By Kathy Chouteau
Recent traffic statistics in the city of Richmond are sobering. Between 2017-2018, injury collisions in Richmond increased by 13 percent, alcohol-related collisions increased by 18 percent, hit-and-run collision injuries increased by 36 percent and pedestrian injuries increased by 29 percent, according to police. Rail safety—including the blocking of train tracks by both vehicles and pedestrians—also remains a persistent problem in Richmond, although it’s not on the rise.
Amid the rising numbers of injury collisions citywide, the Richmond Police Department (RPD) is buckling down on its traffic safety enforcement efforts. Richmond police Capt. Al Walle and Traffic Sgt. Donovan Decious recently sat down with the Standard to shine a light on what the RPD has been doing to address the issue.
This month, the RPD received a $215,000 grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) to help institute additional DUI checkpoints and to address other traffic related problems currently plaguing city streets. The newly received OTS grant extends through Sept. 31, 2021. Capt. Walle said it “provides funding to address distracted driving, seat-belt enforcement, motorcycle safety, bicycle safety, pedestrian safety and impaired driving.”
The OTS grant will also permit the RPD to send officers to DUI investigation schools and trainings “so we’re better prepared and trained to actually do these kind of investigations,” said Sgt. Decious. Field sobriety exercise training—i.e., the standardized manner in which officers perform the tests—is yet another area supported by the funding.
While the RPD has not yet scheduled any checkpoints for the new funding period, similar to last year, it plans to have six DUI checkpoints during the new grant period, utilizing $84,672 of the funding. Typically, the department gives the public two weeks advance notice via social media and other channels where and when they’ll be doing DUI checkpoints.
Recurring DUI checkpoints in Richmond include the northbound Richmond Pkwy. at Macdonald Ave., where during the last OTC grant period they set up three times, 23rd St. and Bissell Ave., Barrett Ave. and Marina Way and Hilltop Dr. between Shane Dr. and Robert Miller Dr.—to name a few, according to Sgt. Decious.
Traffic officers typically set up the DUI checkpoints on Friday nights in areas where there have been prior collisions, try to spread them across the department’s Northern, Central and Southern districts and look for locations with less side streets for cars to turn onto to avoid the checkpoint.
Sgt. Decious said that anywhere from 800 to 1,000 cars typically pass through an RPD DUI checkpoint, with 1,140 being the most they ever had. Sometimes representatives from MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) will join the department’s educational efforts at checkpoints, and with the approval of families, the officers sometimes post signs about victims of drunk driving who died at the site.
“The only thing we ask for when someone comes through the checkpoint is their driver’s license,” said Sgt. Decious. If they don’t appear to be impaired by alcohol, the officers will send them on their way. Drivers who don’t have their licenses with them are directed to the DUI checkpoint’s staging area, where officers confirm their license via a database. If they have one, they can leave without a citation. If the driver doesn’t have a license, they’re issued a citation and will need to call someone to pick them up since they can’t legally drive.
Those with suspended licenses get pulled off to the side and are issued a ticket. “And that car is going to be impounded, because they are suspended,” said Sgt. Decious.
If a driver appears to be impaired, “then we pull them off and the officer will start performing the field sobriety exercises or tests. Depending on whether or not they’re impaired, it could lead to an arrest,” said the sergeant.
As for drivers who do dangerous U-turns or other maneuvers to avoid the DUI checkpoints, the RPD may just take down your license—or they may send their motorcycle officers after you to see what you might be hiding. He emphasized that the department’s biggest concern is that someone pulling away from the checkpoint is intoxicated. The checkpoints also uncover other findings. “We’ve got multiple guns out of cars at these checkpoints,” said Sgt. Decious regarding the potential for other discoveries via these efforts.
Capt. Walle and Sgt. Decious also wanted to dispel a myth circulating on social media about the Richmond DUI checkpoints. “At no time do we have ICE out there; we‘re a sanctuary city. We don’t have anyone from any Immigration Department or anything like that, working with us.”
Hit-and-runs, speed, and distracted driving
The department also expressed serious concerns about hit-and-runs in Richmond.
“I don’t know if this whole COVID thing has people drinking more or what it may or may not be, but we have seen a substantial increase in hit-and-runs, and some of them are pretty significant injuries,” said Sgt. Decious.
Per the sergeant, “the worst thing you can do is take off [if you hit someone] because now you’ve got us looking for you…it’s just a bad idea. You’re just adding to the felonies if you take off.” He underscored that sometimes pedestrians can be at fault for accidents, but if you leave the scene after hitting someone in your car, now you’ve committed a crime.
“But the biggest things that we’re finding is it’s people not stopping at red lights, not stopping at stop signs and it’s speed. I mean speed is a huge contributing factor to these accidents,” he said.
The sergeant also cautioned people who drive while distracted—i.e., while using headphones or while talking on their phones, which contributes to an enormous number of annual accidents. He additionally underscored the importance of paying attention at railroad crossings and not attempting to speed through when a train is approaching.
So what’s the biggest takeaway the RPD wants to drive home related to Richmond traffic safety? “Please don’t drink and drive, that’s my biggest point on this whole thing,” said Sgt. Decious. “It’s gonna catch up to you and it affects not only you, but it affects just everybody…it’s something that we all have to deal with.”