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Seattle police DUI unit set to be slashed after 50 years

Officers and advocates fear that cutting Seattle's specialized DUI unit will put the entire community at risk.

The group of Seattle police officers with decades of expertise in dealing with suspected impaired drivers and drug recognition are being reassigned to patrol duty.  

The DUI squad members received an email on Thursday night confirming the unit will be disbanded as part of the new interim police chief’s effort to slash overtime costs and improve 911 response times.

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) brought a specialized DUI unit into the force in 1970. Originally, it was funded by the federal government. The team went on to handle thousands of suspected DUI stops and build up cases that helped prosecutors successfully bring offenders to account through the legal system.

“It’s a sad day. I believe in the mission, personally,” said Officer Eric Michl, the longest running DUI specialist at SPD who is currently serving his 20th year with the squad.

“Where we get the edge is our experience. We do it so often and we’re trained to pick up on things that would suggest a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, which is my specialty,” said Michl. “Whenever we get somebody stopped who is impaired, we have potentially saved the community from experiencing a great tragedy.”

On Wednesday, interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced he’s reallocating 100 specialty officers and supervisors to emergency patrol.

RELATED: Seattle Police Department reveals plan to shift officers from specialty units to emergency patrol

The DUI unit elimination comes at a time when drug and alcohol-related fatalities are trending upward in the state of Washington. In the year 2011, there were 215 fatalities involving alcohol or drugs in the state, according to data from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.  The number of fatalities increased to more than 270 per year in 2016 and 2017, the most recent data available.

“I would hope that the police department can see the value of a DUI squad in our city and there (could be) a way we can hold onto that,” said Courtney Popp, a current member of the state’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving board and longtime DUI prosecutor.

Popp said offenders are more successfully brought to account in the legal system when a case was investigated and built by a member of the elite DUI squad.

“You know that when you get a DUI case from a member of the DUI squad you can expect a high level of excellence and attention to detail, which is critical in these cases in court,” Popp said.

While any law enforcement officer can pull a driver over who is exhibiting signs of impaired driving, such as swerving between lines, DUI team officers are often called to the scene to assist those with less experience, which allows the original officer to respond to 911 calls.

“(DUI stops are) very time consuming. They take you off the street. For me, it’s a three-and-a-half-hour job," Michl said. "But for a patrol officer, it could take a lot longer because they’re not familiar with how everything works."

Michl and the other members of the DUI squad are working with their union and command staff to try to salvage the unit, which is set to be scrapped by mid-September.

“I don’t envy the position of the command staff,” Officer Michl said. “But I think everybody recognizes there’s going to be a consequence.”

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