Suburban police sweeps fall short of grant expectations
Eight suburban agencies came up empty in last year's holiday sweeps
Algonquin police received $8,617 in federal grants last year to beef up patrols for drunken drivers and seat belt scofflaws in the two weeks leading up to the Fourth of July holiday.
Despite the extra effort, the additional patrols netted no impaired drivers -- and they weren't the only department to come up empty.
Seven other suburban law enforcement agencies -- Cook County sheriff's, Crystal Lake, Crystal Lake Park District, Elk Grove Village, Kildeer, West Chicago and West Dundee -- received a combined $13,046 for increased enforcement that resulted in no drunken driving arrests.
Twenty-eight of the 41 suburban police agencies receiving funds also fell short of seat belt ticketing goals during the same pre-Fourth of July period, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation, which hands out the federal funds.
Despite the lackluster results, those agencies were still eligible to receive more grant funds this year, IDOT officials said.
"That doesn't mean that the amount requested wasn't reduced," said Guy Tridgell, an IDOT spokesman. "The chief reason for that would be past performance."
Tridgell said the Sustained Traffic Enforcement Program grants funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are parsed out to police agencies in 23 counties that are home to 85 percent of the state's population and where two-thirds of traffic fatalities occur.
IDOT's specifications suggest police use the funds to make one DUI arrest for every 10 hours of patrol and write occupant-restraint violations amounting to 30 percent of all citations.
In all, 33 of the 41 suburban agencies studied did combine to make 151 drunken-driving arrests during last year's Fourth of July enforcement period.
Yet, government accountability groups say the program doesn't adequately track results and requires minimal reporting on spending.
The legal outcome of the drunken driving arrests is unknown. Neither the state nor federal government requires police departments to follow those cases through the court system for reporting purposes, and many police officials said they don't track that information independently. Few departments have goals for the officers working the extra shifts beyond the state's recommendations.
"It's certainly an admirable goal to reduce the number of DUIs. However, we always need to be looking at taxpayer-funded programs to make sure they're actually functioning as they're intended," said David From, Illinois state director at Americans for Prosperity, a Virginia-based government-spending watchdog organization. "It's important to determine if these programs are being funded through inertia rather than producing real results."
Sgt. Jeff Sutrick oversees Algonquin's traffic grant program. He said the department requested just $5,100 for its Fourth of July enforcement campaign this year, partly because of last year's results.
"We've been a lot more successful in our seat belt enforcement than with DUI," Sutrick said. "Other departments can utilize the funds, then. It also depends on how many hours we think we can fill with our staffing."
The grants pay the overtime costs to patrol officers who volunteer to work the additional shifts. The shifts generally run Thursdays through Sundays from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. Sutrick noted that the grants don't cover the costs associated with court appearances officers are required to make with many drunken driving arrests. These grant funds are generally available for major holidays like New Year's and Fourth of July or national events associated with increased alcohol use like the Super Bowl and St. Patrick's Day.
Records indicate most of the tickets issued during these increased enforcement periods are for other traffic offenses rather than impaired driving or seat belt violations, which are the focus of the campaigns. Last year during the Fourth of July period, 69 percent of the citations the 41 participating suburban agencies issued were for offenses other than drunken driving or seat belt violations, according to IDOT records.
Advocates for the grant program believe any effort to make the roads safe from drunken driving is a worthy endeavor.
"One way to look at these numbers is that once the word goes out that there's increased patrols out there, maybe there's less people drinking and driving," said Rita Kreslin, deputy director of the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists. "When you talk to a crash victim, one crash from a drunk driver is one too many."
But anti-tax groups say the federal government is making broad-based spending decisions with little input from taxpayers.
"If it's such a problem, then the towns should hire more cops to hand out DUIs," said Jim Tobin, president of Chicago-based Taxpayers United of America, a group that fights tax hike measures throughout the country. "Let voters decide locally if they want to fund this sort of thing."
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Fourth of July safety sweepsHere are results of federally funded enforcement efforts by 41 suburban police agencies during last year's Fourth of July campaign.
$197,148: Grant funds
4,063: Total citations and arrests
151: DUI arrests
1,109: Seat belt violations
2,803: Other citations
8: Departments not making any DUI arrests
28: Departments not meeting 30 percent seat belt ticket goal
Source: Illinois Department of Transportation