Here’s what Bellingham police did to double their DUI arrest rate so far this year

Washington state arrests for driving under the influence

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs collect crime statistics from agencies that serve about 92% of the state. The most recent numbers available are from 2017.
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The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs collect crime statistics from agencies that serve about 92% of the state. The most recent numbers available are from 2017.

Through the first 109 days of 2019, the Bellingham Police Department has averaged nearly one DUI arrest per day — 110 through April 19, to be exact, Lt. Claudia Murphy told The Bellingham Herald.

Despite that impressive statistic — a 134% increase from the 47 arrests the department made for the same period in 2018 — Murphy said don’t let the numbers scare you ... not unless you’re planning to drive under the influence within Bellingham city limits, that is.

“I don’t think there’s suddenly been a spike in people drinking and driving,” Murphy told The Herald. “There are intoxicated people driving on our roads every night and every weekend. But it’s pretty consistent from night to night, weekend to weekend.”

Other law enforcement agencies have not seen similar increases so far this year, further proving Murphy’s point that the increased arrests are not a product of more intoxicated drivers on the roads.

Trooper Brandon Lee told The Bellingham Herald that through April 3 the Washington State Patrol has seen only a 6.7% increase (157 from 150) in DUI arrests within Whatcom County, while Undersheriff Jeff Parks said the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office has seen “consistent” numbers of DUI-coded events and citations the past two years.

So why, then, has the Bellingham Police Department suddenly become so proficient at spotting DUIs and making arrests? It’s made 110 arrests in the first third of this year. It made 190 DUI arrests in all of 2018.

“We take DUIs very seriously,” Sgt. Carr Lanham, who leads the department’s Traffic Division, told The Herald. “It’s something we put an emphasis on, as a department, because we know it’s something we can do to help keep our community safe.”

Mentoring officers

Perhaps the biggest reason for the department’s success in 2019, Lanham said, is a $20,000 grant from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission’s Target Zero program.

The grant allowed for emphasis patrols and training to help officers better recognize drug use in conjunction with a mentoring program with the department’s drug recognition expert, Officer Zack Serad.

Lanham said the grant not only allowed Serad to take other officers along with him to allow them gain knowlege and experience in spotting and properly processing impaired drivers, Serad also then was able to ride with officers to help mentor them.

Serad also was able to help train other officers how to properly test suspected impaired drivers for intoxicants other than alcohol, Lanham said.

“We’re getting better at spotting and catching more impaired drivers and I think a big part of that was the mentoring program the grant allowed us to set up,” Lanham said.

Vivian McPeak, the director of HempFest, and Darrin Grondel, the director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, sat down to talk about some cannabis myths and the risks of driving high.

Arrests take teamwork

Three other reasons Murphy gave for Bellingham’s strong DUI arrest numbers this year are:

Improved staffing: A realignment of the staffing schedule helped create better balance throughout the day and put more patrol officers on the street during the peak DUI hours — usually between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. “Last year we struggled with some injuries and other occurrences, and fewer officers on the street means less opportunity to look for DUIs,” Murphy told The Herald. “I know people think one officer can’t make a difference, but they really can.”

Maturing staff: In 2018 the department had a slightly less experienced patrol staff, but through a year of experience and some new, more experienced officers transferring from other departments, Murphy said the shifts have become a bit more seasoned this year. “These things kind of go in waves,” she told The Herald. “But when you’re an inexperienced officer, there are so many things you need to focus on. As you get more experienced, you become more comfortable with everything, including watching for DUIs.”

Strong teamwork: DUI investigations and arrests can take several hours from beginning to end, Murphy said. But DUIs obviously aren’t the only thing the department has to focus on. “While we might have two or three officers focusing on DUIs, everybody else has to be focusing on burglaries and everything else we have happen at night. Every DUI arrest we make, it’s because the entire shift is working together well as a team, allowing those officers to look for DUIs.”

It’s all added up to an impressive start to 2019.

“We really can’t focus on one reason why we’ve been more successful,” Murphy told The Herald. “It’s a combination of things. But most importantly, it’s an entire group effort by our shifts. They’ve been doing an amazing job in everything they’re doing. Catching and arresting DUIs is really a team effort.”

A DUI and distracted driving demonstration was held at Ferndale High School and was a collaboration between St. Joseph Medical Center, Whatcom County Fire District 7, Washington State Patrol, Ferndale Police and Airlift Northwest.

Interested and able

The one aspect Murphy said can’t be overlooked is that the department has a number of patrol officers who believe making Bellingham’s streets safer from intoxicated drivers is a priority.

Call load each night often dictates how much time officers have to put into DUI enforcement, Murphy said, but when they’re not on a call, it’s up to the officer to focus on DUIs or burglaries or other important areas of emphasis.

“I think it’s a combination of things,” Murphy said. “Staffing has to be good, your staff has to be comfortable at spotting and making DUI arrests, everybody has got to work together and you have to officers who are interested and able in watching for DUIs and know how to make those arrests.

“In this state, we can’t set up roadblocks, so it’s all up to being able to take time to observe and watch for signs indicative of impaired drivers. We’re really proud of the job our officers are doing so far this year.”

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.