Tuesday, September 26, 2023

ABC Board awards over $100,000 to local law enforcement

New grant program is created to curb alcohol-related violations

The ABC Board created a new grant program and awarded more than $100,000 to local law enforcement toward their efforts to curb alcohol-related violations. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County ABC Board awarded $104,320 to local law enforcement Thursday in its newly created Law Enforcement Annual Grant (LEAG) program. The ABC Board already distributes 5% of its profits to police departments but has taken an extra step to financially aid officers in curbing local alcohol-related incidents.

“If what we did got 10 drunk drivers off the road with these grants, it was worth every bit of money this board spent,” ABC general manager Charles Hill said, “because one drunk driver that we catch may save three lives.”

For fiscal year 2022, the ABC Board allocated $150,000 to all five local police jurisdictions: Wilmington Police Department, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, Wrightsville Police Department, Carolina Beach Police Department and Kure Beach Police Department.

Annually, the ABC Board distributes a portion of its profits to the municipalities, based on alcohol sales within the bars, restaurants, and ABC retail stores located within their districts. Those funds are not ear-marked specifically for alcohol law enforcement, and Hill explained there is no accountability associated.

“The community knows they get it, but they don’t know where it goes,” Hill said. “But when we do these grant programs, we can show the community, this is what is going toward alcohol deterrence, drug awareness, the whole nine yards.”

Only three departments applied for the LEAG funding, which had a cap of $50,000 per recipient. Each received its requested amount:.

  • Wrightsville Police Department: $50,000
  • Carolina Beach Police Department: $50,000 
  • New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office: $4,320

The program is in its first year and took longer than anticipated to get off the ground, finance director Kathy Clark said. Since the ABC board has not previously created a grant program, the process took nearly two years to enact to ensure it ran smoothly. Hill said they mimicked a platform used by Mecklenburg County, which took administrative set up time. 

When the next cycle opens in April, Clark said she expects all five of the local police departments, need pending, to apply. Hill also said things should run smoothly moving forward, now that the program is in place.

Hill said the goal of the grants is for law enforcement to incorporate innovative methods into their alcohol enforcement and eventually include them in future budgets. 

“We’re kind of poking the bear so to speak,” he said. “If they see the process is working for them, they’ll put it in their budgets and come back and ask for something else. The more we can get that initiative out there, we can continue to curb alcohol misuse.”

Each department must present its metrics and use of grant money in July.

New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office

The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office requested funding to purchase 12 subscriptions of Intellicheck, an app that scans identification cards to verify legitimacy. When an ID barcode is scanned, within two seconds the program responds with a color and distinctive tone indicating if the ID is valid (green), expired (yellow) or fake (red).

In 2016, the sheriff’s department and ABC board partnered to install this program on every register throughout liqour stores to prevent the underaged purchase of alcohol.

“It’s worked flawlessly,” Lt. Joe Jewell said.

In January, ABC Stores scanned more than 2,600 IDs and were able to catch 125 fake ones.

Prior to this service, clerks had to use the traditional method of simply checking a person’s date of birth. Hill confirmed it was nearly impossible to spot fake IDs before Intellicheck.

The sheriff’s office tested 12 similar programs, all claiming to be able to spot fake IDs, according to Jewell. But Intellicheck was the only one that worked accurately — and it works directly with the creators of every state ID barcode, including military IDs.

The subscription is discounted for law enforcement at $30 per month. New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office plans to use the grant funds to cover a 12-month period.

Seven of the subscriptions will be managed by Sheriffs Alcohol Field Enforcement (SAFE) officers, who enforce alcohol violations through traffic stops.

“Normally we would have to call in an ID and wait for a response to confirm or deny it,” Jewell said. “We would have to go off the name, date of birth, address and make sure it all matches. With this, within a few seconds, they can determine if it’s fake.”

Five of the subscriptions would be assigned to officers in the Downtown Task Force, a collaborative effort formed in 2016 by the county sheriff’s office and Wilmington Police Department.

“These are officers working the bar district, where there is the biggest concentration of fraudulent IDs caught usually,” Jewell said.

Sheriff Ed McMahon has already approved continuing the Intellicheck service in future budgets.

Carolina Beach Police Department

Carolina Beach Police Department Chief Vic Ward requested $50,000 for the beach town to purchase additional equipment to help catch underaged drinking and more drunk drivers.

“Limited resources that are maxed out in busy summer months hinder targeted strategies designed to deter alcohol impairment and enforce alcohol laws,” Ward wrote in his grant application.

Ward’s plan for the grant money will include:

  • School-based educational program every six months
  • One sobriety checkpoint per month
  • Conducting two high-visibility saturation patrols weekly in high-use, high-risk areas
  • Track alcohol-related metrics — number of stops due to impaired driving or underaged drinking, and percentage of stops resulting in an alcohol- or drug-related offense.

To implement these programs, Carolina Beach police will purchase two LDR guns, handheld laser instruments that can hone in on a particular speeding vehicle, for $2,336 each. It also will buy three additional portable breath testing instruments, each costing about $785.

The portable breathalyzers would be utilized by Carolina Beach officers, who are required to perform active on-foot observations along the boardwalk and engage with local bar owners and patrons. 

Ward said even a visible presence helps mitigate alcohol violations. It makes people drinking think twice about driving after overconsumption or trying to purchase liquor when underaged.

“By seeing people and knowing them not just by face but by name, that’s a good deterrent for those businesses,” Ward said. “By employees knowing the officers, I think it’s important.”

The department is also looking to buy $4,000 mobile tower lights for when officers make traffic stops. They provide a more well-lit atmosphere than a flashlight, which assists with safety as well as locating open containers in vehicles.

Surveillance vehicles — models people don’t automatically equate to law enforcement — are also on Ward’s wish list.

“The purpose is multifold,” he said. “We can pull up at an establishment we have problems with … and people aren’t saying, ‘Oh man, law enforcement is out there looking at us.’”

Wrightsville Beach Police Department

Wrightsville Beach Police Department Chief David Squires told ABC board members 30 New Hanover County residents have been killed over the last four years due to impaired driving accidents. 

Squires said his team of roughly 25 made 179 DWI arrests in 2019 and 74 in 2020. The number went down during the height of the pandemic due to stay-at-home orders and the shutdown of bars and restaurants. It jumped up again to 102 in 2021

Squires’ mission for the department’s grant money is to allocate resources to more sobriety checkpoints, in hopes of reducing the rate and severity of DWI offenders and associated vehicle crashes.

“One of the ways we can do a better job at arresting is being more proactive and engaging in highly visible traffic safety checkpoints,” he said. “There is good evidence to suggest that checkpoints — well publicized, well known by the public — can produce as much as a 20% decrease in DWI offenses.”

He added that more checkpoints lead to more arrests, but the department often faces a shortage of personnel to cover all these additional measures. He said overtime funding is one of the department’s greatest needs to be able to address more proactive initiatives.

“We want to increase the perceived cost for DWI, the likelihood of getting arrested,” he said. “And we want the public to see us doing it.”

With additional funding, Squires said he can also purchase a visible digital message board, costing $15,460, to communicate to the public, 50 orange cones and additional safety lighting, all to conduct checkpoints.

Additional personnel would also be useful during peak beach season, he said. In 2020, Wrightsville officers cited nearly 1,800 people, a 30% increase compared to the prior year. The chief said the citations could prevent offenders from getting into their vehicles.

Beaches attract underaged drinking, and kids under 18 are more likely to hang out at night than attempt to gain entry into local bars. As a way to target offenders stealthily, Squires said portable night vision goggles, with 500-foot visibility, would allow them to conduct additional surveillance without giving away their status.

“If we have on our headlights coming down the beach, they see us long before we see them,” he said.

The night vision tools, with three-time amplified lenses, would cost the department around $4,000 each.

“This is a process,” Squires said. “We’re probably going to see some things work and some things that could work better.”

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