By Jacob Mathias
I’m not sure where to begin with this one.
It was a week of highs and lows at the Portage County Emergency Services Citizen’s Academy. Normally, I’d try and keep it light, talk about the fun activities we do and make a make a joke about how I’m too big to fit in the back seat of a cop car (I am). This week I’ve got something on my mind.
When we met on Thursday, we spent about half our class discussing OWI procedures and statistics. I read a lot of police reports and criminal complaints — normally I see an OWI, I shrug my shoulders and write it down on the daily blotter. Individually, an OWI doesn’t seem like much to most of us. We say things like, “Hopefully they learned their lesson,” and, “At least no one got hurt,” but that isn’t the reality of the situation.
Did you know Wisconsin is the only state where someone’s first OWI isn’t a criminal offense? I didn’t. The charge does go up if your blood-alcohol level is above 0.15, but it’s no different than getting any other ticket.
Everybody makes mistakes, but it doesn’t seem like enough of a punishment, considering the possible outcomes of drunk driving, and what the rest of the country has deemed an appropriate response to the offense.
The average drunk driver gets behind the wheel 80 times before they’re caught. Why is this? There aren’t enough cops. There just simply isn’t enough money, or enough officers, to adequately enforce OWI laws. The Stevens Point Police Department are so busy responding to myriad other calls they simply can’t be constantly present on the streets to patrol for drunk driving.
The only time they have enough officers dedicated to patrolling for drunk drivers is when they receive a grant to fund extra patrols not normally in the budget.
I don’t have a solution to this problem. I don’t write budgets. I don’t know what motivates people to drive after drinking when so much data shows how terribly dangerous it is for everyone. All I know is that I feel powerless to help.
On Saturday, our class participated in an emergency vehicle operations course: I got to drive a fire truck and a police car. Words can’t quite express how exciting and fun this was, but it was truly exhilarating.
Firetrucks are so big. I sat up in the seat and felt like a little boy pretending to drive his dad’s pickup. The steering wheel felt gigantic and I had rotate it so many times just to turn left. After driving through a simulated narrow alley comprised of traffic cones, I had to back the gigantic truck up through a serpentine course.
I’ll be honest: I hit all the cones. If there had been a building or other vehicles in my way, the Stevens Point Fire Department would have paid a lot in damages.
Driving the police car was much more fun. Getting to open the cars up on a straightaway and tear through turns on the obstacle course was so much fun and it certainly wakes you up at 8 AM on a Saturday morning.
Driving the car around 90 degree turns and dodging obstacles at the last second was difficult enough, but officers in pursuit have to be in constant communication with dispatch at the same time giving status updates, road and traffic conditions and coordinating with other officers about pursuit strategies. It’s a lot to juggle while engaging in a dangerous activity.
The end of our EVOC course had us simulating a police chase. We engaged in a fake traffic stop and after informing the driver they were under arrest, they took off. We sprinted back to the squad car, buckled in and took off.
Trying to keep up with a trained police officer wasn’t easy, but driving around corners at unsafe speeds was like being 16 again, racing friends down a county road (note to all 16-year-olds: please don’t do that).
It’s safe to say the whole class felt a lot younger for a little while on Saturday morning.
Stay tuned next week as I continue my education at the Citizens’ Academy.