Several times a year, Santa Fe police will set up elaborate traps to catch intoxicated drivers.
Part of a larger effort to deter driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, sobriety checkpoints are a tactic used by law enforcement agencies across New Mexico and 36 other states to get dangerous drivers off the road.
In Santa Fe, though, people who live in some of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods may be less likely to get nabbed.
Twenty-two of the 27 DWI checkpoints conducted by the Santa Fe Police Department since 2016 have been staged in the south and southwest areas of the city, according to documents obtained under a public records request.
Another eight checkpoints were planned in those areas but canceled because the department didn’t have enough officers to meet minimum staffing requirements, documents show.
Police say they aren’t discriminating.
“We do [conduct DWI checkpoints on the south and southwest areas of Santa Fe] quite a bit, but that’s where the data tells us to go,” police Capt. Marvin Paulk said.
Paulk said police use statistical information to pick a location, including areas with a high concentration of drunken-driving arrests and alcohol-involved crashes.
But geography, or the layout of a street, may play an even bigger factor because police need plenty of space not only to conduct the checkpoint but to pull over drivers and conduct field sobriety tests, he said.
“If you notice on the north end of town, we don’t have this type of luxury,” Paulk said Tuesday night while working a DWI checkpoint on a mostly straight stretch of Camino Carlos Rey just north of Franklin E. Miles Park. “So, a lot of times we can’t fit this operation in those very narrow streets and narrow turns on the north side of town.”
But two city councilors whose districts encompass the south and southwest parts of Santa Fe said the police department’s decision to stage a vast majority of DWI checkpoints on one side of the city seems unfair.
All but one of the checkpoints were conducted west of St. Francis Drive, a major thoroughfare that some generally consider the dividing line between the more affluent and less affluent neighborhoods in Santa Fe.
More than half of the DWI checkpoints conducted by Santa Fe police since 2016 have been in City Council District 4.
“I won’t go as far as to say that they’re profiling drunk drivers, but that’s an equal opportunity occurrence,” District 4 City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler said. “You could probably centralize DWI checkpoints all over the city, and you wouldn’t be caught empty-handed.”
The southwest-side City Council District 3 had the second-highest number of checkpoints during that time.
“My first reaction is: Why?” said City Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta, who represents the district. “Why are there so many in one side of town as opposed to the other, especially when you have so many bars on the other side of St. Francis Drive and the downtown area? I’d like to give the police department the benefit of the doubt, but I am going to talk to them about this.”
In a statement Friday, Mayor Alan Webber said he believes in “fairness and equity” in everything the city does, including and policing, and that he disapproves of “profiling, targeting or discrimination of any kind, anywhere, any time.”
“I’m committed to looking at the assumptions, goals and practices behind the numbers of this serious issue,” he said. “And I’m committed to working with Chief [Andrew] Padilla and our Police Department to make sure going forward we have a policy that respects the rights and protects the safety of everyone who lives and works in our city — so we treat everyone with the same respect, regardless of where you live.”
Santa Fe police have staged six DWI checkpoints near the intersection of Jaguar Drive and South Meadows Road since 2016, more than any other location. A seventh checkpoint was planned there but canceled because of short staffing.
Siler Road at Agua Fría Street and the 3700 block of Rufina Street have been the location of five checkpoints each. Lack of personnel forced the department to cancel three checkpoints planned at Siler and Agua Fría and one on Rufina.
“I would think that we’d want to stop people from driving intoxicated anywhere in town and not let the size of streets prohibit us from doing it,” Abeyta said.
Vigil Coppler agreed, saying police need to do more “brainstorming” to find other suitable locations across the city.
“The other thing this points out to me — and it’s just a perspective on my part — is that when we had those speed vans, they were all centralized down here, too,” she said, referring to a now-defunct program in which unmanned vehicles would photograph speeding motorists.
“The excuse there was we have crooked streets downtown,” Vigil Coppler added. “Well, I’m sorry. There’s a lot speeders downtown, too. I think it’s time to realize that the city as a whole has issues, and we need to concentrate on all areas.”
Like DWI checkpoints, the placement of speed vans also had to meet certain roadway standards, Paulk said.
“A lot of people would say, ‘Why are they always on the south side of town?’ ” Paulk said, referring to the speed vans. “That’s where everything met the criteria where we could put them. It’s very similar with the DWI checkpoints.”
Paulk said he understands why some people would be skeptical.
“I could see from someone’s perspective where they could say, ‘I’m just not buying it, sir. I’m not buying it. I hear what you’re saying. I respect what you have to do, but I’m not buying it.’ There’s nothing I could really say to that person other than it is the truth.”
Paulk said the safety of officers and the public is paramount.
“We have to put it in an area where it is safe for the driver to go in and out, where it is safe for the officers to take people in and out of, and more importantly, that the geography supports the resources that we have to bring … to the location,” he said.
At the checkpoint Tuesday night on Camino Carlos Rey, there were at least 10 police cruisers, three motorcycles and at least a dozen officers and safety aides. Paulk said checkpoints are funded with state and federal grants, not the city’s general fund.
“These officers, including myself, will file for time-and-a-half with the city and then the city will draw down from those federal funds,” he said. “Therefore, the city is not out anything.”
While DWI checkpoints require significant resources, they generate few, if any, arrests, documents show.
Of the nine checkpoints conducted in 2016, for example, police arrested only one person on suspicion of driving under the influence. The number of arrests were higher in the past two years, though. The 10 checkpoints conducted in 2017 resulted in six arrests, and eight checkpoints conducted so far in 2018 led to eight arrests, including one Tuesday night.
Paulk said the DWI checkpoints are not necessarily about enforcement.
“It’s more about education, awareness and making sure that those individuals who pass through know that we care about lives,” he said.
Police check for other infractions besides drunken driving at checkpoints.
“We were also checking driver licenses and registrations and even checking for proper installation of baby car seats,” police spokesman Greg Gurulé wrote on the police department’s Facebook page, which announced Tuesday night that a DWI checkpoint was in progress but didn’t specify the location. “It’s all about keeping our streets safer.”
At the checkpoint, several motorists thanked police as they drove away.
“We get that a lot at these checkpoints where we’ll have citizens drive by and say, ‘Thank you for being here,’ ” Paulk said. “The biggest reason why they say that is because they see a lot of impaired drivers on the roadway, and they want us out here more often than what we are.”
Paulk said police plan to conduct more checkpoints in the future, including two on the city’s north side next year.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.