Law enforcement agencies are trying to turn around a troubling trend in Washington State – a rise in the number of DUI deaths over the last few years.
Data reviewed by the KING 5 Investigators reveal that at the same time those deaths were rising, the number of DUI arrests made by law enforcement officers across the state dropped sharply.
“For the last couple of years we’ve noticed a trend that is disturbing to us,” said Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste.
WSP troopers are responsible for about half of the DUI arrests in Washington. Batiste says WSP is taking several steps to try to increase DUI arrests and drive down the growing numbers of people killed by intoxicated drivers.
The fix won’t come soon enough for Sami Frick Martin and her family. Her father was killed near Enumclaw when a drunk driver crossed the center line and hit the truck driven by 69-year-old Walter Frick. His wife, in the passenger’s seat, was seriously injured.
“It breaks my heart. My Dad was my best friend. We were so close,” said Frick Martin.
Walter Frick was killed in 2015, the year that DUI deaths in Washington reached a six-year high -- 258 people killed in crashes involving intoxicated drivers, per data from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
During the same time, arrests reported by Washington law enforcement agencies fell. In 2015, there were 10,771 fewer DUI arrests than were reported in 2011, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
“It’s gut wrenching because you know it’s costing folks their lives. Very much so, it’s difficult to take,” said Chief Batiste, who considers DUI enforcement to be WSP’s top priority.
WSP says a steady decline in the number of troopers on the road, and the increased time it takes troopers to process DUI cases, is what is behind the dwindling arrest numbers.
Batiste says the increase in drugged driving has played a big part in tying troopers up with administrative paperwork.
“It can take you up to four or five hours, in some instances, to process and individual for driving under the influence of drugs. Whereas before, with alcohol, you can get that done in about an hour,” said Batiste.
Drug cases require a warrant, signed by a judge, for the required blood draw. And then the officer must drive the suspect to a hospital to allow medical staff to obtain a sample of their blood.
WSP is working with Lakewood police on a pilot program to speed up the blood draw process. Lakewood officers have received medical training that allows them to draw blood themselves, eliminating time-consuming trips to the hospital.
WSP is also developing a software program designed to let troopers avoid the redundant paperwork that they must fill out for each DUI case.
“There could be up to 16 different forms that you may have to use for one DUI investigation,” said Lt. Rob Sharpe, who heads WSP’s Impaired Driving Section.
That’s 16 times that a trooper might have to fill out suspect and witness information, and a narrative of the case. New software installed in patrol car computer systems is aimed at streamlining that process.
“It’s tiring and exhausting to fill out multiple pieces of paper for one event,” Lt. Sharpe said. It’s also more prone to error.
WSP says it is also resolving another big problem the led to the sharp decline in arrests -- a serious shortage in state troopers. WSP had about 130 trooper vacancies, positions that Chief Batiste said were hard to fill because of low pay and the challenges of attracting recruits to a career in law enforcement.
In the most recent legislative session, lawmakers gave trooper’s a pay raise. Also, the state’s law enforcement training academy graduated its largest class ever with nearly 50 rookie troopers heading out onto the roadways.
Sami Frick Martin is surprised at the state’s setback in efforts to curb drunk driving.
“It shouldn’t be that way. This is something that could have been prevented,” she says of her father’s death.
It took a year and a half for her family to find some measure of justice. On May 15 Valerie K. Bellack, of Auburn, pleaded guilty to charges related to the death of Walter Frick.
Sami Frick Martin says the criminal justice system should be doing everything in its power to keep the roads clear of intoxicated drivers.
“You can’t even fathom what it is like to get that knock on your door. Your whole world is ruined. It didn’t have to be this way,” she said.
-- Follow Chris Ingalls on Twitter @CJIngalls