Police to switch focus in targeting drunk drivers

COSTA MESA — While many cities step up drunk driving checkpoints during the holiday season, Costa Mesa police are conducting fewer of them — largely as directed by the City Council, police said.

Police instead are focusing on saturation patrols that assign more police officers to target drunk drivers on a given night — which, council members and police say, is more effective in catching drunk drivers.

Last year, the Police Department mounted 20 checkpoints, and in 2011 the department has conducted half that many, said Sgt. Phil Myers.

Both checkpoints and saturation patrols often require overtime, which state grants typically cover, Myers said.

While DUI checkpoints usually require 14 officers, saturation patrols require half as many, Myers said.

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said the decision to reduce checkpoints was based on findings from newly appointed Chief Tom Gazsi, who demonstrated to council members that saturation patrols are more effective.

According to Gazsi, saturation patrols free up officers, who can also respond to emergencies.

"It's a logical decision based on getting the most with less personnel," Gazsi said.

Righeimer said the beefed up patrols can results in the arrests of two to three times as many drunk drivers than the checkpoints, which are more educational in nature.

"They just get a lot more drunks off the road," Righeimer said.

Righeimer complained about the effectiveness of DUI checkpoints while running for office last year. Back then, he complained that one checkpoint staged around the time of a Friday night football game backed up traffic.

Although the department is changing its approach, the city is not losing any state grant money from the Office of Traffic Safety, Righeimer said.

This clarifies Councilman Steve Mensinger's stance on DUI enforcement in Costa Mesa.

In a recent council meeting, Councilman Steve Mensinger said the city should use Gazsi's suggestion of saturation patrols for DUI enforcement, since it is more effective than checkpoints.

"Chief Gazsi, I hope that in the future we can reduce checkpoints to zero and focus on saturation patrols," he said.

Councilwoman Wendy Leece said the new method of catching drunk drivers is a way of maintaining safe streets with a reduced police force.

"Many come to Costa Mesa bars and restaurants to drink and party," she said in an email. "Many pass through from Newport Beach as well. With recent cuts in our police force, I hope we will be even more effective in deterring drunk drivers and boldly proclaim, 'If you are in Costa Mesa, don't drink and drive or you will be in big trouble'."


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