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Spread DWI checkpoints to all parts of town

September 25, 2018

Finding out that DWI checkpoints in Santa Fe are concentrated in the less affluent parts of town is hardly surprising — anyone who has driven around here has noticed the pattern.

You might be driving on Camino Carlos Rey, or near Airport Road, or zipping along Rodeo Road, only to see police conducting a sobriety checkpoint. Chances are, though, that someone leaving a downtown bar and heading home along Old Santa Fe Trail might drive home with nary a checkpoint in sight.

The facts back up that impression, as New Mexican reporter Daniel J. Chacón found out. Of the 27 DWI checkpoints conducted by the Santa Fe police since 2016, 22 have been staged in the south and southwest areas of the city, according to documents obtained from police. All but one of the checkpoints took place west of St. Francis Drive (an acknowledged dividing line between the haves and the have less) and more than half of the checkpoints were held in City Council District 4.

Police, when asked about what appears to be the targeting certain parts of town, had this to say: First, they use past arrest statistics and areas with a higher number of alcohol-related crashes to help decide where checkpoints should go. Second, the geography of Santa Fe — with narrow streets near the historic downtown — makes it difficult to run sobriety checkpoints. It’s not profiling, in other words, despite the impression.

Be that as it may, City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler, who represents District 4, is correct saying the current way of doing things is hardly fair. District 3 City Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta wants to know, “Why are there so many in one side of town as opposed to the other, especially when you have so many bars on the other side of St. Francis Drive and the downtown area?” District 3 had the second-highest number of checkpoints since 2016.

Here’s what we would like to see. Take the smart minds in the police department, get input from the mayor and the city manager, with city councilors weighing in, and look at how sobriety checkpoints are assigned and staffed. One important point to research is whether the checkpoints are being held frequently enough to actually reduce drunken driving. If they aren’t working to deter and if few arrests result, what’s the point?

Ask loads of questions. How can checkpoints be safely staged closer to where so many people are drinking on a Saturday night? Could checkpoints with fewer officers work along narrow streets?

Staffing is mandated, often by the type of grant that pays for the operation, but 2005 research from the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation showed that checkpoints with three or four officers in rural West Virginia helped deter impaired driving. The key was frequency. In the study, officers ran weekly checkpoints, significantly reducing the percentage of nighttime drivers who were drinking.

A 2017 report from Science Daily showed that checkpoints — again, when they are frequent — do serve as a deterrent; drunken drivers aren’t as likely to get behind the wheel if they are afraid of getting caught. In fact, the report said checkpoints work better at reducing impaired driving than the threat of harsh penalties.

What does this mean for Santa Fe? By limiting checkpoints to one side of town, the police are forfeiting a useful weapon in deterring drunks from getting behind the wheel in all parts of the city. They also are concentrating police activity in such a way as to make residents feel targeted, even if that’s not the purpose. Geography should not determine police activity. We’d suggest considering portions of Paseo de Peralta for checkpoints; the street seems wide enough, with places for officers to take drivers who need to be tested.

The truth is, few arrests are made at sobriety checkpoints. In 2016, for example, only one DWI arrest occurred out of nine city police-operated checkpoints. (Four others scheduled in 2016 were canceled because of lack of staff). For checkpoints to serve as a deterrent, police need to conduct stops in all parts of town while increasing their frequency. Is that possible? Let’s find out.

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