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Rock County launches new anti-drunken driving effort

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Frank Schultz
September 3, 2014

JANESVILLE—There's nothing better at making people behave than knowing someone is watching.

That's the idea behind a new drunken-driving effort involving most Rock County law enforcement agencies.

With the help of federal money, sheriff's deputies and officers from eight other jurisdictions are forming teams on selected dates to target particular roads and highways.

A $25,000 grant is paying for officers' overtime in August and September, putting five to nine extra officers on the roads on selected dates, said Capt. Jude Maurer of the sheriff's office.

If expected funding comes through, another $60,000 will cover October 2014 through September 2015, Maurer said.

Individual departments have conducted grant-funded, focused efforts before. What's new is that the sheriff's office is deputizing all the officers involved so they may work in any jurisdiction in the county.

The result is that a drunken driver in Janesville, for example, could be stopped by an officer from Edgerton, Evansville, Janesville, Milton, the towns of Beloit, Milton and Turtle, the sheriff's office or the Wisconsin State Patrol.

The Rock Area OWI Task Force comprises most but not all Rock County police agencies. The state Bureau of Transportation Safety is supplying the federal funds.

“It gives us a large number of law enforcement officers to saturate a certain area without depleting any one agency's resources,” Maurer said.

Maurer asked to keep the dates of upcoming efforts quiet, but the overall program is supposed to be publicized. The grant even has paid for mobile traffic signs that announce officers are working on a particular route.

Officials hope local news media will publicize the effort.

“The idea is not to hide it from people. We're trying to get people to think before they get behind the wheel,” said Janesville Deputy Chief John Olsen.

The state has 12 other similar task forces that have been operating for three to five years, and those jurisdictions have noticed more drinkers abstaining from driving because they know about the task forces, Maurer said.

Officers elsewhere have found that more cars remain in bar parking lots and more drinkers are taking taxis, buses or friends' rides home, Maurer said.

The Tavern League of Wisconsin operates the state-funded SafeRide program, but only 15 establishments in Rock County participate. Maurer said the local tavern league is hoping to expand that number.

Other counties that have run OWI task forces for several years have seen fewer OWI arrests, Maurer said. The hope is that if the grants keep coming to Rock County, similar results will be reported here in a few years.

Maurer said officials have assured the tavern league that officers won't be waiting outside bars to watch people leave. Rather, they will focus on roads where OWI and speeding accidents are known to be more frequent.

“We want to make sure people have fun, that they do so responsibly and that they don't drive impaired,” Maurer said.

The task force's first two operations were Friday, Aug. 8, on Highway 26 from Janesville to the Jefferson County line and Friday, Aug. 15, and Saturday, Aug. 16, on Highway 11 and Highway 51 near the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.

Officers made made five intoxicated-driving arrests in their first two outings. They also issued 65 citations and 46 warnings.

The grant targets intoxicated drivers and speeders, but officers are looking to pull over anyone with any traffic violation, including driving left of center, taillight out and expired registrations, Maurer said.

Funneling traffic into a checkpoint is illegal in Wisconsin, Olsen said, so officers are doing what they usually do on patrol: pulling over vehicles when they see violations.

“We've got to have reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle. We need a traffic violation,” Olsen said.

Officers volunteer for the operations, which are four to six hours long. They receive overtime pay. Plans called for one officer from each jurisdiction for each operation, but once only five volunteered, Maurer said, adding that summers are difficult times for officers to find the time for extra duty.

The agencies are maintaining their regular patrol schedules and staffing, Maurer said. The OWI patrols are extra.

The local task force plans a formal announcement on the program Thursday.



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