FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – The number of people getting arrested for drinking and driving is going down across the country. An OWI charge can have expensive fines, cost someone their job, and is now largely considered embarrassing.
“There’s so much more awareness on this. It’s no longer seen as a socially acceptable crime,” Lael Hill, the lead victim’s services specialist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s Indiana office, said.
Hill added people today are more likely to call a cab or use ride services like Uber or Lyft. That change in behavior is being reflected in arrest records. Across the United States, OWI arrests are down 25 percent from 2006 to 2015, according to FBI arrest records. The data also showed Indiana saw a 36 percent drop in OWI arrests in the same time period. But, in Fort Wayne, police department records show OWI arrests went from nearly 1,791 in 2006 to 882 last year. That’s a 50 percent drop and double the national decline.
“It is a big drop,” Lt. Tony Maze of the Fort Wayne Police Department said. “To see we have a bigger drop than just about anybody else? It makes me curious.”
Defense attorneys Bart Arnold and Jeff Terrill said they’ve noticed a difference in their number of OWI clients
“The numbers speak. They tell a story. We’re either doing something really well or we’re not doing enough,” Terrill said. “Years ago it would be difficult to meet somebody who didn’t know somebody who had been arrested for OWI and now I don’t think that’s the case.”
Lt. Maze started overseeing the traffic-related division in 2008. When he took over, the department was getting two grants from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, and it still gets those same grants now. The Operation Pullover (OPO) grant was lowered from $201,500 a year to $155,000 last year because of funding cuts across the state. The OPO grant funds four blitz periods a year.
The DUI grant is still $201,500 a year and pays for officers to work extra overtime shifts to focus on finding drunk drivers. Lt. Maze will put out bids for the shifts every Friday and Saturday night all year long. Ideally, he’ll have a sergeant and five to six patrol officers take each night for the OWI patrol. If funds are still available, Maze will add additional days, like a Wednesday or Thursday, during the summer. But, all the open bid spots are not always filled.
“There are fewer officers bidding than in years past,” Maze said. “Getting officers to bid for these details can be challenging.”
The fact that Fort Wayne continues to get the grant money for extra enforcement details, Hill said, is an indicator that they’re working.
“If grantors don’t see the work, they won’t advocate for that community to get more money. If there’s more officers on the street patrolling, people are more likely to designate a driver,” she said.
But, Bart Arnold feels he doesn’t see the OWI patrols as often as he used to.
“When I read police reports it will indicate if they were on an OWI enforcement detail and I don’t see that as often,” he said.
Terrill agreed that there used to be more of a police presence around town.
“You saw more squad cars. When you leave restaurants or bars, you’d see law enforcement. I don’t know if people feel that way now, that there’s that presence.”
Several sources told 15 Finds Out that officers used to be near popular bars and when people left, they would pull them over for a tail light or license plate light out. If the officer noticed any signs of alcohol, the stop would then progress toward a possible OWI. That’s not happening anymore.
“No. No it’s not. The law has changed. The idea of you having a tail light out does not mean you’re an impaired driver and so they’re being more strict about the probable cause you need to pull someone over,” Maze explained.
“That’s also good news that you have ethical police officers that aren’t harassing people,” Hill said.
MADD’s Indiana office says Fort Wayne’s drastic decrease in OWI arrests is good news.
“You have a really tough prosecutor who’s really aggressive on prosecuting these crimes and people probably know that in your community and I can guarantee that if you go to the bar scene and people talk and say you can’t drive drunk in Allen County because they will get you,” Hill said.
Prosecutor Karen Richards agreed that the strong enforcement years ago is showing an effect now.
“For a long period of time we had more drunk driving arrests than anybody. We far surpassed Indianapolis or any place else. I can’t help but think that had an effect [meaning fewer people are drinking and driving],” she said.
To her, the numbers showing Fort Wayne OWI arrests down twice as much as the national trend tell a story of success.
“It tells me that we’ve been effective. We were so strong in law enforcement for so long and there were a lot of people who were social drinkers and didn’t realize they were over the limit and got arrested and I think we have changed those people’s behavior,” Richards said.
Hill wants to take that success story a step further and help spread that “IT” factor to other communities.
“I want to come up and analyze it myself and start asking questions so we can implement the same policies around the country,” she said.
Still, some worry the huge drop in arrests isn’t just because people in Fort Wayne are behaving better.
“To see twice the national average and not be hearing a reason for it or some agency taking credit for why that’s happening? It’s surprising,” Terrill said.
The following are the OWI arrest numbers from the Fort Wayne Indiana State Police post:
ISP spokesman Sgt. Ron Galaviz said the large spike in arrests in 2010-2013 was from a group of officers who worked the late-night shift and chose to target drunk drivers. The members of the “Wolf Pack,” as they called themselves, no longer work those shifts because of normal advancements and promotions.
The following are the OWI arrest numbers from Allen County Sheriff’s Department:
When 15 Finds Out asked Lt. Maze if he thought the department was letting people get away with driving drunk, he was adamant that the answer is no.
“No. I don’t think so. I would certainly hope not, but I really don’t think so,” he said.
Lt. Maze said he still plans to take a closer look at the department’s OWI enforcement and make sure officers aren’t overlooking anyone driving drunk.
To help people have a safe ride home over the holidays, the Holiday Cab program is still going on. Anyone can call (260) 426-1301 to get a free ride home. Cabs run from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. through January 1.
Click on the links below to see a full data report from the FBI.