MANCHESTER — Over the last three years, Manchester police operated nine federally funded DWI sobriety checkpoints that have nabbed a total of three drunken drivers, according to data the police department made available to the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Police did make other arrests — nine for violations such as driving after license revocation — and they wrote a few dozen warnings.
But the numbers dispel any notion that DWI sobriety checkpoints, which have been in effect for years in the Granite State, result in the widespread detection and arrest of drunken drivers. And last year, Manchester police did not meet their goals of reducing DWI-related crashes, they acknowledge.
However, a major with the New Hampshire State Police, which coordinates the checkpoints statewide, said success isn’t measured solely by the number of arrests.
“Sobriety checkpoints are unique because they are a mixture of enforcement and messaging,” said Maj. Matthew Shapiro, who oversees the patrol division of state police and the New Hampshire State Police and the Office of Highway Safety.
Shapiro said sobriety checkpoints are popular with the public, citing surveys returned by drivers after going through a checkpoint. And he said the checkpoints, which law enforcement publicizes before they take place, make drinkers think twice about drinking.
“The message is a larger part of the benefit. It is supposed to act as a deterrent,” he said in a recent interview.
Manchester police turned down a request to be interviewed for this article.
Free State activists
For the last several years, Manchester police have implemented DWI sobriety checkpoints on a regular basis. They have taken place under the watch of Free State Project activists, who brandish signs, shout and wave arms to warn drivers about upcoming checkpoints.
Curt Howland, one of the Free State checkpoint activists, said the scant number of arrests shows the checkpoints aren’t effective.
He said decades-long public education campaigns have done more to stop drunk driving than police checkpoints.
“Mothers Against Drunk Driving has done a really fabulous job of making a stigma out of people who drive drunk. It’s taken seriously,” he said. On top of that, ride-sharing services such as Uber provide drinkers with alternatives to jumping in a car and driving home.
He said police would be more effective if they approached bar patrons before they get in their car and urged them not to drive.
Manchester police acknowledge that Free State activists have had an impact on the success of their checkpoints.
“We were hampered by representatives of the Free State Project, warning drivers prior to the checkpoint,” wrote police Lt. Jamie Gallant in a September 2016 report to the state Office of Highway Safety, which funds the checkpoints.
Impaired crashes up
In the report, Gallant wrote that Manchester police had a goal of reducing impaired-driving crashes by 10 percent, from 124 to 112, by September 2016. He said police did not reach that goal.
In fact, impaired-driving crashes rose 19 percent, to 148, during the 2016 sobriety checkpoint grant period, he wrote. At the same time, Manchester police DWI arrests increased 17 percent, to 243 arrests, Gallant wrote.
“Moving forward, officers will be directed to the area of the bars/nightclubs at specified times, based on our data from the crime analyst,” Gallant wrote. He added that a public information officer is also helping to educate the public about drunk driving.
The checkpoints also provided hefty paychecks for the police officers who man them. Paid overtime, police officers pulled down hourly rates ranging from $49.55 to $75.92, according to the latest available reimbursement form for an April checkpoint. Most checkpoints involved six hours of work.
Overtime wages and benefits for eight checkpoints amounted to $30,400.
Shapiro said the funds come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He said the federal agency has determined the sobriety checkpoints are effective.
Shapiro said there is no doubt that police would arrest more drunk drivers with moving patrols. But the state would lose the targeted messaging if they resorted to moving patrols, he said.
Meanwhile, the sobriety checkpoints appear to be losing popularity in New Hampshire. According to a 2015 report from the Highway Safety Office, 19 checkpoints took place in 2015, down from 30 the previous year and a peak of 67 in 2009.
That year, only seven police agencies conducted checkpoints.
Shapiro blames the decrease on a number of factors: some departments have yet to recover from the number of positions lost in the Great Recession, and the opioid epidemic and related crimes of burglary, theft and robbery have put pressure on police departments, he said.