As DUIs surge, Basalt police pow-wow with restaurants
BASALT – A surge in DUI arrests this year has Basalt police and restaurateurs brainstorming on ways to prevent people from drinking and driving while still enjoying a night on the town.
Police officers and representatives of about eight downtown restaurants met earlier this month to kick around ideas like a Tipsy Taxi service or some other alternative ride, and to exchange thoughts on what is occurring this year.
“The restaurant owners were coming to us. They feared we were going to be driving their business away,” said Basalt Police Chief Keith Ikeda.
The officers assured them that wasn’t their intent – but that they are serious about preventing drinking and driving. Ikeda said a tragic accident caused by a drunken driver in May 2008 “initiated pretty much our aggressive approach to DUIs.” A Basalt couple, Jeff Reese and Susan Grove, were returning from a Colorado Rockies baseball game on a weekday night when their vehicle was struck head-on by another car on the Emma curve of Two Rivers Road. Reese and Grove survived the crash but suffered extensive injuries. Their rehabilitation has been long and difficult, and they say they will never fully recover.
Oscar Canas Portillo pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular assault causing bodily injury. Evidence showed he was driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Ikeda said it was fortunate no one died in the crash. “The Reese and Grove accident really opened our eyes,” he said. “We don’t want that to happen again.”
Basalt police officers made 60 arrests for DUI in 2008. That level has already been matched in 2009 with more than five months to go.
Despite the added awareness after the Reese and Grove accident, patrol officers said they really aren’t doing anything different this year to explain the surge in DUI arrests.
Basalt receives a grant from the state most years to provide funds for extra drunken-driving enforcement. However, the department has also been short-staffed for much of the year.
Sgt. Stu Curry said Basalt officers work alone most nights, so they are limited to stopping two or three vehicles on the typical shift. While many of those stops result in a drunken-driving arrest, the department isn’t in a position where it can make numerous stops between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., when statistics show most drinking and driving occurs.
“People have got the idea that we’ve got a horrendous amount of car stops,” Curry said. “That’s just not the case.”
Officer Jeni Newcomb said all officers in the department receive special training to spot and handle suspected drunken-driving cases. However, that is just one part of their responsibilities while they are on patrol.
“It’s not like we’re out there looking for DUIs the whole shift,” she said.
Many DUI arrests result from situations other than a stop initiated by an officer. Newcomb said she has investigated three accidents this year where it turned out the driver had been drinking. Other times, a citizen will call authorities after witnessing erratic driving. Those calls are known as Report Every Drunk Driver Immediately, or REDDI reports.
Police used the meeting with the restaurant operators to explain their stance on DUIs.
“Our main message was, we want people to come down and have a good time. We don’t want them to [drink and] drive,” Ikeda said.
Cuvee World Bistro owner Mitch Levy hosted the meeting with the police. He said an article in the Aspen Daily News about the surging number of DUI arrests in Basalt was a hot topic of conversation among customers. Some patrons felt that the police department was hanging out waiting for them to leave a drinking establishment, he said.
Levy felt the meeting with the officers was productive because it allowed everyone to explain their views. For example, restaurant operators urged officers to be more friendly when they walk through establishments on busy nights to make sure there are no problems. Realistically, Levy said, the police just want to make sure no one is getting overserved.
Ikeda and Curry said they assured the restaurant operators that they aren’t targeting the diner having a couple of glasses of wine over the course of dinner, one who doesn’t exceed legal limits for alcohol.
As a result of the meeting, town officials were going to contact taxi companies to inquire about adding midvalley service. Ikeda said the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority also will be urged to light the downtown Basalt bus stops to add incentive to take the bus.
The bottom line is that patrons need to take responsibility for their actions and make sure they don’t get behind the wheel if they drink too much, Levy said.
“They can’t nail ya if you’re not doing it,” he said.