Drinking in Charlotte? Police may be waiting for you in the parking lot.

Officers stop people before they get DWIs in Charlotte

ABC Officers W. Long and L. Riley patrol the streets on the Friday night and Saturday morning shift as part of the Operation Safe Streets program. Through the program, officers are helping people avoid DWIs when they are drunk before they get into
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ABC Officers W. Long and L. Riley patrol the streets on the Friday night and Saturday morning shift as part of the Operation Safe Streets program. Through the program, officers are helping people avoid DWIs when they are drunk before they get into

At first glance, it looks a lot like a drunken driving sting.

Police waiting in a parking lot, looking for drunk people – especially the ones headed toward a car with keys in their hand.

A police officer pulls them aside and asks if they’re too intoxicated to drive, and how they’re planning on getting home.

“At first, they think this is a joke. Something’s up. They’ll say, ‘You’re trying to trick us,’” says Chief Michael Crowley, head of Alcohol Beverage Control law enforcement in Mecklenburg County.

But, officers with Operation Safe Streets aren’t arresting people.

Instead, a team of about a dozen police officers work in pairs around Mecklenburg County to stop people before they drink and drive. Police officers identify themselves, tell people they are not under arrest and will even help them pay for a ride home if they don’t have money.

Operation Safe Streets has prevented 600 people from driving impaired since the program began about two years ago, Crowley said. None of those people were handcuffed. Most of them, Crowley said, will admit they’ve drunk too much to drive safely.

In Huntersville, officers once found a man asleep, laying on the pavement, near his car. He told them he was taking a nap and would be fine to drive home. But, officers saw he was too drunk to drive safely and called him a ride. His car stayed behind.

Mecklenburg County Alcohol Beverage Control law enforcement officers have increased patrols in bar parking lots and popular nightlife districts to prevent drunk driving. Officer W. Long shakes hands with a person who was drinking alcohol near his car Friday night and consented to a blood alcohol breath test to ensure he was not too intoxicated to drive. The test showed the man was under the North Carolina legal limit. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Recently, Crowley stopped a college student from driving home from a bar on Montford Drive, a popular entertainment district in south Charlotte. The young woman was fumbling with her keys and having trouble opening her car door.

“Her friends had left. She was extremely intoxicated,” Crowley said. “That would be like a bullet, coming out of gun, going down (Interstate) 77.”

Montford and its dozens of restaurants and bars are usually in the Operation Safe Streets weekend rotation. ABC officers target popular bars, concert venues and crowded nightlife areas, typically on Friday and Saturday nights. Past locations around Charlotte include NoDa, uptown, Ballantyne and Wilkinson Boulevard.

During Thanksgiving and Christmas, drunken driving enforcement is more common, Crowley said. But, traditional DUI and DWI checkpoints will likely only stop a small percentage of dangerous, impaired driving, he said.

A checkpoint – where multiple police agencies block roadways, stop drivers, check IDs and give blood-alcohol breath tests – is a large investment of officer time and department resources. An all-night effort with at least 25 officers might log a dozen drunk driving arrests.

And, lately, Crowley said, checkpoints are increasingly thwarted by social media and other forms of mass, instant communication. Once the word gets out about a checkpoint location, he said, the chances of catching drunken drivers goes down because people can take alternative routes.

Checkpoints target drivers who may be under the influence of alcohol and drugs. In North Carolina, where more than 300 people die annually in crashes caused by impaired driving, the legal blood alcohol content limit is .08. The amount of alcohol a person may consume and remain under the limit varies depending on a number of factors, including weight, overall health and gender.

Operation Safe Streets, Crowley said, has intercepted people of all ages and walks of life from driving impaired. Officers are also increasing their focus on pedestrian safety by finding rides for people who are intoxicated and planning to walk home.

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Mecklenburg County Alcohol Beverage Control law enforcement officers work late nights around Charlotte to check people leaving bars and restaurants who may be too intoxicated to drive. The officers focus on preventing impaired driving and arrange for safe drives for people too drunk to drive home. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

ABC of Mecklenburg County has partnered with three local taxi companies to provide ride vouchers for intoxicated people who shouldn’t drive home but cannot afford a cab. Officers also use Lyft and Uber.

Most often, though, Crowley said, the people officers find drunk in parking lots have a friend or family member they can call for a ride. He estimates the agency has spent about $450 on transportation. ABC law enforcement is mostly funded through the controlled sale of liquor at North Carolina ABC stores. The officers are also responsible for policing underage alcohol sales, retail ABC permits and alcohol education and safety classes.

Aside from an advantage to public safety, Crowley said Operation Safe Streets is helping reduce a backlog of court cases, as well as hospital and jail costs associated with drunken driving.

And, the program has helped officers identify bars where employees serve alcohol to customers who are already intoxicated – which is illegal under North Carolina law and can cause a business to temporarily lose its liquor license or pay a fine.

Anna Douglas: 704-358-5078, @ADouglasNews