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Loss of federal funding for DWI checkpoints in Missouri draws mixed reviews

A traffic stop by the Missouri State Police, June 2016.
Missouri Department of Transportation

Law enforcement agencies across Missouri that use DWI checkpoints to catch drunk drivers won’t be able to use federal money to pay for them starting July 1. That's when the new fiscal year gets underway.

The Missouri Dept. of Transportation handles the state’s allotment of National Highway Safety Act money from Washington, and this year the Republican majority in the legislature chose to only allow one dollar to be used for checkpoints. It’s tucked into a budget bill that Gov. Eric Greitens has yet to sign.

Responses from local law enforcement agencies to the change range from very disappointed to uninterested.

Lieutenant Paul Lauer is commander of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s traffic safety division. He said they’ll have to instead use funds that are reserved for overtime pay or stop using checkpoints altogether.

“With all the other issues going on in the city, it’s hard to find that money sometimes,” he said.

St. Louis received $25,000 in federal grant money last year for overall DWI traffic reduction efforts, and Lauer said 90 percent of it covered the cost of checkpoints, including manpower and overtime pay. He added that their mere presence serves as an educational tool.

“People could see the police out there, they (saw signs that) said ‘checkpoint ahead,’ they knew the reason why they were coming into the checkpoint,” he said. “It just kind of brought some awareness about driving while intoxicated or using a designated driver.”

Many of the Republican lawmakers that criticized DWI checkpoints touted saturation patrols, in which four or more officers work the same area. They say they're much better at getting drunk drivers off the road.

Boone County Sgt. Brian Lear disagrees. He oversees traffic enforcement in the central Missouri county that’s home to the Mizzou campus and said that checkpoints work even better when combined with saturation patrols.

“When you take away a tool that works best with other tools, it’s going to have a negative impact on the intended result, which is ultimately the reduction of crashes that cost so many people so much money, well-being, and often cost lives,” Lear said.

But just across the Missouri River in Cole County, DWI checkpoints are on the way out. Sheriff John Wheeler said the rise of social media has rendered them ineffective.

“Within 30 minutes of setting up a checkpoint, it’s already known throughout the whole county that we have a checkpoint set up,” Wheeler said.

Cole County relies primarily on saturation patrols, or “wolfpacks.” Wheeler said they deploy their wolfpacks in areas statistically shown to have high rates and probability of accidents involving alcohol.

“For instance, we know on (U.S.) Highway 54 during the summertime, there are a lot of people going from Jefferson City to the Lake (of the Ozarks), and to the Lake and back,” he said. “And deputies are able to move throughout the county instead of just setting up in one area.”

St. Louis County is also moving away from DWI checkpoints and relying more on saturation patrols. County police Sargent Shawn McGuire said the patrols are more effective at catching impaired drivers, but he added that they will continue to assist other law enforcement agencies that conduct checkpoints.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.