At the September 16 council meeting the council failed to approve accepting a grant of $515,000 form the Office of Traffic Safety. The city has accepted such funds for the last 15 years.
The vote was 2-2, with Mayor Paul McNamara and councilmember Mike Morasco voting yes and members Olga Diaz and Consuelo Martinez voting not to accept the funds.
Escondido is one of the worst cities of its size in California in terms of serious car accidents.
Diaz and Martinez expressed concerns that such traffic stops target certain ethnicities and neighborhoods and don’t address root causes of the DUIs and traffic fatalities they aim to prevent.
Diaz asked if it was possible for traffic officers to be unarmed and for the money to be used for masks.
Chief Ed Varso replied that by state law traffic enforcement must be done by armed peace officers. The grant money may not be used for masks, he said. The traffic enforcements “target specific traffic safety problems we have, such as speeding, and running red lights. Ethnicity is not a factor in what action we take,” he said.
He noted that next month city police officers would be attending “principled policing” training.
Martinez said, “I pulled this item.” Last year she asked for more statistics about DUI checkpoints. “I don’t see anything about checkpoints being necessary. I know there are different ways to tackle drunk driving. There are saturation patrols. Some communities don’t have checkpoints and I’m sure they do receive funding.”
Varso said the department usually applies for the grants at the beginning of the year. The Office of Traffic Safety reviews its data and consults trends. The OTS “initially asked us for eight checkpoints. I thought eight was too much. I wanted us to focus more on saturation patrols.”
Diaz said, “Chief Varso, you know that checkpoints in Escondido have been controversial for many years and had a difficult past being used to tow cars of non-drunk drivers.” State law no longer allows police to confiscate cars, but she said checkpoints create bad feelings. “I understand we want to prevent drunk and distracted driving, but I don’t think checkpoint data is as effective as they say it is. You net more drunk drivers with saturation patrols. Over my dozen years here I’ve seen very little movement in these statistics. Are we doing anything to address the root cause? What are we doing to deal with the problem instead of these dragnets that hurt our reputation, especially when they are concentrated in certain parts of the city?”
Diaz wants more data: “Where do they get drunk? Do we have too many bars? Too many liquor licenses? I want to know root causes. We aren’t doing anything to address the root problem.”
Varso said they do collect some data such as that in 2019 22% of collisions were connected to intoxication. There were seven fatal accidents that year. “That puts Escondido as one of the worst cities for fatal accidents for cities of our size in California.”
The grant is also used for education campaigns and partnerships with MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving.)
Chief Varso said that at one time EPD was holding many checkpoints. “I asked staff what would happen if there were no checkpoints. The answer is we would lose a significant amount of funding including an officer who is used for DUI enforcement. I think it’s important to approach it from different levels.”
He said the department does look into where people become intoxicated. “Did it happen at a house or a bar? We can bring ABC into that to investigate.” Varso said causes are “a whole host of reasons, including casinos and parties. It is a very difficult problem and it really concerns me. The best approach is what we are doing, which is trying to hit it from every direction.”
Diaz wondered if most of those in such accidents are from Escondido or passing through.
“The image is that Escondido has a problem that other communities don’t. If I could see more data I would better be able to understand it better. I’ve gotten tired of asking because I never got it anyway.” She added, “Where are these drunk drivers sourced. I want to know more. Year after year nothing substantially changes. It’s been expressed that they are heavily placed in certain areas of the city. I’d like to get past that.”
Varso said a majority are Escondido residents. “It is mostly a local problem and checkpoints are based on where the DUI’s are.”
Morasco, who voted to accept the funding, said that the figure of 500 arrests per year “is mindboggling. You have to use the tools that you have.”