North Fork sees rise in summer DWIs

GRANT PARPAN FILE PHOTO | This crash in Calverton led to a DWI arrest earlier this year. Police say DWI arrests rose this year. See the infographic below for more details.

This summer marked the busiest season for drunken driving arrests across the North Fork’s two towns in five years, according to reports from Southold and Riverhead police.

From June through August of this year, Riverhead police reported 70 alleged incidents of people driving under the influence of alcohol within the town, nearly double last year’s summer total of 41 incidents, according to the reports.

And August was the busiest month this summer in Riverhead, the reports show, with 27 arrests. There were 26 arrests in July and 17 in June, the figures show.

This summer had the most reported arrests since 2008, when 78 were reported in Riverhead Town. Until this year, the numbers had steadily decreased, according to the reports.

The trend in Riverhead mirrored that of Southold Town, where 42 drunken driving arrests were reported in 2012, an increase from the 28 incidents reported the year before, according to a document provided by police. While just nine drunken driving arrests were reported in August, according to the figures, 17 were documented in July and 16 in June.

Like Riverhead, this summer was also the busiest in Southold Town since 2008, when 44 incidents occurred.

The figures were being compiled for the newspaper just as a Riverhead man suffered minor injuries in two separate accidents involving alleged drunken drivers at the same intersection within a 3 1/2-hour span, startling readers and residents and renewing concerns that our roads have been getting more and more dangerous.

Those DWI accidents were followed up Monday with the arrest of a Deer Park man accused of striking a pedestrian near the Route 58 traffic circle and fleeing the scene. That person was also charged with DWI.

But both Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller and Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said the higher number of reported arrests doesn’t necessarily mean there are more cases of people driving drunk around Riverhead or across the region.

“More manpower” through patrols and checkpoints on the part of the East End DWI Task Force’s inaugural year has led to the higher numbers, Chief Hegermiller said.

“[There were] a lot of extra eyes on the roads,” he said of this past summer. “There were nights when you had more than half a dozen cars out there.”

The task force, run by Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, includes officers from East End town and village police departments, as well as state and county police and DA officials. The task force was formed in the spring and began operations on the North and South Forks on Memorial Day weekend.

The East End police departments involved in the task force worked in one another’s jurisdictions at checkpoints and patrols on scheduled weekends to crack down on drunk drivers in the county’s five East End towns.

Locally, a task force patrol in Riverhead in June netted 11 drunken driving arrests, with another six people being arrested at a July checkpoint in Southold, police said.

The task force will continue operations into the fall and will focus on reducing boating while intoxicated in local waters next year as well, authorities said.

Chief Hegermiller thanked the DA’s office for being “the glue that holds it all together.”

“It was a great effort,” he said.

Chief Flatley agreed that the DWI task force helped Southold Town police by providing more manpower for checkpoints. The task force allowed the department to target high-traffic weekends for greater enforcement without causing congestion on the roads.

“Up to this point, we tried to do DWI checkpoints but it takes a lot of officers,” Chief Flatley said. “It’s very difficult to pull something like that off on our own.”

He believes the dip in numbers over the last few years until this summer was because the department had fewer officers to devote to patrols. For most of this summer the department operated with 46 officers, and that number dropped lower because of injuries to some officers that took them off active duty.

The figures don’t take into account arrests in neighboring Flanders, Riverside or Northampton, as those hamlets are in Southampton Town.

While Chief Flatley credited some of the increased DWI arrests to the extra manpower from the task force, he also said more motorists are using Bluetooth cellphones to report drunk drivers.

The department has seen an increase in the number of 911 calls from the road in the past few years, he said.

“Realistically that’s where a lot of DWI [reports] are coming from,” Chief Flatley said.

Local community groups agreed that awareness and enforcement seemed to be increasing.

“There is more of an awareness and there is more of a vigilance about it,” said Felicia Scocozza, executive director of the Riverhead Community Awareness Program (CAP).

Ms. Scocozza said her organization works with the Riverhead department to raise awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving.

CAP normally hosts a program in the spring to teach 10th-graders not to drink and drive, but the program’s funding through the county was cut this year, she said.

“It was a very effective program, [the students] really showed an increased awareness,” Ms. Scocozza said.

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See the infographic below for more details: