WARRENTON — Police Chief Mathew Workman realized the number was unacceptable.
His officers made only six arrests for driving under the influence of intoxicants in 2014, raising questions about whether police were giving drunken drivers a free pass.
Clatsop County averages 250 to 300 DUII prosecutions a year, so Warrenton stood out.
“There are numerous factors that play into the low numbers, but, you know, the simplest is we did not do a good job that year of enforcing DUIIs,” Workman said.
After a commitment by the police chief to improve, drunken and drugged driving arrests in Warrenton climbed to 55 last year.
Warrenton is a regional shopping hub, but many bars and restaurants cater to locals. Like the rest of the county, the city has a hard-drinking culture rooted in fishing and logging. But the spike in arrests was not from a spree of drunken driving.
Workman adjusted patrol schedules to ensure two officers are on duty during evening hours when drunken driving peaks, even if it means paying overtime. When one officer handles a shift alone, DUII arrests, which are time-consuming, can slip.
“It makes it extremely hard, because they’re answering all the calls,” he said.
The police chief also credits the promotion of Sgt. Jim Pierce and the hiring of Officer Teresa McKee, who are experienced at drunken-driving enforcement. Other new officers have also joined the ranks over the past few years.
“You’ve got a lot of people that have a lot of fire and spark in them and go out there and are a little more aggressive,” Workman said.
Two officers left the police department during an investigation into behavioral and workplace issues, but Workman does not link those problems to the low DUII arrest figures. The police chief also does not believe officers consciously let drunken drivers go.
“I think it is a serious thing,” Workman said of the crime.
City Commissioner Tom Dyer, a retired Oregon State Police trooper, is not concerned by the fluctuation in DUII arrests.
In his experience, police officers have to hunt for drunken drivers. “But that takes time,” he said. “Well, if you get a lot of calls, guess what? You don’t get a chance to look for them.”
Dyer believes publicly reporting the increase in arrests can act as a deterrent. “When you get big numbers and it gets reported, people think twice about driving,” he said. “And a lot of times it will go down. Small towns, especially, you get that.”
District Attorney Josh Marquis said the county has a higher number of prosecutions for drunken driving than counties of similar size, mostly a reflection of the tourism industry.
While Marquis said no one in law enforcement hopes for more DUII arrests, he recognized the changes in Warrenton.
“I welcome what is clearly a heightened emphasis on DUII enforcement by Chief Workman and his force,” the district attorney said in an email.