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Officer Gary Frisbee demonstrates how the new mobile Intoximeters work while parked at the Police Services Center. Chattanooga police received two of the new units from TBI.

Chattanooga's DUI cops have heard it all.

I'm two blocks from home. This is the first time I've done this. You should be out catching real criminals.

Drunk or impaired drivers seem to always offer the same excuses when they're pulled over, officers say. But those excuses fall on deaf ears. The officers are not sympathetic.

"All it takes is going to one fatality," said Officer Gary Frisbee. "When you get there and smell alcohol on the driver's breath and know it all could have been prevented, that's when it hits. This is why we do what we do."

The Chattanooga Police Department's DUI unit has a crew of three officers and a sergeant who work full time to get drunken drivers off the road -- and this year, they've tried some new tactics that seem to be working.

As of Wednesday afternoon, only five people had been killed in alcohol-related traffic accidents in Chattanooga this year.

That's down more than 60 percent from last year, when alcohol-related fatalities spiked and 14 people were killed. Five deaths is more in keeping with the five-year average -- almost seven deaths -- and is the same level as 2012.

But in the region, alcohol-related crashes -- both fatal and nonfatal -- are more than one-fourth higher than they were in 2013. However, troopers also increased their DUI arrests this year by 20 percent in the Tennessee Highway Patrol's 12-county district, said Lt. John Harmon.

In Chattanooga, police ramped up their focus on bar checks and bar owners this year, Frisbee said. The DUI officers now routinely stop by bars across the city. In response, bar owners have started to take more initiative when it comes to heavy drinkers, Sgt. David Allen said.

When officers first started going to the bars, Allen said it helped reduce fatalities, "because they [owners] became worried about getting in trouble so they began to cut people off and monitor how much people were drinking," he said.

But the checks at first didn't go over well with bar owners, who complained that police were interfering with their business. So officers set up a series of meetings with owners to help clear up any misunderstandings and figure out ways officers could work better with them.

"When we did the first meeting, everyone was kind of ruffled," Frisbee said. "People had gotten a bad impression. But we walked out of there with a whole lot better relationship."

Some Chattanooga bars will call cabs for intoxicated patrons, while others offer free meals to designated drivers, officers said.

"We're not out trying to ruin anyone's business. We're just out trying to make sure everyone gets home," said Officer Brion Posey.

In addition to the help from bar owners, officers have noticed that more cab companies are on the roads this year and fewer people seem to be getting behind the wheel after drinking.

"Cab traffic in the downtown and Brainerd areas is double or triple what it used to be," Posey said.

Overall, Chattanooga's DUI unit has arrested more than 298 people this year on DUI charges, according to CPD. And the officers say they each have a conviction rate higher than 90 percent when the cases play out in court.

Outside of the city limits, the Tennessee Highway Patrol has seen a dramatic increase in the number of alcohol- or drug-related traffic accidents in the Chattanooga region this year, Harmon said.

But, he added, the THP has responded by upping the number of DUI arrests as well. Harmon said troopers look for areas in the region where DUI crashes are common and target those spots.

"We continue to do sobriety checkpoints and target areas where we've had DUIs in the past," he said.

Harmon also often travels to local groups and businesses to give a talk about driving safety.

"It's an in-your-face presentation," he said. "Drink responsibly. Do not drink and drive. Make good choices."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas.

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