City Life: Data drive move away from DUI checkpoints

Many of the most important decisions in our lives are made for emotional, not rational, reasons.

We buy the wrong cars, marry the wrong people and even choose our health-care providers for reasons that have no basis other than we like or love that particular thing or person.

That's why a recent decision by the Costa Mesa Police Department is an excellent lesson for all of us, but particularly for those in government.

Last December, the CMPD reduced its planned 2012 DUI checkpoints by half and replaced them with saturation patrols, which deploy a lot of police in a small area to reduce so-called "hot spot" crime, in this case, drunk driving.

Checkpoints look formidable and have the perception of proactively fighting crime and increasing public awareness of the seriousness of driving drunk. Unfortunately, checkpoints yield relatively few DUI arrests, and there is no direct line that can be drawn from education to a reduction in DUIs.

That's the emotional argument. The rational argument shows that saturation patrols are far more effective: They catch more drunks and cost far less to conduct.

The FBI has known this for years. In 2003, they studied the effectiveness of saturation patrols versus checkpoints in Ohio, Missouri and Tennessee and concluded that: "Overall, measured in arrests per hour, a dedicated saturation patrol is the most effective method of apprehending offenders."

More recently, in Kansas City, the police found that saturation patrols were cheaper, too, with each citation or arrest costing one-sixth of that from a checkpoint.

Costa Mesa Police Chief Tom Gazsi had been a member of the department for barely three months when he received input from the community and the City Council about the checkpoints. He decided to take a second look. The decision to adjust the DUI program was not a simple one.

"Costa Mesa has a tradition, a legacy, of proactive traffic enforcement," Gazsi said. "Saturation patrols yield more DUI arrests."

That's also the data talking. The data also reveal that Costa Mesa's outstanding traffic enforcement is responsible, in part, for a reduction in traffic fatalities from five in 2010 to just one last year.

The DUI program is funded through a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), which has been a proponent of checkpoints in part because of their educational value.

The CMPD, however, worked with OTS Director Christopher Murphy to come up with a test program that could determine what combination of checkpoints and saturation patrols is best for Costa Mesa. The program for 2012 consists of 10 checkpoints and five saturation patrols.

And if that doesn't work, Gazsi will adjust the program.

"We looked at the models that are the most effective," he said. "If this one is not effective, we'll adjust it. We're on a quarterly review of the program and we'll use the data to make any necessary adjustments."

Gazsi's methodical, evidence-based approach to the changes in an important program, complete with accommodations to the OTS strategies, is an excellent example of the leadership required to maximize available resources, particularly in a department that has been reduced by about 20% in the past year or so.

There is the lesson: Take the irrational, emotional, "feels good" elements out of the discussion and use data to drive the decision. For many people and institutions, both public and private, switching strategies or tactics is not easy. Often, there are years of ingrained behavior to overcome.

But as the British economist John Maynard Keynes replied when criticized for changing his position on an economic policy, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to smi161@aol.com.

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