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With DUI arrests down dramatically in Pittsburgh, Council approves $174K grant to boost enforcement

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation has awarded Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police a nearly $174,500 grant to support enforcement of laws against driving while impaired. Pittsburgh City Council approved the funds during a meeting Tuesday — after police revisited a complaint that the force needs more officers.

Drunk-driving arrests have dropped significantly in recent years, Pittsburgh Police Sgt. Terrence Donnelly told City Council last week. Donnelly said police are making roughly half the DUI arrests they did a decade ago. According to the department’s annual report, police made 582 DUI arrests in 2021, down from 1,026 DUI arrests in 2011.

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That might sound like a good thing, and public safety officials cite the rise in rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft as one reason for the drop. Public awareness of the dangers of impaired driving is another factor. But police also argue that the department doesn’t have enough officers to patrol for impaired drivers.

"We don’t have the number of police officers out that we should,” Donnelly said. “A lot of people aren’t doing proactive patrol as much as we should.”

Donnelly said the department used to have twice the number of people necessary available to do sobriety checkpoints, which is an overtime assignment for an officer. But “we just simply don’t have the time and the resources now as we have in the past."

City police have been speaking out for months about dwindling ranks, though the decline in the size of the police force has been modest. Today, it numbers roughly 850 officers, about 20 fewer than an annual police report showed that it had in 2011, when DUI arrests were nearly double what they are now.

But the police union has repeatedly warned that those numbers could dwindle further if roughly 240 retirement-eligible officers were to leave their jobs. And Donnelly said that as things stand, most impaired-driving arrests in Pittsburgh take place after a crash rather than as a result of proactive enforcement.

In an effort to add to the ranks, Mayor Ed Gainey announced a plan last month to hire a class of police from other cities who would only need to be trained on Pittsburgh’s specific policies before taking up a patrol.

The administration also announced a commitment to recruiting a class of new officers to start training next spring. The administration hired a consulting firm to study how many officers the department needs and how best to use them. The mayor’s office has yet to say whether that study, first commissioned in June, has been completed.

Council spent little time debating such issues when it approved the $174,468.91 grant from PennDOT Tuesday. The funds will help cover the cost of overtime for officers working DUI patrols and sobriety checkpoints. The money will also go toward impaired driving enforcement training and outreach.

Donnelly told Council that such education could address the fact that officers are seeing more people driving high who claim to believe that using marijuana is legal. He blamed a misunderstanding of a 2016 city ordinance that decriminalized possession of a small amount of cannabis.

On multiple occasions, he said, “When I tell them that they’re under arrest for driving under the influence of marijuana ... they say, ‘Well marijuana is decriminalized, I’m allowed to.'”

In fact, a recent city audit found that police still arrest for cannabis possession and that Black people made up nearly 90% of those arrests. Black residents account for about 23% of the city’s overall population. The 2016 ordinance was designed in part to reduce the racial disparity among arrests for marijuana possession.

Donnelly said the money from PennDOT could help officers educate drivers about the law, and about the dangers of driving impaired. Citing an FBI statistic that the average drunk driver will drive under the influence more than 80 times before their first arrest, Donnelly said deterrence is key.

“If they know that there going to get arrested if they drive impaired … they’re not going to do it,” Donnelly said. “If they don’t have that fear of being arrested, then they’re just going to keep doing what they’ve been doing.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.