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Police in Allegheny County communities fear loss of grants that provide DUI checkpoints

| Friday, July 4, 2014, 9:47 p.m.

Local police have ramped up drunken driving patrols for the holiday weekend, but officers say they're worried about grant funding that pays for the extra enforcement.

“The grant is huge as far as both education and enforcement. We'll be doing patrols this weekend, and the guys on the road aren't investigating (other) crimes or anything else — their goal is to find and arrest DUIs,” said Mt. Lebanon police Lt. Duane Fisher, grant coordinator for the 10-department Mt. Lebanon area task force. “And that's the key — with municipal budgets the way they are in order to really address this hazard you have it so the officer is not tied up with regular policing.”

Police drunken driving task forces are paid from federal funds doled out by PennDOT annually. Fisher said his task force received $55,000 this year allowing for four fixed checkpoints and 10 roving patrols. Next fiscal year, the funding will drop by $5,000, forcing them to cut one checkpoint or two roving patrols, Fisher said.

PennDOT officials said they don't know how much money will be available statewide in the coming fiscal year but $5.4 million was handed out in each of the past two years.

Cathy Tress, the Western Pennsylvania liaison for the Pennsylvania DUI Association, said the grant money pays for police overtime and equipment. She wasn't overly concerned about small drops in funding.

“Our guys come up with creative ideas. They partner with other agencies to share expenses and partner with the state police,” Tress said. “(If there was a large decrease) it would be tough to continue this level of enforcement with regular duty officers. I think with DUI, unfortunately, we still have our fair number of arrests.”

PennDOT data show that last year, there were 2,759 crashes from June 30 through July 9, of which 256 were alcohol-related.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said that police agencies across the county were ramping up drunken driving enforcement over the weekend. He said the District Attorney's Office prosecutes 5,000 drunken driving cases annually.

“What we're trying to communicate (is), ‘Please be responsible,' ” Zappala said. “At a picnic in the sun, a couple beers can affect you differently.”

Plum police Lt. Lanny Conley, director of the nine-department East Hills DUI Task Force, said his group received $39,000 for the current year but doesn't know what next year's allotment will be. They conduct three full checkpoints and six roving patrols. He said in past years, they had more money that paid for five checkpoints.

“If you have more money, you're able to do more of those. Checkpoints eat up most of the budget,” Conley said. “It's totally dependent on the grant. I think it's effective because it's not just getting the drunk drivers off the road, it's educating the people not to drive buzzed and impaired.”

West Deer senior Patrolman Brian Dobson, coordinator for the eight-department North Hills DUI Task Force, agreed, saying checkpoints are a deterrent. He said their funding dropped to $55,000 this fiscal year from $60,000 last year. They run five checkpoints and six roving patrols each year.

“From what I've heard, we may lose another five grand,” Dobson said. “It shortens the checkpoints and how many we run.”

Staff writer Corinne Kennedy contributed. Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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