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Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014 12:01 am

Drunk patrol

County resurrects DUI deputy just in time for Christmas

ILLUSTRATION BY GARY MARKSTEIN/TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICE

 

The mean streets of Sangamon County have gotten a bit meaner for those who imbibe before they drive.

Two years after the sheriff’s office, citing budget concerns, reassigned a deputy who had been dedicated to enforcing driving under the influence statutes, the office has reestablished the position.

Whether the county should have a deputy assigned full time to hunt down drunken drivers became an issue in the sheriff’s race this year, with eventual winner Wes Barr pledging to resurrect the position prior to the Republican primary last spring. Barr, who prevailed in the general election earlier this month, has not yet been sworn in.

The department moved toward assigning a deputy to full-time DUI patrol in March and invited deputies to apply. However, the position wasn’t filled until about six weeks ago, with Deputy Jason Hanson, the sole applicant, winning the job, said undersheriff Jack Campbell, who lost to Barr in the primary election.

Hanson, who will work a 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift, has been with the department for 10 years. And the department, which is paying DUI patrol costs that were once covered by the state, expects results.

“We’ve set some goals – I don’t want to call them quotas,” Campbell said. “So far, we’re satisfied.”

Arrests for DUI by county deputies plummeted after the department cut the DUI deputy position in 2012. Between Nov. 1, 2011, and Feb. 7, 2012, when the county had a full-time DUI deputy, prosecutors filed 65 DUI cases in circuit court stemming from arrests by the sheriff’s department. One year later, without a deputy assigned to full-time DUI patrol, prosecutors during that same three-month period filed just 11 cases based on arrests by deputies.

Court files suggest that a full-time DUI deputy now is making a difference.

Between Oct. 1 and Nov. 17 of last year, prosecutors filed nine DUI cases based on arrests by the sheriff’s department. During the same time period this year, prosecutors filed 16 DUI cases.

The sheriff’s department was once known for its volume of DUI arrests. In 2008, for instance, Deputy James McNamara, who has since retired, arrested 247 people on suspicion of DUI, the highest number of arrests for any officer in the state. His successor, Deputy Travis Koester, also arrested more than 200 motorists in a single year, but his tenure was marred by criticism from defense attorneys and at least two judges who found discrepancies between his testimony in court and written reports and video evidence.

The county eliminated the DUI position two years ago after two cases were dismissed by judges who questioned Koester’s testimony. The county said it was eliminating the job due to a decrease in state funding that had previously paid the DUI deputy’s salary plus expenses. Since then, state funding for full-time DUI officers has evaporated entirely, according to Campbell and Sgt. Charles Kean of the Springfield Police Department.

The city has been funding a pair of DUI officers since state funding disappeared, and Kean says that it’s money well spent. Officers on regular patrol can get too busy to hunt for drunks, Kean said, and some officers have been reluctant to aggressively enforce DUI statutes because the paperwork can be burdensome. That mindset is starting to change, Kean said.

“For our agency, the paradigm is shifting from ‘Oh, man, I don’t want to do this’ to ‘It’s part of the job,’” Kean said.

Still, dedicated DUI officers pay dividends, Kean said. After the city put a pair of officers on full-time drunk patrol in 2000, police made as many as 600 DUI arrests in a single year, he said. The number has since dropped, with the city’s two DUI officers last year making 312 arrests. During that same 14-year stretch, the number of DUI fatalities in the city has plummeted from a dozen per year to just one or two, the sergeant said.

“There’s probably a lot of people walking around who wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for our guys,” Kean said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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