Cuts Blamed for Fewer Drunk-Driving Arrests

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Drunk-driving arrests in Oxnard are down 29% since the city eliminated a four-man police task force because of budget restraints.

Police officials said the decrease does not mean that the streets are safer, just that fewer drunk drivers are being caught.

Since August, when the city eliminated the task force, the Police Department has made 1,195 drunk-driving arrests--contrasted with 1,690 during the same period the previous year, police said.

Because of a budget shortage, the city eliminated three officers in the task force through attrition and transferred the fourth officer to another division, Assistant Police Chief William Cady said.

Stewart Mimm, former chairman of the Oxnard Inter-Neighborhood Council, which represents about 30 neighborhood councils citywide, said he believes that the streets of Oxnard are more dangerous today than when the task force was in operation.

He accused the City Council of mismanaging its budget. "They should be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail," he said.

City officials said a combination of fiscal problems beyond their control--not mismanagement--led them to eliminate the task force.

The task force patrolled the city's busiest streets at night in search of drunk drivers, said Sgt. George Pultz, who heads the Police Department's Traffic Division. The presence of the task force freed other officers to handle different kinds of crime.

Pultz said he has not studied statistics to find out whether the number of accidents and deaths involving drunk drivers has increased since the city eliminated the task force.

Between August, 1988, and March, 1989, the district attorney's office filed 1,127 drunk-driving charges resulting from arrests in Oxnard, according to a review of court records by The Times. During the same period the following year--after the city eliminated the task force--the district attorney filed 784 drunk-driving charges resulting from arrests in Oxnard.

It is not known how many arrests resulted in convictions. About 7,500 people are convicted of drunk driving each year in Ventura County and pay a minimum $1,200 fine.

The reduction in drunk-driving arrests also resulted in a decline in revenues to the county, which receives the fines imposed on convicted drunk drivers. However, court officials said they are unable to tally the specific amount of money lost.

The revenues from drunk-driving fines, which range between $1.2 million and $2 million a year, are at the center of a legal battle between the county and the 10 cities in the county.

In September, 1987, the Municipal Court launched a formal probation program for convicted drunk drivers. A state law permits counties that launch such programs to keep the fines in their general funds.

In August, 1987, the cities joined together and filed suit against the county, demanding that the county split the money with them, said Bill Mayer, budget and management director for Oxnard.

Individual cities had kept about 85% of the fines collected from convicted drunk drivers but have not received any money since the county began keeping the fines.

Mayer said Oxnard and the other cities question the extent of the county's probation program, claiming that one probation officer handles as many as 1,491 offenders. He said the cities suspect that all the money received by the county is not going to the probation program.

The cities have hired Elizabeth H. Silver, a San Leandro attorney who successfully represented the 18 cities of Contra Costa County in a similar lawsuit.

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