A new squad of police officers has started patrolling the county and they have only one mission: to combat impaired driving.
The new Fairfax County Police Department DWI Enforcement Squad began working on Dec. 1 and are averaging several DWI arrests per night.
You’ll know who they are by their cruisers, which are specifically marked with “DWI Enforcement Squad,” said 2nd Lt. Dana Ferreira, who runs the squad.
The nine officers who were chosen for the squad have a prowess for catching those who drive while drunk. The officers averaged a total of 241 DWI arrests during the past seven years.
The squad will work from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. in four-day rotations throughout the county eight patrol districts. As a team, the squad will be deployed each night to focus on two districts per shift.
“Our crime analysts will pull problem areas for us,” Ferreira said.
The department has wanted to create the team of specialized patrollers for several years, but were unable to find the budget to do so until a federal grant was awarded.
The squad is operating under the Traffic Division of the department’s Operations Support Bureau. However, the equipment and salaries have been paid for by a $984,785 grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Expenditures that are not covered by the federal grant are the squad’s vehicle maintenance and fuel.
“Every year, we have to reauthorize and reapply for the grant if we decide to continue with this program,” says Ferreira.
The department has a desire to keep it going, according to Lt. Eli Cory, who is the assistant commander of the FCPD’s Traffic Division.
“However we can continue it, we’re going to pursue that, whether it’s grant or other funds,” says Cory.
Without the grant, the squad would be a large financial undertaking.
All the new positions in the new squad were filled by pulling existing officers out of their assigned communities where they patrolled the streets in the department’s patrol bureaus or the bike team, according to Ferreira.
But the holes that the new positions left in the street will be filled by new officers, according to Lt. Eli Cory, who is the assistant commander of the FCPD’s Traffic Division.
The desire for the squad came from a need in the community, says Cory.
Statistically speaking, DWIs have gone down in the county but the department has seen drug use increase.
Last year, there were 522 crashes caused by impaired driving in the county, according to Officer Megan Hawkins, a spokesperson for the department. There has been less this year, with 461 as of Dec. 13.
That’s a 12 percent decrease.
“Although DWIs are down, we want to address the impaired driving while under the influence of drugs,” Cory said.
“Whether it’s marijuana, heroin, cocaine or anything that affects your ability to clearly operate a motor vehicle, it’s something we need to address in the county,” said Cory.
The squad will receive special training so the squad can handle drug-related incidents. Squad members will receive advanced training in DWI detection, drug recognition, and effective testimony to ensure successful prosecution.
“We chose officers for this assignment that not only are effective at enforcement, but also effective in prosecution and conviction,” said Ferreira. “We’re not only taking people off the street, but we’re going to successfully convict them in court.”
To ensure they stay that way, they will be regularly working with the Commonwealth’s Attorney General’s Office to receive trainings so that they are up-to-date on case law.
The team will be certified as Drug Recognition Experts through the Drug Evaluation and Classification Program. The training requirements for certification have been established by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“In Virginia, the number of DRE certified officers is in the single digits,” said Ferreira. “Our entire team will eventually receive that certification when training comes out.”
The DRE training is designed to help officers determine if an individual is under the influence of drugs other than alcohol, or the combined influence of alcohol and other drugs, or suffering from some injury or illness that produces similar signs to alcohol and drug impairment.
While prosecution is paramount to the squad, voluntary compliance is the best way to combat impaired driving.
“Our ultimate goal is not making arrests, but is actually reducing the number of crashes in the county,” said Ferreira. “If we had a year where we didn’t make a single DWI arrest and didn’t have a single impairment accident, I’d call that a success.”
DURING THE HOLIDAYS, the department has been circulating flyers to promote the SoberRide program where festive party goers who are 21 and up can call and get a free ride home if they are not able to drive themselves. The program allows for rides up to a $30 fare between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. through New Year’s Day by calling 1-800-200-TAXI.
The temptation for drivers to get behind the wheel after drinking during holiday festivities was evidenced when the department’s own chief of police was struck by a drunken driver last week.
The following day, he gave a press conference. Chief Col. Edwin Roessler Jr. said: “Drinking and driving don’t mix … Spend a little money and plan,” he said. “Take a taxi. Don’t get behind a wheel. You’re going to kill someone.”
One of the most visible things the department does to deter drivers from disobeying DWI laws is through sobriety checkpoints.
“If you look at statistics from other states that don’t employ DWI checkpoints, you can see that their DWI crash rates and fatality rates are much higher than Virginia and other states that utilize DWI checkpoints,” Cory said.
Primarily, the squad will be on the street looking for traffic safety issues, including DWIs, speeding, reckless driving and distracted driving.
“I’d far rather call a family member and tell them that their loved one has been arrested than tell them that they’ve been injured or killed in an accident,” Ferreira said. “If it takes me bringing someone to jail and taking their freedom even only temporarily to get them off of the roads so they don’t harm themselves or someone else, it’s entirely worth it to me.”