When it comes to busting drunk drivers, Boise has some of the most alert cops around. On a regular Friday or Saturday night, as many as 70 Boise Police Department officers might be on the streets. In addition to that, five officers who specialize in recognizing drunk drivers are prowling the roadways. Just last year, BPD officers arrested 2,247 drivers for driving under the influence.
Now they have a new incentive. Last month, a BPD sergeant sent out a memo to all officers announcing a new contest, with prizes, for the most DUI arrests.
The memo, which was provided to BW after a public records request, is straightforward: At the end of every month, the individual officer with the highest combined total of DUI arrests and DUI assists will be given a prize. The prizes range from movie tickets to gift certificates from local restaurants.
"This community has made DUI enforcement a priority," said Lynn Hightower, Boise Police spokeswoman. "It's not about making arrests, it's about getting drunk drivers off the streets, period."
Although the goal is noteworthy, making a contest of arresting people has raised the eyebrows of Alan Trimming, who runs Ada County's Public Defender's Office. It's Trimming's department that ends up defending many drunk-driving arrests.
"A contest has certain cause for concern," Trimming said. "I would hope, that in a desire to win the contest, that there would be no corner-cutting of any kind."
One of the officers most likely to win any contest for arresting drunk drivers is the perfectly named Officer Casey Hancuff. Last year Hancuff made 353 drunk-driving arrests, according to BPD statistics. He's a longtime member of the BPD Night STEP team--STEP stands for "Selected Traffic Enforcement Program"--which is responsible for most of the city's DUI arrests. Of the 2,247 DUI arrests made by Boise Police in 2006 the Night STEP unit made 1,907. According to statistics from the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, Boise's DUI related crashes dropped 20 percent in 2004. Chief Michael Masterson has said he credits that drop largely to the enforcement of the Night STEP team.
The Night STEP team is supposed to have eight officers, all specially trained to detect, arrest and prosecute drunk drivers. Often, STEP officers like Hancuff will take over or assist other officers making DUI arrests. Lately, because of hiring and other issues, the team is down to six.
On a recent Saturday night, Hancuff drove his BPD cruiser in a series of concentric loops around Boise, responding to DUI calls and watching drivers in traffic around him.
"You're mainly looking for signs of impairment," Hancuff said. "Broken tail light, no signal on a turn, those are the kinds of things that lead to the most DUI arrests."
Rolling up Front Street, he passed a building he spends lots of time in: the Ada County Courthouse. As he did so, he spotted a car weaving ever so slightly around in its lane. The interior light was on in the car. His approach is not unfamiliar to anyone who has ever had a police car pass them or tail them in traffic: it is deliberate, speedy and daunting. Before long, he had the car pulled over near the notorious party zone near the Basque block at 5th and Grove streets. With his blue and red lights flashing and a flashlight in hand, he approached the car and talked for a few moments with the two people inside. After a while, he returned with a minor's drivers' license and a fatherly sense of worry.
"They're 17, they're girls, they're barely wearing shirts," Hancuff said, almost to himself. "I'm so glad I have boys."
Since becoming an officer in 1994 Hancuff, who is 43, has just about seen it all with drunk-driving incidents, from the goofy to the revolting.
"Sometimes they're silly, sometimes it's sad," he said. "I've arrested naked people driving, and I've found dead kids."
At this stop, as with two others, the drivers are not drunk, or not deemed to be by Hancuff, who let the teens go with a mini-lecture about careful driving. He smiled with them, and waved them away. At another traffic stop on I-184, he pulled over a driver for taking too long to switch on his headlights in traffic. This driver too gets to go on without anything more than a roadside consultation.
Officers often do a carefully-prescribed tests to watch a subject's eye track a moving object, like an officer's finger. An eye that bounces as it follows a finger's movement can be one clue to alcohol impairment.
But in the end, a DUI arrest involves much more than waving a finger in front of someone's eyes, or making someone do a heel-to-toe walk on a straight line. After field tests, an officer must take the subject to the Boise Police station on Barrister Street, to put them through a breath test. At the station, Hancuff pulled out reams of paperwork, six to seven sheets in all, not including the actual citation itself, that officers have to fill out in a DUI arrest.
"The [DUI] arrest is a daunting arrest," he said. "Some guys who don't do it on a routine basis, it might take them three hours." It also takes court time. Hancuff estimates he has more than 1,000 subpoenas in the next three months. In court, he might face a public defender from Trimming's office, or he might face any number of private defense attorneys ready to challenge his paperwork or his arrest procedures. Something must be on his side: Hightower estimates that of the arrests that get into the system, Boise Police has a more than 90 percent rate of success getting convictions.
To Hancuff, it's a no-brainer: society, he said, is ready to back an officer who gets a drunk driver off the road.
"We lose 19,000 people a year to DUI crashes," Hancuff said. "Nobody in their right mind thinks that's acceptable."
He's right there, Trimming said. Over the years, with the advent of aggressive groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, society's disdain of drunk drivers has increased.
"There's a really strong public sentiment about DUI," Trimming said. "The public are the ones that fill juries. Public sentiment and public perception dictate law enforcement and design, and legislative intent."
But he remains skeptical of a contest among officers to haul in the most drunken perpetrators. He is wary, he says, of a crusader-like mentality among officers that can result in overzealous enforcement. And he agrees that a DUI arrest is complicated. It is also daunting. Although a person can decline a breath test, they do not have the right to consult a lawyer before they do so. Usually it is just the driver and the police officer making this decision, within the confines of a cinderblock-walled room at the police station.
"We rely, as citizens, on the fundamental integrity of our police officers," Trimming said. Therefore, having an officer in the room who is trying to win the city's contest, he said, is worrying.
"We don't want anybody going out and doing something stupid," Hancuff said of the contest. "We're trying to ignite a fire with some of the guys, in a fun way, to get them excited."