As DWI deaths increase, Charlotte City Council questioned grant funding to stop DWIs
The city of Charlotte is part of an international program called Vision Zero. The goal: no traffic fatalities by 2030.
At a City Council meeting in mid-February, Mayor Vi Lyles introduced an item that’s part of that overall plan. The mayor asked her colleagues to accept a $188,000 state grant for Charlotte Mecklenburg Police’s DWI task force, a seven-member team whose goal is to stop drunk driving.
But at-large council member LaWana Mayfield was skeptical, saying she wanted more information about the task force.
“Since we have a need with the hiring and recruitment of officers, is this really still the best need to have this particular task force?” she asked.
Five other council members voted to postpone the decision on the grant: Braxton Winston, Dimple Ajmera, Renee Johnson, Victoria Watlington and Dante Anderson
The debate came as DWI convictions in Mecklenburg have fallen 80% over the last decade, according to a WFAE analysis of data from the state administrative office of the courts. The county now has the lowest per-capita rate — by far — of impaired driving convictions in the state.
While DWI convictions have plummeted, the number of people killed by alcohol-related vehicle crashes is going up.
In 2011, the three-year average for DWI-related fatalities was 26. In 2021 that had increased to 44 deaths annually. There were 100 combined deaths in Mecklenburg in 2020 and 2021.
On Monday, council members voted in favor of the grant, after CMPD sent them a memo outlining what the DWI task force does.
What is the role for police?
But the debate highlighted a relatively new vision in the city. In pushing for programs like Vision Zero, City Council members are often reluctant for law enforcement to play a greater role.
Emily Ferraro, a court monitor with Mothers Against Drunk Driving in North Carolina, watched the council debate over the DWI grant on video. She said she is “wary” if the council’s hesitancy stemmed from not thinking DWI enforcement is important.
“I do think for some people the whole DWI thing is, ‘What’s the big deal?’ I talk to friends of mine who are like 'everyone does it,'” she said. “You know, I have to address that. We work with people who do get impacted by it.”
The drop in DWI convictions is due to several factors: A decline in CMPD and other law enforcement agencies making DWI arrests. The district attorney office’s decision not to have prosecutors working solely on DWIs. And the courthouse not having courtrooms set aside for impaired driving.
Chief District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch also kept district court closed longer than other North Carolina counties, creating a bottleneck for prosecutors. Trosch said she was following the guidance of former Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris.
In Mecklenburg County, the criminal justice system has taken a lighter approach to public safety overall. The number of arrests and citations by CMPD has gone down by more than half over the last decade. And District Attorney Spencer Merriweather has said he won’t prosecute people for low-level drug offenses.
Ferraro says that’s good — to a point.
But when it comes to DWI?
“I don’t think there is a silver lining,” she said. “I would like to think from a law enforcement perspective that it’s being enforced and then that follow through comes all the way down the line from our district attorneys' offices and our court system that people are held accountable.”
Winston, the mayor pro tem, voted to postpone the decision on the DWI grant.
He said the city should focus on better street design and expanding transit when trying to reduce DWIs. During his six-year council career, he has often lobbied for ways to solve public safety problems without necessarily turning to law enforcement.
“Our mobility plan and investments that need to be made in our neighborhoods are so important,” he said. “One way to cut down on drunk driving is if you don’t have people driving and they are using alternate modes of transportation. That is something that is more directly in our purview.”
He also said there are other things City Council can do, such as eliminating or reducing parking spaces the city requires businesses to have.
“Why do we have parking minimums at bars?” he said. “That doesn’t seem like it fits other priorities like Vision Zero.”
But the problem with relying on street redesign is that it’s a gargantuan task. The city has an existing program to make cars go slower, either by eliminating traffic lanes or through other ways, like having more pedestrian crosswalks. Those projects are often known as “road diets.”
But in the roughly 20 years since it started the program, it’s only improved 21 miles of city streets.
The city has nearly 300 miles of thoroughfares.
There are also dozens of miles inside Mecklenburg of state-controlled highways and roads, such as the interstate system.
“I don’t think we will redesign all our roads by 2030, certainly,” said Angela Berry, who oversees the Vision Zero program with the Charlotte Department of Transportation.
She said law enforcement — including the DWI task force — is critical.
“To me, it seems very important that our officers have that ability, and in this case, even a dedicated group of officers who conduct patrols on a routine basis,” she said.
DWI arrests down
The CMPD DWI task force last year made 3,631 traffic stops and made 265 DWI arrests, slightly more than in 2021.
Sergeant Bernie Reibold, who leads the task force, said his unit has moved away from DWI checkpoints because he said they were no longer as effective. The officers instead will saturate high-traffic areas and pull people over for infractions like speeding.
Overall, the number of DWI charges filed annually in Mecklenburg County has dropped significantly, from nearly 3,600 in fiscal year 2012 to just under 1,600 in fiscal year 2022.
Other law enforcement agencies — such as the Highway Patrol, as well as the towns — also charge people with DWI. And many of the DWI arrests made in Charlotte are done by CMPD officers who aren’t members of the task force.
Over the last decade, CMPD officers have said they are doing less "pro-active" policing, such as stopping motorists for expired registration. The number of arrests made and citations given by CMPD fell by more than half from 2009 to 2021. And with fewer people being stopped, there are fewer opportunities to find drunk drivers.
In 2012, 2,026 people were convicted of DWI in Mecklenburg. That fell to 599 people in 2019 and then 169 people were convicted in 2020.
In 2021, 347 people were convicted in the county and 633 in 2022.
Ten years ago, Cori Favor lost her mother and sister in a drunk-driving crash in Matthews. It was the day after Christmas.
“A drunk driver went past the traffic light ... and swerved and missed hitting a car full of college students, missed them going 75 mph,” she said. “He increased his speed and hit my mom and sister head-on going 85 mph.”
Favor speaks at high schools about the dangers of drunk driving.
She said it’s frustrating that DWI doesn’t seem to be a priority.
“I don’t know how much of it is because of money to prosecute people,” she said. “But I know there is money. It just depends on what people decide is important.”