CASPER — Are police officers targeting public drunks or are Casper residents simply drinking-and-walking more?
Look at public-intoxication arrest statistics for the past six years, and it’s a legitimate question.
The numbers increased steadily from 2004, when police arrested 370 for being drunk in public, to 2008, when 771 were arrested.
Complete numbers for 2009 aren’t yet available, but by the end of August, roughly 550 people had been handcuffed for public intoxication. Chief Tom Pagel said in October the department was on pace for 850 this year.
That same month, Pagel defended the city’s policy of arresting and incarcerating offenders when a city councilman suggested that police have a “body count” mentality.
“I think when you’re arresting people for walking home, you’re promoting drunk driving,” Ward 1 Councilman Keith Goodenough said in October. “That’s counterproductive.”
Pagel, though, called public intoxication a major public-safety concern.
“The underlying issue here is (that) we have an alcohol problem in Casper,” Pagel said. “We have too many drunk drivers (and) a casual attitude toward alcohol.”
Sgt. Steve Schulz, an 11-year veteran of the Police Department who currently leads investigations, said any idea that officers spend time looking for public drunks isn’t logical.
In fact, he said, most public-intoxication arrests are the result of residents calling in and reporting a specific individual. “The police department doesn’t go out and specifically look for people to arrest for public intoxication,” he said Wednesday.
Aiming to prove the point, Schulz offered some simple math.
Within any 24-hour period, Casper has up to 24 officers on the street and the department fields between 400 and 500 calls — an average of 16 per officer per shift.
“Each call consumes about 45 minutes of their time,” Schulz said. “Do you think police officers have time to go looking for intoxicated people?”
Schulz added that in his experience, “the guy who just smells like he’s drank a beer, he doesn’t go to jail.”
Someone being unruly in public, however, posing a danger to themselves or someone else, “that guy generally ends up going to jail.”
Reporter Pete Nickeas contributed to this story.