Georgia DUI Task Force Leads to More Arrests
By: Mary Ann Pekara
In Savannah, Georgia, the Nighthawks are sending a message to drunk drivers, pulling over those under investigation for DUI and making DUI arrests above and beyond the program’s expectations.
The Georgia State Patrol Nighthawk DUI Task Force only needs to make 65 monthly “contacts” with those under investigation for DUI to meet the requirements of the government grant that funds the program. So far, the unit has averaged around 587 per month. That’s a figure that is nine times higher than expectations for the unit, according to a story from Savannah Now.
The Nighthawk program started in November of 2009, when the Georgia State Patrol won a Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic (H.E.A.T.) grant of more than $1 million. H.E.A.T. is an initiative out of the Georgia governor’s office aimed at reducing high speed driving and drunk driving on Georgia’s roads. The initiative features both enforcement and educational arms.
From the time the Nighthawk program began, until the end of 2009, it made about 100 drunk driving arrests in a little more than a month. The grant requires that troopers participating in the program operate in Georgia’s Bulloch and Chatham counties, though the reality of the numbers has them focusing on the city of Savannah.
The nature of Savannah’s downtown area also makes it a choice spot for cops to pull over impaired drivers.
“If you’re at .15 (blood-alcohol content) and you can kind of see,” said Georgia State Patrol Nighthawk DUI Task Force trooper Jason Lewis, “then I do see how it will make you not turn your lights on. You get a lot of that down here. They’re just too impaired and not paying attention.”
Lewis went on to describe how there was often a stream of impaired drivers in downtown starting at around 8 p.m. until about four in the morning. He and fellow troopers could settle near a particular highway exit and pull over unsafe drivers as they entered and left the downtown Savannah area.
On one particular Saturday night, Lewis made several traffic stops in just an hour on the beat. Offenses ranged from a faulty tail light, to speeding, to unsafe driving.
In April of 2010, the Nighthawk unit made 73 DUI arrests. The total for the year comes to 366 arrests. According to troopers, many of those arrested for drunk driving have blood-alcohol contents that register at more than double the legal limit. Cpl. Robert Balkcom, who oversees Lewis and the other troopers, said that most of the underage drivers that were arrested on DUI charges were also found to have blood-alcohol contents well over double the legal limit.
“I’ve been pleased with the number of contacts and how well they worked with other jurisdictions,” said highway safety office director Bob Dallas about the Nighthawk unit. “Hopefully this will send a message these folks are here to stay.”
The unit has been well-received by local police forces. Garden City Police Chief David Lyons said “we just keep seeing more and more drunk drivers on the road, and with budget cuts, so many departments have had to curtail operations. They provide a good service to us—they’ve been very professional.”
A study is currently under way to judge the needs of Nighthawk program, and whether additional troopers will be added in coming years.
“I think the number of arrests that we have made with an eight-man unit is impressive, but we are just scratching the surface,” said Balkcom.