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Why Have DUI Arrests In Peoria Seen A Steep Decline?

210908 Peoria Police car.jpg

Peoria police made about half as many arrests for driving under the influence in each of the past two years than they did just a handful of years ago, and are on pace for another significant drop in 2021.

Has the Peoria Police Department changed its approach to handling DUIs? Are people drinking less and being more responsible? Or are there other explanations?

“I don't know that the department has changed in their enforcement efforts,” said PPD Lt. Earnest McCall. “I will say that, from 2015 to date, the number of dedicated traffic officers has declined in that unit, which prohibits our ability to do more proactive policing as regards to traffic stops and DUIs.”

An analysis of DUI arrests by Peoria police over the past 6½ years, obtained by WCBU through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows a sharp annual decline, from 222 in 2015 to 109 and 110 in the past two years – to just 28 through the first six months of 2021.

While McCall attributes the dropoff to a staff reduction, that might not be the only reason – particularly for college-age drivers.

“I really think it's Uber,” said Maureen Williams, a Peoria attorney whose services include representing clients facing DUI charges. “That's what a lot of DUI attorneys think, it’s just because of Uber. These kids are smart, and even a lot of adults are doing Uber, so that's what I attribute it to. But I'm just as busy as ever.”

Beyond the increase in people using rideshare services, awareness of the dangers and consequences of DUIs seems to be on the rise.

“The other thing I think that has become really important is the amount of drug and alcohol education that is offered now to people who have DUIs,” said Teresa Orrick, a substance abuse counselor for UnityPoint Health-UnityPlace.

A ranking of 2020 DUI arrest counts on the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists website has Peoria 29th among Illinois municipalities. Bloomington ranked third behind Decatur and Rockford, while Springfield was 10th and Normal 15th.

The AAIM figures also show PPD’s force of 207 sworn officers had an arrest rate of 0.47 per officer in 2020 – the eighth-lowest rate per officer among municipalities with at least 20 arrests. By comparison, Pekin had a rate of 0.58, East Peoria 1.23, Normal 1.69, and Bloomington 2.07.

However, McCall feels those rankings do not take into account what other issues particular police departments are facing.

“I will say as far as Peoria, it depends on what we're dealing with,” said McCall, who noted the enforcement division is about one-fourth of what it was in 2015. “Different cities deal with different types of crime. Peoria has been dealing with a lot of violence, so that could contribute to our ability to focus more on DUIs.”

Impact of COVID-19

Orrick suggested COVID-19 may partly explain the reduction in drunk driving arrests since the start of 2020.

“I think the pandemic has had a huge effect on DUIs, with the bars being closed, the restaurants being closed, with the students not being on campus,” she said. “There are all kinds of things that have kind of played into it.”

However, Williams disputed the notion that the pandemic changed many habits or behaviors.

“I don't think they've cut down on drinking,” she said. “I just find it hard to believe that people’s … if anything, everyone drinks more with COVID, is what I've heard – like, a lot more. So as far as DUIs, I think it's just steady as always.”

“I would say for the last 24 months, it has dramatically reduced our ability to do traffic enforcement,” McCall said of COVID-19. “A lot of officers are concerned not only for their welfare, but the welfare of the citizens.”

Williams said sometimes DUI arrests result from an individual making a one-time bad decision.

“A lot of people come in and they say, ‘I'm not a drinker and this was just a fluke,’ and then they get a DUI, but it's really the repeat DUI persons that just insist on driving,” she said. “The rest of the persons, they just call an Uber if they've been drinking.”

Orrick stressed that DUIs encompass more than just getting behind the wheel after a few beers. More than 15% of the Peoria police DUI arrests listed drugs as the intoxicant, and Orrick said marijuana, meth, heroin, and opiates are just as dangerous for motorists, if not more so.

“When people think about DUIs, they're thinking alcohol, and not – especially with our young people today – thinking about those types of things, and the kids are getting in the cars and driving,” she said, raising a concern that legalized recreational cannabis may lead to more intoxicated drivers. “Marijuana is definitely at this point going to be on the radar, especially with the increase of the weed bars.”

The analysis of the PPD data revealed some hot spots in the city. Among them is the 600 block of N. Western Ave., where 9 of the 10 arrests since 2015 occurred between 12:45-4:30 a.m. Other locations with higher arrest frequencies include the 600 block of Main St., the 3200 block of N. University St., the 600 block of SW Adams St., and the intersection of University and War Memorial Dr.

“There's no dedicated place; I mean, that kind of behavior is up to the person, and that can be done anywhere in the city and outside the city,” said McCall.

Not surprisingly, nearly 48% of the arrests occurred between 11 p.m.-5 a.m. – with more than a quarter of them (280) falling between midnight and 3 a.m. By month, November had the highest average for arrests with 17, followed by August (16) and April and October (15); January was the only month with an average under 10.

McCall said that although the PPD arrest numbers for DUI are down, the department is still working to prevent impaired driving.

“We're connected with IDOT, the Illinois Department of Transportation, and we do all kinds of campaigns and efforts to publicize DUI and the effect it has on the community and people. So we do a lot of that, as well as enforcement efforts,” he said.

Orrick said people will always want to go out and have a good time and alternatives to driving such as rideshare services help reduce opportunities for DUIs. But the need to act responsibly and not overindulge remains.

“It's important that we all take care of ourselves, and we have healthy coping skills and healthy recreational opportunities out there, so that we don't tend to self-medicate and drink or use substances,” she said, noting that 12-step programs like the “anonymous” support groups for alcohol, narcotics, and cocaine have made a big impact.

“Celebrate Recovery is huge, and more and more people – AA has, combined with NA and CA, over 12 million people in recovery,” she said. “And, kids are getting educated earlier in school about the consequences of drinking and driving.”

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