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SLO’s alcohol problem 

Every year an overwhelming number of people are arrested for being drunk in public

San Luis Obispo is a college town with an alcohol problem. No news there. But what you might not know is just how much time local officers spend arresting people for violating penal code 647(f), i.e., drunk in public.

click to enlarge PUNK IN DRUBLIC :  In 2004, 957 people were arrested for being drunk in public in San Luis Obispo, 333 were arrested for driving under the influence [both misdemeanor and felony], nine people were arrested for disorderly conduct. - FILE PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • FILE PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • PUNK IN DRUBLIC : In 2004, 957 people were arrested for being drunk in public in San Luis Obispo, 333 were arrested for driving under the influence [both misdemeanor and felony], nine people were arrested for disorderly conduct.

# In 2004, SLO PD arrested 957 for drunk in public, which was about 44 percent of the department’s entire arrests. In 2004, 2,045 people were arrested for being drunk in public in all of SLO County, which is 1,163 more drunk in public arrests than in San Francisco County in all of 2001, 2002 and 2003 combined.  SLO County’s population of 254,000 is roughly a third of the size of SF’s 744,000. Starting in 2000, drunk in public arrests in San Francisco dramatically decreased; nonetheless, SLO’s 2,045 drunk in public arrests in 2004 still beats SF’s higher ’95 and ’96 numbers.

Big city vs. small city policing aside, the high number of drunk in public arrests begs attention. Captain Dan Blanke, spokesman for SLO PD, says on a typical night alcohol-related incidents are the biggest problem for officers in the city, and on any given weekend night there are no more than ten officers on duty.

 “It certainly is a problem and it does take up a lot of our time,� says Blanke. “That sucks resources from everywhere else.�

The amount of time it takes to apprehend, arrest, and transport drunk in public arrestees to county jail on Kansas Avenue certainly dominates the workload of SLO PD officers. “The goal of 647(f) arrests,� says Blanke, “although it’s not pleasant for anybody, is to put the [offenders] some place safe for at least four hours, so they can sober up, so nothing’s going to happen to them, and they’re not going to do something to somebody else. It’s a reasonable goal.�

In 2004, when SLO PD made those 957 drunk in public arrests, they made 333 arrests for misdemeanor or felony driving under the influence. Captain Blanke says the discrepancy between drunk in public arrests and driving under the influence arrests has to do simply with the way people are caught. It’s more common to see someone stumbling down the street than it is to see someone veering over the double yellow line.

And the fear that you’re more likely to get caught walking home drunk, as opposed to driving, is one commonly voiced at local bars. Based on the stats, the fear seems justified. It is of course impossible to know how many people are actually driving drunk—meaning those who don’t get caught.

Another factor that contributes to the belief that the local law enforcement agencies hand out drunk in public’s like party favors (an analogy I recently heard at a local bar), is the burden of proof given to officers during an arrest. No Breathalyzer, or field sobriety test is needed for an officer to arrest someone for drunk in public. Under the law, simply smelling of alcohol could be reason enough for an officer to make an informed decision that one cannot “care for his/her own welfare� and must be arrested and put in the drunk tank for the night.

“One thing that bothers a lot of people,� says Blanke, “is that that particular offense does depend a lot on the opinion of the officer. But it’s supposed to be an educated opinion and a fair and reasonable opinion. In my own experience the offense manifests itself in a lot of different ways.�

Some ways drunk in public manifests itself, for example, would be drunk and disorderly conduct, assault and battery, vandalism and urinating in public. In 2004, the year of 957 drunk in public arrests in SLO, there were 142 assault and battery arrests, 71 disturbing the peace arrests, 21 vandalism arrests and nine disorderly conduct arrests. We don’t know how many arrestees were multiply charged, i.e., were drunk when they assaulted someone else; but it seems, at least, that the vast majority of people arrested for being drunk in public were not disturbing the peace or disorderly. They were, well, drunk in public.

Is the police department concerned that it may be sending a mixed message to citizens, and students, about choosing to walk home drunk instead of driving? “We’re not concerned,� says Blanke, “that that’s causing a problem. We’re totally into personal responsibility. If you want to engage in certain kinds of behavior you have to assume the responsibility that goes along with it.�

To help deal with those who are not personally responsible, the SLO police department, which is not currently fully staffed, is working on applying for a few grants through the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The department hasn’t yet submitted any proposals to the council. “It’s premature to talk about specifics,� says Blanke.

But, Blanke adds, over the years “People have become more responsible in terms of having designated drivers.�

One way to avoid getting busted for being drunk in public or driving under the influence is, of course, the almighty taxi. Says Blanke, “If they’re still sharp enough to see that yellow car and get in that back seat, we’re going to leave them alone.�  ∆

Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at jpeabody@newtimesslo.com.

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