Costa Mesa DUI arrests plummet after special police team is disbanded

Costa Mesa police describe their city as an ideal incubator for drunk drivers.

There’s a thriving bar scene. The 55 Freeway ends in the city, dumping cars onto Newport Boulevard. And impaired motorists leaving nearby beach towns cut through, looking for freeway access.

For more than 20 years, a specialized DUI enforcement team helped combat those factors by making the vast majority of drunk-driving arrests in Costa Mesa, according to a grant application that police sent the state this year.

For instance, when officers cuffed almost 800 impaired drivers last year, more than 80% of those arrests came from the DUI unit, police said.

In January, the Costa Mesa Police Department disbanded that team, and DUI arrests plummeted.

Through the first nine months of 2014, officers took 296 people into custody on suspicion of driving under the influence, according to numbers provided by the department.

If that pace continues, Costa Mesa police will arrest roughly half the number of DUI suspects this year than last.

Even with three months left to make up ground, 2014’s total undoubtedly will be well below the 787 arrests in 2013 and the 916 in 2012, according to traffic division Sgt. Bryan Wadkins.

It’s clear, Wadkins said, that eliminating Costa Mesa’s specialized DUI team caused the steep slide.

“We had a two-officer team that was assigned full-time, 40 hours a week, to enforcing DUI laws,” Wadkins said.

Every three months, a new pair of officers would rotate through the intense assignment, working Wednesday through Sunday nights and racking up dozens of DUI arrests.

“They’re go, go go,” Wadkins said. “It’s a lot of work.”

Police officials say the dedicated DUI assignment disappeared this year because the department doesn’t have enough bodies to staff it.

Costa Mesa’s traffic division has shrunk from a high of 19 officers, plus command and support staff, in 2008 to five officers in 2014, according to the grant applications submitted to the California Office of Traffic Safety.

Police departments statewide submit such applications annually in hopes of receiving money for extra traffic enforcement.

Some of the $169,690 grant that Costa Mesa received this year will help fund the department’s replacement for the DUI teams. Instead of two officers patrolling for drunk drivers five nights a week, one or two officers deploy once a week for what are called “saturation patrols.”

“It more or less serves a similar function,” said Lt. Greg Scott. But, he noted, it means fewer staff hours dedicated to drunk drivers.

So far this year, the drop in arrests has not correlated with any spike in DUI-related crashes. There were 98 such collisions in the first nine months of 2014, compared with 167 in all of 2013.

But Wadkins said that just because crashes aren’t up in Costa Mesa doesn’t mean an impaired driver who might have been arrested there under the old system didn’t cause a wreck somewhere else. “We catch a lot of people who are driving through our city,” he said.

The cut of the DUI team came as the Costa Mesa police force is supposed to be rebuilding.

In 2011, a controversial City Council vote cut costs at the Police Department by reducing the number of officers through attrition.

As officers left the department in anticipation of layoffs that never arrived, city officials delayed hiring replacements until the end of 2012.

The strategy allowed new recruits to come aboard on a less-costly pension plan, but it also created a hiring gap that has yet to be filled.

Department brass says 31 recruits were hired in the past two years, but in that same period, 45 officers left, according to the city.

If fully staffed according to the department’s budget, the CMPD would have 136 officers. But according to numbers provided by the city, the department had 30 vacancies in June. By October, recruiters had reduced that gap by only one, leaving 29 openings.

At the end of October, 20 officers were unable to work because of injuries or military service, leaving 87 officers available, according to the city.

The DUI team was one of the few areas left to cut that was not considered vital to the department’s existence, Police Chief Tom Gazsi said.

“Every function and division of the department has been reduced significantly to staff base-level field operations,” he said.

As more officers come aboard and are willing to work overtime, the department can use grant money to fill DUI enforcement with saturation patrols, Gazsi said.

But the decision to do away with the long-standing team means the traffic division lost a point of pride, Wadkins said. “It’s just been a long-term part of our culture,” he said.

Each year, the Orange County branch of Mothers Against Drunk Driving hands out what it calls Century Awards. The nonprofit gives the honor to any officer who makes more than 100 DUI arrests in a year.

In 2013, MADD handed out 14 of the plaques in Orange County, six of them to Costa Mesa police officers.

This year, the Costa Mesa department anticipates it won’t receive any Century Awards.

“I already know that’s the case,” Wadkins said.