Beginning next month, 66 Missouri law enforcement agencies, including the Kansas City Police Department, will lose funding for sobriety checkpoints.
Rep. Justin Hill, a St. Louis area Republican who was in law enforcement for 13 years and once supervised checkpoints, thinks there are better ways to catch drunken drivers and supported Missouri House Bill 4.
The bill shifts more than $19 million in federal funds away from checkpoints to saturation patrols, Hill said. Unlike checkpoints, which are visible and often announced, saturation patrols send officers to unannounced areas to watch for drunken drivers. Police will still be able to conduct checkpoints but will no longer be able to pay for them through that funding.
The fear of checkpoints acts as a deterrent for drunken drivers, said Sgt. Chris Bentch, DUI section supervisor for the Kansas City Police Department.
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He monitors the public Facebook page KC DUI Checkpoints and witnesses the frenzy of checkpoint posts. The publicity doesn’t bother him. The fact that people are talking about the checkpoints might make them think twice about driving drunk.
“People care enough to dedicate a page to this; 55,000 people bothered to click the like button,” he said.
Bentch said the Kansas City department will do four checkpoints this year without the state funding, the first on June 30.
For big drinking days like Independence Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo, he said there’s no way saturation patrols could round up as many drunken drivers as skilled officers in a checkpoint. With checkpoints, he said, officers aren’t taken away from other duties.
“Everyone in a checkpoint is on overtime status — they already did their day jobs. I’ve got guys from patrol, homicide, all over who sign up for checkpoints to make a little extra money, and it was so important because it didn’t take away any of our other resources,” he said. “Now we’re sitting around, trying to figure out how to do this.”
But Hill said officers can use the funds to pay officers overtime for saturation patrols, and in this day and age, it doesn’t make sense for officers to just sit at a checkpoint when social media can quickly spread the word about a checkpoint’s location.
“If the public doesn’t know where those officers are at, looking for them, I believe these saturation patrols are going to be more effective,” Hill said. “When you add all the man hours up, the average cost per arrest is extremely high. So when you have 20 officers on a checkpoint for four hours, and you get a few arrests, that’s extremely inefficient.”
Out of fear of not being reimbursed, Bentch said many agencies canceled checkpoints for last month’s Cinco de Mayo. Another checkpoint scheduled for May 12 at 70th Street and Troost Avenue also was canceled, he said.
Bentch said a checkpoint at that location a year ago resulted in 13 arrests. This year, a saturation patrol conducted in the same area led to three DUI arrests.
On St. Patrick’s Day, the department conducted a checkpoint on Southwest Trafficway.
“The most important part is that on last St. Patrick’s Day, officers checked about 1,300 vehicles and got 41 drunks. No way we could do that with saturation patrols,” he said.
But Hill warned that there’s concern about profiling during a checkpoint, when an officer doesn’t need probable cause to search a vehicle.
“There are a lot of people who don’t like checkpoints for that reason. My goal was to force law enforcement to switch methods; we’re taking enforcement to an offender, rather than over an entire community and saying they have to go through a checkpoint,” he said.
Springfield is also one of the 66 agencies losing DUI checkpoint funding.
“Having the checkpoints publicized and visible, you almost want to instill that fear,” said Lisa Cox, public affairs officer.
Megan Carter, Mothers Against Drunk Driving state director, said the elimination of checkpoints is disappointing.
“Essentially, funding for a tool that’s saving lives is being taken away from law enforcement,” she said. “This is a tool that is proven to save lives. Not only does it arrest impaired drivers, but more importantly it serves as a deterrent, and there’s a visibility of law enforcement out there.”
She believes that both tools go hand in hand. MADD Heartland Chapter president Leann Lewis, whose father was killed by a repeat drunken driving offender in 2008, also believes police officers need both checkpoints and saturation patrols. She said that checkpoints force a streamlined process, where officers can stop more vehicles at a rapid pace. At a checkpoint, there are skilled officers to process DUIs from start to finish.
“Pulling over a driver with a saturation patrol can take hours,” she said. “We had about 999 DUIs last year in KC, and that’s not including North KC, Jackson County as a whole, or other local areas nearby. Thirty percent of those DUIs came from checkpoints. Those are nights where you have lots of potentially impaired drivers. So the KCPD has a challenge as well, just because I don’t think they’ll be able to get 30 percent of their DUIs from saturation patrols.”
While Hill respects MADD, he said not many of its members have experience in DUI enforcement.
“It’s hard to embrace new technology and new methods when all you know for the last 20 years is checkpoints. Essentially, MADD is fighting to keep status quo,” he said. “But when you advertise the fact that there will be 20 officers on the street looking exclusively for DWIs, that has a huge impact on the public.”