The group of officers enter the bar and immediately, everyone looks a little nervous — except for the bartender, who welcomes the group with a smile.
Within minutes, the patrons of Sunset Beach’s Pelican Isle are chatting with officers, snapping pictures and volunteering for breathalyzers as the theme song from the reality show “Cops” plays in the background.
On Sunday, Jan. 25, the Huntington Beach Police Department hosted its own version of “Sunday Fun-day”.
Five officers and two HBPD chaplains visited seven bars in and around Sunset Beach as part of its Know Your Limit campaign, which aims to educate bar patrons about how much alcohol can physically and mentally impair them.
Three Jack and cokes and one beer deep, Dan Williams was all about testing his breath alcohol level.
“I’ll do it, this is cool,” he said. The test came back .168% — a little more than twice the legal limit.
“So I’m drunk, then?” he asked the officers, laughing. Officers then got serious and explained how alcohol affects the body and what can happen when a person is impaired.
Good thing Williams, along with the rest of his party, walked to the bar.
The testing allows officers to get their message across about how alcohol affects the body, the dangers of drinking and driving, and how even walking or riding a bicycle while impaired can pose a safety risk.
“The officers are more interactive and approachable and, in some ways, are humanized during these kinds of outreach events,” said Sgt. Dave Dereszynski.
The Know Your Limit program is just one part of a public outreach campaign pioneered by the Huntington Beach Police Department to reduce alcohol-related collisions and fatalities.
“Alcohol plays a role in more than half of the fatal collisions the city sees every year”, Dereszynski said. “This is significantly higher than the national average of about 30 percent.”
Huntington Beach police have used grant funding from the Office of Traffic Safety to host checkpoints and saturation patrols to target impaired drivers for years, but within the last several months, the department has tapped into its creative side to change the way they approach the issue.
By marrying education with enforcement, Dereszynski said officers believe they can reduce the number of traffic fatalities related to impaired driving.
“We’re trying to shift the focus from enforcement to education, and the officers are really adapting to it,” Dereszynski said. “We are taking a multi-faceted approach to solving these issues.”
In addition to Know Your Limit, police have offered to visit residents’ homes to educate partygoers on the dangers of drinking and driving with their program, “Party with a Police Officer”.
Data suggests that many DUI drivers aren’t drinking at bars, but rather their own houses or a friend’s house, Dereszynski said.
“We would rather come to them and do the education than have no education at all,” he said.
They’ve also trained staff at local recovery homes on drug recognition and have amped up their bar and location checks, which includes patrolling parks and other public areas where people may be drinking.
“The OTS grant has also allowed us to train more officers to become Drug Recognition Experts (DREs), and by summer time, HBPD will have 14 DRE trained officers,” Dereszynski said.
The car is an old K-9 vehicle that was slated for retirement and has been revamped as an educational tool by Community Services Programs (CSP), which partners with the Huntington Beach Police Department.
The CSP grant has allowed the department to address underage drinking and it works to fill the gaps left behind by other enforcement and education elements.
On Jan. 25, dozens of people snapped photos with the car, which is exactly what Dereszynski said police want.
“It’s a good ice breaker,” he said. “This is a visual that sticks with you.”
“Anything that can bring more attention to alcohol and drug-related issues is a good thing.”
Todd Smith, who was enjoying the afternoon with his brother Sean at Schooner or Later, said he thought the vehicle would make people take notice and think twice about drinking and driving.
“It’s definitely eye-opening,” Smith said. “That’s education right there.”
The Huntington Beach Police hope these combined efforts will increase awareness for residents about the alcohol issues the city faces.
“The ultimate goal is to have zero alcohol related collisions and fatalities,” Dereszynski said. “For that to happen, we will need the cooperation and support of the residents and visitors who come to this destination city.”