Providence—The Most Bars, the Fewest DUIs
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Between 2008 and 2010, Providence made DUI arrests at an average annual rate of .22 per 1,000 residents—dead last behind the five surrounding communities, which had arrest rates ranging from a rate of .67 arrests in Pawtucket to 2.59 arrests for every 1,000 residents in East Providence.
“2008 to 2010 Providence was abominable,” said Gabrielle Abbate, the executive director of MADD Rhode Island.
In one year, 2009, Providence had as few as 19 DUI arrests while communities like North Providence and East Providence racked up 98 and 132, respectively.
One DUI expert tells GoLocalProv that the low arrest rate in Providence emboldens drunk drivers and undermines public safety. “There has to be a fear of arrest in a DUI program for it to be successful,” said North Providence Police Lt. Robert Wild, an instructor in standard field sobriety tests at the State Police academy. “If you don’t have a fear of arrest then people will drive drunk. ... I don’t think there is a fear of arrest in Providence.”
DUI death toll
The disparity in arrest rates is reflected in another statistic: between 2005 and 2009, Providence had the highest number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities among the six communities.
During those years, there were 18 deaths stemming from drunk driving in Providence, according to data provided to GoLocalProv by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Police Chief: ‘You can’t focus on everything’
Asked why there had been so few arrests, Acting Police Chief Hugh Clements pointed to the decision to close down the Traffic Division in the Providence Police Department by Dean Esserman soon after he took over as chief in 2003. “There was a focus on violent crimes,” said Clements, who became acting chief when Esserman resigned in June. “There’s only so many resources. You can’t focus on everything.” (But Clements also says the city has recently since renewed its focus on DUIs.)
At its height, the Traffic Division had a complement of about 40 officers assigned to it—and most of the DUI arrests came out of their office. All that’s left today is a five-man unit, according to its commander, Sgt. Paul Zienowicz.
Providence also has not been as aggressive as other departments in certifying officers in administering DUI tests—critical to enforcement because only a DUI certified officer can administered a breathalyzer test to a suspected drunk driver.
Today, Providence has 52 DUI officers for a force of approximately 460. Compare a town like North Providence which has 42 DUI certified officers for a force of 65 sworn officers.
In hindsight, Abbate says the decision to dismantle the Traffic Division was clearly a mistake. She said MADD had voiced its concerns to Esserman early on, but those warnings went unheeded. “We were very concerned. We shared that concern. I don’t think that concern was heard,” Abbate said.
Big city crimes overshadow DUIs
The violent crimes that confront Providence police can also be an understandable distraction from DUI enforcement, sources say. “Providence is Providence. It’s a big city. The surrounding communities can gear themselves up for the drunk drivers from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m.,” Wild said. “Providence—they’re dealing with the bars letting people out. … It’s like a cattle ranch. They let out—they’re all over the place.”
“We listen to their scanner sometimes. We can’t believe how busy they are,” said Johnston Police Capt. Daniel Parrillo. “It’s a whole different world.”
Processing a DUI arrest can be a tedious and time-consuming task. The arresting officer has to fill out about eight different forms—compared to just one report and a witness statement for other serious crimes, such as regular robberies, assaults, and stabbings.
That’s precious time an officer cannot afford, especially when some overnight shifts in city districts are down to a handful of officers, one Providence Police Department source tells GoLocalProv. Faced with stabbings, shootings, and other violent crimes, sometimes officers have to focus their time and energy away from DUI arrests, the source said.
The source said the low number of DUI arrests has made Providence a “laughingstock” among officers who deal with traffic enforcement in other communities. The source always has the same response to those taunts. “I always go back to, ‘How many stabbings did you do last week?’ I did three,” the source said.
Acting chief promises renewed focus
While the arrest rates may be extremely low, Providence is turning a corner in its enforcement of DUIs, Clements told GoLocalProv.
“For the record we absolutely are committed to arresting drunk drivers in the City of Providence and I think our numbers will dictate that in the last fiscal year,” Clements said. “But you’re absolutely right. In prior years we were woefully low in the state.”
Already, he said Providence is stepping up enforcement efforts. He said the department is certifying more DUI officers and on track to make more DUI arrests in 2011 than it has in the past. Providence also received a federal grant last October which funds special DUI patrols. Now, the department has at least two officers out on those patrols on weekend nights, according to Clements.
Another indicator that Providence will be paying more attention to DUIs: the new Public Safety Commissioner, Steven Pare, also happens to be the chair of the board for MADD Rhode Island. (Pare, pictured right, was unavailable to comment for this article.)
While Providence will be investing more in DUI enforcement, Clements said it will continue the crackdown on violent crimes that begun in the Esserman era. The question is how the department can maintain the successes it claims on reducing violent crimes and increase DUI enforcement all the while dealing with an estimated reduction of its manpower by about 30 officers this year.
Clements said it can—and is being—done. “It’s always that balance or that focus on trying to maintain that balance in all the issues that we deal with in an urban community,” Clements said.
Abbate said she has confidence in the new leadership of the department. “It’s reassuring to know there’s new leadership there. There’s new passion. There’s new energy,” Abbate said. “We have high hopes.”
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