Arrests for driving while intoxicated have fallen dramatically in Nassau County over the past three years, leading to concerns that too many drivers are getting away with the crime.
The Nassau County Police Department made an average of 2,641 DWI arrests each year from 2008 to 2011, the year the county disbanded its specialized DWI enforcement team, county statistics show.
Since 2011, DWI arrests have decreased each year, to 1,853 in 2012 and to 1,545 in 2013. This year, the department is on pace for fewer than 800 DWI arrests.
"I'm very concerned that DWI arrests are dropping," said Marge Lee, president of the Franklin Square-based group Drive Educated Drive Informed Commit And Totally End Drunk Driving. "I used to brag about our DWI numbers. Now, I don't have anything to brag about, because these declines since 2011 are alarming."
The Suffolk County Police Department, which maintains its specialized DWI enforcement team, saw a smaller decrease in DWI arrests than did Nassau. Suffolk's went from 3,256 in 2011 to 3,062 in 2012 to 2,846 last year.
Despite the decline in arrests, Nassau defended its DWI strategy as highly effective.
"The purpose of our DWI program is to save lives and we are very successful in meeting that objective," said acting Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter. "We're now getting more productivity and more patrols" than with the specialized DWI team.
DA raises concerns
Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, whose office worked closely with the police Selective Enforcement Team -- a group of specially trained cops tasked with making DWI arrests -- said she has concerns about the department's DWI enforcement.
"We've raised serious concerns to the police department about the day-to-day enforcement of drunk driving laws, and while we don't control how another agency uses its resources, we're glad that the police department has committed to enhancing enforcement as we approach the deadliest drunk driving days of the year," Rice said in a statement.In an effort to increase enforcement, Nassau police said, they will partner with the Nassau district attorney's office to launch a new DWI checkpoint program, to be announced just before Memorial Day weekend. The police department and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano will also announce a broader initiative Friday to fight intoxicated driving, Krumpter said.
The recent decrease in Nassau DWI arrests, Krumpter said, is the result of a revamped strategy begun in 2011. That year, the department's Selective Enforcement Team was disbanded, police said.
Instead of paying for the SET team after 2011, police said they shifted funding for the program into an "intelligence led" strategy that focused patrols in areas where drunken drivers were likeliest to be found, during the hours police were likeliest to find them. They also increased DWI checkpoints, Krumpter said, and the number of patrol hours devoted to seeking out intoxicated drivers.
In addition, increased citizen compliance with the law rather than diminished enforcement is also a factor, Krumpter says, an argument department leaders believe is supported by the decline in DWI crashes and deaths.
DWI fatalities -- any death attributable to drunken or drugged driving -- fell from 25 in 2011 and 2012 in Nassau to 24 last year. DWI crashes went from 611 in 2011 to 600 in 2012, the last year for which DWI crash data collected by New York State were available.
"After a review of statistics, it is possible that the aggressive past enforcement policies, combined with education and awareness campaigns, have reduced instances of DWI," Krumpter said. He cited a recent DWI checkpoint operation in which 1,000 cars were stopped over three nights, resulting in six DWI arrests.
Fears of complacency
Critics of the department's DWI enforcement efforts argue the checkpoint statistics are too small a sample to be significant, and that police officials have become complacent in the face of declining DWI arrest totals.
"With a trend like this, people might get the idea you can drink and drive in Nassau County without getting arrested," said James Carver, president of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association, whose union members were part of the department's disbanded DWI team. "It's a problem that needs to be addressed." While defending his department's DWI tactics, Krumpter acknowledged room for improvement. "While the number of DWI fatalities has declined to historically low levels suggesting that the roadways are safer, the department always can do better," he said.
In Suffolk, where DWI deaths fell from 53 in 2011 to 49 in 2012, police Deputy Insp. Stan Grotski says his specialized DWI team is a better enforcement tool than officer patrols alone.
But, he says, compliance with DWI laws is lower than expected given the amount of enforcement and public education programs.
"As far as compliance, you've still got a lot of people driving drunk," said Grotski, commanding officer of the county's highway patrol. "The numbers are pretty consistent. And then you wonder how many you're not getting."
The decrease in DWI deaths on Long Island reflect a national trend going back more than a decade. Alcohol-related driving fatalities from 2003 to 2012 declined by 21 percent, from 13,096 in 2003 to 10,322 in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The data do not include deaths involving drivers on drugs, who are counted in Nassau and Suffolk's DWI arrest, crash, and fatality totals.
Eli Silverman, professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said the diminishing DWI arrest totals should serve as a wake-up call to the department. "This decline sends the wrong message to the public on a very serious issue," Silverman said. "Lax enforcement breeds lax behavior."