heart," he said.