CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the number of people dying in alcohol-related crashes increased in Mecklenburg County, the number of people arrested and cited for driving while impaired continued to plummet, according to a review of public records.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department records show DWI arrests and citations are down 60 percent over the last five years, hitting a five-year low with just 948 in 2018 compared to 2,395 in 2014.
"It's real. The numbers are down," CMPD Maj. Mike Smathers said. "We noticed that and we're concerned about that."
Maj. Smathers said the decline is a combination of several factors. He said charging someone with DWI is time consuming, taking hours just to make an arrest and then requiring up to eight court visits over the course of a year.
He said that time commitment, along with Charlotte's growing population and need for more police officers to answer other calls, leaves less time to find drunk drivers.
"When officers are there fulfilling those duties, they then don't have as much proactive time to hunt and find that impaired driver," he said.
North Carolina Department of Transportation records show the number of fatal alcohol-related crashes in Mecklenburg County increased to 51 in 2017 from 28 two years prior.
DWI attorney Bill Powers doesn't think it's being treated as much of a priority as it used to be.
"There's no question about the need for enforcement across the board, not just in Mecklenburg County, but statewide," Powers said.
He questions why the department only dedicates six-full time officers to its DWI task force.
"This is the people who wear the white shirts and have the gold bars on their shoulders," Powers said. "This is, in large measure in my mind, an abdication of their role and responsibilities in setting policy."
Maj. Smathers said he's comfortable with the size of CMPD's DWI task force.
"Just having more people on a full time task force wouldn't impact that department-wide," he said. "Obviously, it would have some impact."
The major said while DWI enforcement is "very important," there are other public safety issues in the city too, including an increase in the number of pedestrian deaths.
He said it's the department's job to balance all the needs of the community with the resources available.
"I would be remiss to not have this department moving toward addressing those pedestrians that are being struck just because I know that DWI enforcement is important," he said. "I feel like I have a duty to both."