News10NBC Investigates: The 50% drop in DWI arrests is ‘very real’

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — News10NBC is investigating a problem with drunk drivers in Monroe County this year.

Fewer of them are getting arrested, and not just by a little. By a lot.

News10NBC found out two main reasons are staffing and money.

There is no evidence there are fewer drunk drivers and significantly fewer drunk driving crashes this year. But at times there were fewer police on DWI patrol and a lot less money to catch drunk drivers.

Here are the numbers:

  • In 2019, Brighton Police averaged 12 DWI arrests a month. In 2021 it’s averaging two.
  • Greece Police averaged 32 arrests a month in 2019. This year, nine.
  • RPD averaged 52 a month in 2019. This year — 30.
  • The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office averaged 34 a month. This year — 16.

Scroll to the bottom to find your police department’s DWI arrest data

The sheriff’s office has five deputies assigned to traffic and DWI every night. But in the summer, three of them got temporarily reassigned to patrol to deal with pressing public safety issues.

Major. Lou Tomassetti, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office: "We also had a significant surge in violence in the City of Rochester."

Chief Investigative reporter Berkeley Brean: "So (those reassigned deputies) were getting called to go to those."

Tomassetti: "We had deputies assigned, not just called to but actually assigned to help in the city."

Greece Police says it had to move two of its night shift officers to days.

In an email for this story, RPD writes "There are currently six officers working in the Traffic Unit, down from seven, with another anticipated to retire in the near future." The email went on to say "The officers assigned to the Traffic Enforcement Unit, as well as focusing on DWI related matters, often assist in the management of other emergency calls for service and commuter related operations such as school crossings, non-alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, and roadblocks."

News10NBC is not comparing to 2020 numbers because COVID-19 made that year such an outlier. We’re looking at 2019. That year 2,406 drivers were arrested for impaired driving in Monroe County.

2021 is on pace for 1,232.

Brean: "The concern from the public is we’re arresting fewer drunk drivers but I can’t find any evidence that there are fewer drunk drivers."

Tomassetti: "Right."

Brean: "Which tells me there are people that maybe a year ago would have been arrested and this year they’re not."

Tomassetti: "Well, I’ll speak for the sheriff’s office. We’re not shying away from arresting anybody for drunk driving."

MCSO has seen a slight decline in the number of alcohol-involved accidents between Jan. 1 to Oct. 24. In that period of time in 2019, there were 106 accidents. This year MCSO counts 93.

Tomassetti: "I always have to make sure patrol is fully staffed, at all times, no matter what. So if I have to pull someone from traffic on a temporary basis, 45 days or three months, then they go to patrol but then they go right back again and then get focused on traffic enforcement."

Brean: "Does that have an impact on the number of drunk drivers getting arrested?"

Tomassetti: "It could. I can’t say for sure."

The Lindsay Kyle Story:

"Her dream was to be married to her fiancé who was in the car in front of her in the crash," said Sarah Palermo, the mother of Lindsay Kyle.

Eighteen years ago, Lindsay Kyle was driving home after dinner. At a red light at the Ford Street bridge in Rochester, she was rear-ended by a drunk driver going 100 miles an hour.

"That it is a violent, violent way to die because Lindsay did not die right away," Palermo said. "There is no end to our sentence."

To this day, Palermo talks to alleged and convicted drunk drivers at victim impact meetings, like the one that happened last Thursday at Monroe Community College.

I told her about the arrest numbers.

"I think there is less revenue being funded to the dedicated officers who were on the Stop DWI road patrols," she said.

Watch the News10NBC investigation from 2004 involving Kyle’s crash, drunk drivers and high-speed drivers in the video in the player below (mobile users, click here):

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The money is a problem. The money that helps pay for special DWI checks points comes from DWI fines and fees the previous year.
When COVID reduced DWI arrests in 2020 it also reduced revenue to catch drunk drivers this year.

In 2019, Monroe County Stop DWI, which is responsible for dispersing the DWI fine money, gave local police almost $383,945.

This year it gave $202,650.

Brean: "Do you think there’s a correlation in the amount of money our local law enforcement agencies are getting for specific DWI enforcement and the number of tickets they’re writing?"

Lindsay Tomidy, Monroe County Stop DWI: "Oh absolutely. Absolutely yes."

Lindsay Tomidy runs Monroe County Stop DWI.

"While the arrests are going down there are still people on the street that are driving impaired," Tomidy said. "And because of the fact that they’re doing that there has been no change in the number of people who have died because of their decision."

Click here to access the annual reports of Monroe County Stop DWI. Scroll to the reports at the bottom of the page to track the number of arrests and the funding for special DWI enforcement.

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office says it has done five DWI checkpoints this year. In 2019, MCSO says it did seven.

Because of staffing problems, RPD has done zero.

In the email from RPD, the chief’s office told me "The current decline in DWI arrests may be attributed to the lack of additional officers available to safely staff DWI prevention efforts…" like checkpoints.

I asked Monroe County Stop DWI if there anyone is seeking a new funding formula since special DWI enforcement is tied to the number of DWI arrests the previous year.

Tomidy emailed "While individual agencies wouldn’t be stopped from utilizing their own funds for checkpoints and DWI stops, there has been no official talk on the statewide level. With the funding stream for the program being governed by statute, any additional funding received and funneled through STOP-DWI would be listed on the plan as additional revenue. There is nothing that stops partner entities from doing impaired driving-related activities, they just would not be a part of the county STOP-DWI plan. Our STOP-DWI Association Governmental Affairs Rep is in preliminary talks about ways he will be lobbying to adjust funding sources for our program going forward on the state level, but it’s too early to have any details for what that will look like."

DWI In Depth:

We were told to expect more checkpoints at Thanksgiving because it is one the most dangerous times with drunk driving.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says over a four-year period (2014 to 2018), more than 800 Americans died in drunk driving crashes over the holiday.

And this is not just a midnight problem.

Stop DWI says a quarter of deadly drunk driving crashes happen between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., that’s Happy Hour when children are coming home from school and parents are coming home from work.

When we learned about the drop in arrests we started contacting DWI attorneys. A sample of them said their phones have stopped ringing.

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Ed Fiandach, Fiandach & Fiandach law firm: "Does this mean people are drinking and driving less? I don’t know. Or does it mean that enforcement is way down? It’s real hard for me from my standpoint to say where this is coming from but it’s very real."

Fiandach said the number of cases have "mysteriously" "ground to a halt."

Brean: "If it’s that fewer people are drinking and driving, that’s a good thing."

Fiandach: "That’s a good thing. That’s a good thing. Believe me, that’s a good thing."

Brean: "If it’s (lack of enforcement)?

Fiandach: "That’s not a good thing. Then you’re going to see an increase in fatalities. You’re going to see an increase in injuries. You’re going to see an increase in accidents because you’re not getting that hardcore drunk driver off the road any longer."

DWI Arrests as of September 30, 2021:

Jan. – Sept. Average per month 2021 Average per month 2019
Brighton 22 2.4 12
East Rochester 12 1.3 1.9
Fairport 0 0 0.3
Gates 53 5.8 10.3
Greece 87 9.6 32
Irondequoit 53 5.8 11.8
MCSO 147 16.3 34.4
Ogden 19 2.1 2.6
RPD 270 30 52
Webster 25 2.6 4.6