Compared to other cities in San Joaquin County, Lodi has a drinking and driving problem. Or does it? While Stockton’s population is more than twice the size of Lodi’s, both cities have arrested nearly the same number of drunk drivers since 2011.
Yet the Lodi Police Department has poured officers and thousands of dollars in grants into DUI patrol. DUI checkpoints are conducted frequently throughout the city, and special task forces canvass roads almost daily looking for intoxicated drivers.
Police officials say these efforts have fueled the high number of DUI arrests. And those involved in Lodi’s wine and spirits business say the city has earned a reputation of being especially tough on drunk drivers.
“People who live outside Lodi are afraid to come to Lodi and drink and drive,” said Jerry Wolfe, owner of the Whisky Barrel Saloon in Lodi. “It’s known as a city that arrests a lot of people for drunk driving.”
The number of drivers arrested for DUI in Lodi has stayed fairly consistent since 2009. During that time, the city reached a high of 364 arrests in 2011, and a low of 319 arrests in 2010.
In addition, Lodi ranked 65 out of 103 cities with similar population in California for DUI arrests, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety.
But Lodi arrests more people for DUI per capita than neighboring cities.
In 2012, Stockton’s DUI arrest rate per capita was .001, while Lodi’s was .005. And this year, both cities are on pace for a similar discrepancy between arrest rates.
But Lodi police officials say these numbers largely reflect their DUI efforts.
“If you have an emphasis on a certain type of enforcement, you’re going to end up with greater numbers,” Lodi Police Chief Mark Helms said. “And we do put a heavy emphasis on DUI.”
The department receives two substantial grants to aid DUI enforcement. These funds are used for DUI checkpoints, bringing in additional officers from other agencies to boost DUI enforcement during large events, hosting DUI awareness clinics and more. It’s also used to conduct saturation patrols in which officers are assigned to search solely for potential drunk drivers.
“If you look at all the grant money we have, we send out a lot of officers to look for and arrest drunk drivers,” said Lodi Police Lt. David Griffin, who is in charge of the traffic division.
Griffin said that the officers with the most DUI arrests have bragging rights around the department.
“For some (officers) it’s more of a competition to make the streets safer and make DUI arrests, as well,” he said. “It’s a pride thing and they make it a competition.”
Bar owners have recognized this effort by police to catch drunk drivers, and they say their customers have, too.
Wolfe, who’s owned the Whisky Barrel Saloon in Downtown for nearly two years, believes frequent DUI checkpoints and saturation patrols have caused customers to be cautious when they go out in Lodi.
“I live in Stockton, and the opinion of many Stocktonians is that Lodi is extremely strict on drunk drivers,” he said.
Other bar owners say that Lodi’s intense DUI enforcement has actually discouraged business.
Michael Warren, owner of Crush Kitchen + Bar in Lodi, says that droves of officers patrol and hide around his bar in Downtown Lodi, and it often scares customers from having even one drink.
“We’re just trying to do business here,” he said. “And it’s really frustrating as a business owner because there have been a few times when cops are parked in my back parking lot where my customers are.”
Cities throughout the county have gotten tough on drunk driving, and nationwide the definition of DUI has changed over the years, according to Brad Bishop, considered a national expert on DUI laws and enforcement. Bishop is a municipal judge in Hoover, Ala., and professor at Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
“When I became a judge, .12 or higher was the presumed level of intoxication,” he said. “Anything below .12, the presumption was you were not too drunk to drive. Then DUI enforcement became more and more active. Now, in just about every state, the legal limit is .08.”
Bishop said that cities with a high number of DUI arrests aren’t always indicative of a problem, but rather the propensity of police to make arrests.
“It just depends on how much money in grants (police) have,” he said. “If you want to catch them, you can catch them.”
Not only are there numerous strategies to catch drunk drivers, but there are also an abundance of measures to prevent them.
Bishop says Alabama allows first DUI offenders to complete a rigorous and informative course about the dangers of drunk driving. Once completed, the charges are dropped and offenders are only responsible for court fees.
Bishop says this has greatly reduced the DUI recidivism rate in Alabama.
At the Whisky Barrel Saloon, Wolfe, who is involved in the designated driver program, hands out free, non-alcoholic drinks to designated drivers, as well as free food during barbecues. Also, the phone number for a free designated driver service hangs in his bar.
“I think it’s been very successful,” he said.
Warren believes the city should invest in more designated driver alternatives, such as expanding the current taxi cab service or developing a Downtown hotel.
“There are other solutions than writing them a ticket and throwing them in jail,” Warren said.
Lodi police designates some grant money for proactive solutions.
They conduct a program called “Every 15 minutes” at local high schools to teach teens about the dangers of drunk driving. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers volunteers hand out pamphlets about drunk driving at DUI checkpoints. And officers go to elementary schools to talk about the matter with children.
“There’s always so much more we can do, and we try to do what we can,” Griffin said.
And in Lodi, officers do almost everything they can.
“We try to be as many places as we can,” Griffin said. “A drunk driver can be anywhere.”
Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.