- About Austin
- Background / Planning Process
- Special Enforcement Methods
- Frequency of Operations / Duration of Program
- Public Awareness / Program Visibility
- Program Advantages
- Legal Concerns
- DWI Detection Using SFSTs
- Motivating Officers
- Proof of Program Effects
It can be difficult and time-consuming to establish a special-purpose unit within a large law enforcement agency. Political and institutional barriers, as well as the inertia of traditional approaches, can derail even the best-laid plans. The Austin approach is distinguished by an innovative policy aimed at ensuring that new officers are knowledgeable about all aspects of DWI enforcement. This description of the process by which the Austin Police Department planned, implemented, and is now perfecting a dedicated DWI Unit will be useful to law enforcement managers considering similar initiatives.
Austin is located on the banks of the Colorado River on the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country, roughly in the center of the state. To the south is San Antonio, to the north are Dallas and Fort Worth, and to the east is Houston. Austin is 238 square miles in size and includes parts of Travis and Williams Counties; two of the seven Highland Lakes are located within city limits. Austin has a population of over 674,000 people, with a metropolitan area of approximately one million people. Austin is home to the University of Texas’ main campus, which has over 50,000 students and 21,000 faculty and staff. Austin is known as the intellectual, cultural, and entertainment center of the region, as well as the home of a diverse music community with a tradition of live performances and an active nightlife at the city’s many bars, restaurants, and music clubs.
Background / Planning Process
Prior to 1998, general patrol officers handled all traffic enforcement for the Austin Police Department (APD), but only when they weren’t responding to calls for service. Concerned about the rising number of alcohol-related crashes in the city, the chief directed the creation of an operations plan in January 1998, which resulted in the immediate formation of a DWI Task Force. The task force’s primary goal was to reduce the number of alcohol-related fatalities in 1998 by 15% from the previous year’s total. The primary method would be for task force officers to focus almost entirely on DWI enforcement and to assist non-specialist patrol officers by relieving them of DWI processing and arrest procedures. A schedule was developed that assigned officers to the task force from their regular duties in the various divisions, with division commanders determining individual assignments.
The DWI Task Force conducted special enforcement from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. daily, with two teams of two officers deployed on Sundays through Wednesdays and four two-officer teams deployed on Thursdays through Saturdays. Saturday deployments were supplemented by five officers from the department’s DWI Selective Enforcement Program (STEP), who were not required to work in pairs. During the first seven months of the special enforcement program, the number of officers and hours of operation varied slightly.
Officers on the task force focused on enforcing impaired driving laws, but they were also encouraged to make enforcement stops for a wide range of traffic offenses. Officers were expected to process their own DWI arrests and relieve general patrol officers of processing duties by either driving to the scene of the arrest or arranging to meet patrol officers at the police station. The written supplement to the incident report was completed by patrol officers, and it provided a description of the probable cause for the originating enforcement stop. The patrol officers were also in charge of administering the tests required for a DWI arrest before handing the process over to a task force officer. Officers from the DWI Task Force then completed incident reports, affidavits, and booking sheets for the patrol officers’ arrests. Officers on the task force also completed nightly activity reports, which included copies of their dispatch sheets. A supervising lieutenant analyzed the reports to determine how long it would take to process arrests.
Many Austin PD officers became acquainted with DWI assessment and arrest procedures as a result of the DWI Task Force operations. As a result of this exposure, many general patrol officers gained the skills and confidence required to make and process their own DWI arrests without the assistance of the task force’s DWI specialists. The combination of formal and on-the-job training resulted in general patrol officers handling 75 percent of the DWI arrests made by the Austin Police Department.
A special DWI Enforcement Unit was formed in September 1998 as a permanent replacement for the DWI Task Force and operates under the direction of the Austin Police Department’s Traffic Administration Section. The new unit’s goal was (and still is) to increase the level of effort and professionalism in DWI enforcement, reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes, and send a clear message to motorists that impaired driving is not tolerated in Austin. The DWI Enforcement Unit began with eight specially trained officers and one sergeant.
Special Enforcement Methods
The DWI Enforcement Unit continues the task force’s practice of frequent, sustained, highly visible impaired driving patrols, which it established during its seven months of operation in 1998. The Unit dedicates the first two days of each week to what is known as a “Impact Initiative,” in which all members of the DWI Unit deploy to the same APD Area Command to search for and arrest DWI violators, as well as to deter others from driving while impaired through high-visibility enforcement. When not conducting an Impact Initiative for a specific Area Command, DWI Unit officers deploy citywide for the rest of the week. The vehicles of the special unit are outfitted with window-mounted video cameras, and the words “DWI Enforcement” are prominently displayed to raise public awareness of the special enforcement effort. The Austin Police Academy’s curriculum includes the NHTSA’s DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) course. The task force’s success in providing general patrol officers with operational experience with DWI enforcement procedures, on the other hand, has resulted in an innovative approach to teaching DWI enforcement skills to novice officers. That is, in 2002, the Austin Police Department implemented a policy requiring all new officers to train with the DWI Enforcement Unit for two weeks during their probationary periods. The first day of the special training consists of an eight-hour SFST Update Class taught by the DWI Unit’s four SFST Instructors. Probationary officers accompany DWI Unit officers on patrol after completing the SFST Update Class. The goal is for novice officers to improve their detection and testing skills under operational conditions while being coached by an expert. After demonstrating proficiency to the satisfaction of their mentors, probationary officers are allowed to patrol on their own and conduct DWI enforcement under the supervision of DWI officers for the remainder of their temporary assignments. This policy ensures that all new recruits to the Austin Police Department understand the importance of DWI enforcement and have the necessary skills and knowledge to carry out the associated tasks. The experience gained during their two-week stint with the DWI Unit is likely to benefit the new officers, the department, and the citizens of Austin for the rest of the officers’ careers.
Frequency of Operations / Duration of Program
Since the unit’s inception, the Austin Police Department’s DWI Enforcement Unit has conducted DWI enforcement patrols as a routine, standard operating procedure. Normal duty hours are 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., with schedules modified during holiday weekends and special events to increase enforcement effort in response to predicted increases in impaired driving based on historical patterns of behavior. Impact Initiatives are held between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
Officers from the Austin Police Department’s DWI Enforcement Team conduct the DWI patrols, which currently consists of nine officers, one corporal, and one sergeant. All personnel assigned to the unit have received formal training in DWI detection on the road as well as SFST administration and scoring. Furthermore, all members of this special unit are required to attend annual SFST Update classes, demonstrating the APD’s commitment to reducing the number of alcohol-related crashes by ensuring uniformly high skills and abilities, as well as fostering professionalism, motivation, and pride among the department’s DWI enforcement specialists. Every officer is an Intoxilyzer operator, seven are DREs, and four are NHTSA-certified SFST Instructors.
Public Awareness / Program Visibility
The Austin Police Department’s DWI Unit recently acquired a late-model special transit service bus from the local transit district and converted it to serve as a command vehicle, using transit district funds as well. The bus has an Intoxilyzer 5000, a report writing area, and video recording capabilities. The command vehicle is used for all high-visibility impaired-driving enforcement operations, such as weekly impact Initiatives, holiday mobilizations, and special events.
The vehicle raises public awareness of special enforcement activities, facilitates DWI arrest processing, and shortens DWI processing time for arresting officers.
Since 2001, the APD has conducted “Operation Summer Heat” in addition to routine DWI patrols. From June to August, this special enforcement program triples the number of officers on the street enforcing impaired and aggressive driving laws. Redirecting officers from their regular duties to traffic enforcement duties demonstrates the department’s commitment to DWI enforcement.
MADD awarded the Austin Police Department a commendation for its performance during the annual “Operation Summer Heat.”
The Austin Police Department has yet to develop a public relations campaign in support of the special DWI enforcement program, nor has the DWI Unit established community partnerships to help raise public awareness. The department, on the other hand, has received extensive coverage for its periodic press conferences concerning the DWI Unit’s special enforcement activities and in response to high-profile arrests.
Court appearances take up far too much time.
The exclusive scheduling of DWI and Administrative License Revocation (ALR) court appearances during the day places a significant burden on officers who work the night shifts required by DWI enforcement duty. Officers frequently cite inconvenience and the effects on their sleep schedules as reasons for avoiding assignments with the DWI Unit. Furthermore, the lengths of court appearances appear excessive to officers and contribute to their sleep deficits. According to reports, most ALR judges allow even simple hearings to become mini-trials lasting up to 90 minutes. In response to this issue, the DWI Unit’s managers and officers have requested the establishment of a night court for DWI and ALR cases.
The roadside assessment procedures were unfamiliar to prosecutors and judges.
Many prosecutors and judges were unaware of the purpose of the NHTSA’s SFST battery and were unfamiliar with the procedures, scientific background, and related legal issues. Prosecutors have limited time and opportunities to stay informed about issues such as SFSTs, and judges frequently find themselves having to make decisions based on the facts presented by prosecutors and the obfuscation offered by defense attorneys.
In response to this issue, officers from the DWI Unit organized a training session for municipal court judges and prosecutors to learn about SFSTs and DWI detection techniques. The training was held in a classroom setting, away from the chess game of the witness stand, and provided hands-on experience similar to that received by officers. The session improved judicial understanding of SFST procedures while also educating prosecutors and judges on scientific and legal issues.
In terms of DWI enforcement, new recruits lacked confidence.
At the Austin Police Academy, police cadets were trained in DWI detection techniques as well as the administration of the SFSTs. However, by the time they received their first patrol assignments, many new officers had lost the essential skills and knowledge learned at the academy and lacked confidence in their DWI enforcement abilities. To provide the refresher training and supervised on-the-job experience required to create competence under operational conditions, the policy of requiring all new officers to serve a two-week tour of duty with the DWI Unit was implemented. Anecdotal evidence of the policy’s merit comes from defense attorneys’ positive comments about the abilities of rookie officers who have completed their tours with the DWI Unit.
When a DWI suspect refuses all chemical tests, prosecution becomes difficult.
When a suspect refuses to provide any type of chemical sample for BAC analysis, the likelihood of a successful prosecution of a DWI case in Austin is reduced. Many law enforcement agencies have collaborated with their local judicial officials to develop procedures for obtaining the warrants required to forcibly draw blood when a motorist refuses to provide a breath sample. Managers from the Austin Police Department plan to meet with a committee of local judges to begin developing a strategy for obtaining search warrants to allow for the forcible drawing of a blood sample when a person arrested for DWI refuses all chemical tests.
Furthermore, even with the consent of the person arrested, the Texas Transportation Code prohibits paramedics from drawing blood for the purpose of blood alcohol or drug analysis. Officers from the DWI unit have proposed legislation that would allow paramedics to draw blood if the arrested person consents or if a search warrant is issued.
The primary strength of the Austin Police Department’s efforts is due to the presence of a special unit of officers dedicated to DWI enforcement. This practice allows officers to improve their detection and roadside assessment skills, as well as gain confidence in their abilities. As a result, officers in the DWI Unit are more likely to interpret SFST results strictly in accordance with NHTSA guidelines and to make correct arrest decisions that other officers may not make, particularly in borderline cases. Officers in the DWI Unit also become acquainted with the legal system and comfortable testifying in court. DWI Unit officers testify frequently and learn which aspects of the arrest process are likely to be challenged by defense attorneys. Officers communicate this information to their colleagues and, as needed, modify the established operating procedures. Additional advantages are listed below.
- The Austin Police Department’s management has been extremely supportive of the DWI Unit, particularly by providing training opportunities. The assistance has benefited the department by (1) improving individual officers’ performance in the detection and assessment of impaired drivers; (2) allowing DWI Unit officers to assist other officers in the department in improving their skills; (3) raising the level of professionalism of the force; and (4) increasing the credibility of officers’ testimony in court.
- Currently, the Austin Police Department’s DWI Unit employs patrol cars outfitted specifically for DWI/DUI enforcement. Officers believe that the public can become desensitized to seeing a police car; however, the DWI Enforcement decals on the special unit’s vehicles distinguish their patrols from all others, raise awareness of the unit’s activities, and occasionally provide opportunities for pleasant interactions. Officers from the DWI Unit report seeing drivers at intersections mouthing “DWI Enforcement” as they read the decals on the patrol cars, and many citizens have expressed gratitude to the officers for their special duty. The officers believe that the distinctive lettering on their vehicles greatly contributes to the success of their mission.
- DREs from the DWI Unit help the APD detect drivers whose performance is impaired by substances other than alcohol, such as recreational drugs and prescribed medication. DREs from the unit also help educate the public and other officers about the performance-degrading effects of specific drugs, as well as drugs and medications when combined with alcohol.
- Officers from the DWI Unit borrow unmarked vehicles from other units on occasion to supplement their regular, high visibility DWI patrols. The DWI Enforcement Unit has placed an order for similarly outfitted unmarked patrol cars. To provide additional capabilities, the new patrol vehicles will be outfitted with moving radar and digital video systems. Suggestions from the Program Directors
Collaborate with prosecutors and judges. Inform them that their DWI caseload will skyrocket as a result of a special enforcement program. Following that, educate judicial personnel on impaired driving issues and the enforcement effort. Begin by discussing SFSTs and DWI detection, then move on to other drugs and medications that impair driving.
DWI Detection Using SFSTs
The DWI Detection Guidelines from the NHTSA and the SFSTs must be central components of the DWI enforcement program. Managers at the agency must support the use of the SFST battery to assist officers in making roadside arrest decisions. Law enforcement managers, like many members of the public and judicial personnel, may be unfamiliar with the NHTSA’s systematic procedures. Some judicial personnel and law enforcement managers will need to be educated on the effects of alcohol and other drugs on driving performance.
Officers assigned to a DWI unit must be willing to pursue ongoing education and training in order to maintain their understanding of DWI detection procedures and case law. A well-trained and disciplined DWI unit quickly establishes a reputation for professionalism and dependability among judges, prosecutors, and even defense attorneys.
Managers of the Austin Police Department permit members of the DWI Enforcement Unit to use their patrol vehicles to travel between shifts. This unusual privilege recognizes the officers’ special duty, reduces the burden imposed by lengthy and inconvenient court appearances, and raises public awareness of the special enforcement program by exposing the public to patrol vehicles announcing “DWI Enforcement” during daylight hours.
Proof of Program Effects
According to a recent NHTSA study of the Austin Police Department’s DWI Unit, the number of DWI arrests more than doubled as a result of reassignment of general patrol personnel and a command emphasis on impaired driving enforcement. The report’s authors also claim that the APD’s DWI Unit’s special enforcement efforts were responsible for a 25% decrease in alcohol-related fatal crashes in Austin, as well as a 10% increase in conviction rates during the same time period.
Source: Wiliszowski, C.W. and Jones, R.K, Evaluation of the Austin Police Department DWI Enforcement Unit, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, DC, DOT-HS-809-641, 2003.