911 calls from passing motorists help Texas police find drunk drivers

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by TERESA WOODARD

WFAA

Posted on March 6, 2013 at 11:29 AM

Emergency dispatchers hear the voices every day.

  • "Yeah you got a severely drunk person driving on Loop 12 northbound."
  • "I think this guy is drunk as a doorknob he's all over the highway."
  • "He is swerving all over the road. He almost hit us."
  • "They're so drunk they almost slammed into me."

These are real 911 calls from drivers who reported close calls with suspected drunken drivers. During many of the recordings, callers have to be transferred from one jurisdiction to another as the suspect zips across city lines. 

Callers may think no one's responding, but police departments say they're wrong.

"About once a month, I'll get a phone call from someone who says the exact same story... almost like reading from a script," said Mothers Against Drunk Driving Executive Director Jeff Miracle. "'I saw someone, they were swerving, looked like they'd been drinking and driving, so I called. I was on the phone for 30 minutes, I talked to people in four different cities, and in the end I just went home,'" he said describing the experiences people often relate to him.  

"I'm not sure what the answer is," Miracle said. "But I do know our police are out there every day trying to get people pulled over for drinking and driving and make the roads safer."

Police say handing off 911 calls from one jurisdiction to another are just a frustrating reality of living in a region with multiple major cities and police departments. 

But they don't want the calls to stop, because they work.

"In our department, there are actually five officers in the DWI unit. But there are literally thousands of cars passing through the city at any given minute, so we can't be in every portion of the city to intercept those drivers, so we rely on citizens to call 911," said Officer Steve Burres, who heads the city of Irving's DWI unit. "You're actually the eyes and ears of the police department. We can't be everywhere."

Calli McClendon wishes someone would've called 911 on November 17, 2009.

"She was on her way to pick up my little brother and sister, her youngest, from day care," Calli said, recalling the moments before her family changed forever.

Calli's mother, Donna Thornton Winters, was 44 years old with three adult children and two young ones: Luke was 2 and Lilly was just 11 months old. 

A drunken driver with a blood alcohol level four times the legal limit and two prior DUI convictions slammed into her vehicle and killed her in Ellis County. 

"There were a lot of things she missed right then," McClendon said. "My graduation; her youngest daughter's first birthday; my wedding."

Police said the man had been on the road almost an hour before the crash.

"Ultimately, it was God's plan," McClendon said.  "Even if someone had called that night, they might not have gotten there before it happened."  

But McClendon hopes everyone will call whenever they spot a potentially impaired driver. 

"I've called on people before, and I've stayed behind them until the cops get there," she said. "You can hurt other people. Those are innocent people. They didn't have any say in whether you got behind the wheel."

The City of Irving alone got 181,873 emergency 911 calls last year. While the department does not keep statistics detailing exactly how many were reports of drunken drivers, Burres estimates it's between 2,300 and 2,500.

"It's a pretty common thing," said dispatcher Tracy Pulley.  Operators are highly trained to quiz callers, then relay each piece of information they get to officers on the streets, even officers in nearby cities.

"The vehicle descriptions, colors, license plates," she said explaining what they like to hear from callers. "We'll ask if they're heading to Fort Worth or Dallas. We'll ask people if they feel safe to follow. But that's up to them," she said.

Burres said the best information to help police find a suspect are streets and landmarks.  

"Give us a good physical description of the vehicle," he said. "If you can safely follow them, then do so,"

"I know the five of us in our section will actually leave the city because the safety of the public and protection of human life is much more important than [jurisdiction].  We can hammer out in court who has jurisdiction. But to get this bad driver stopped, I'll leave the city of Irving and go to Fort Worth or down 360 into Arlington or into Dallas and get them stopped.  And then we'll worry who is going to assume that arrest," Burres added.

Emergency call recordings prove that officers do follow through. 

"I see a cop now," said one caller. "OK he's pulling in behind him now."

Police say reports from the public often lead to arrests.

"It's almost a nightly thing," said Burres. 

But so is the grief for Calli McClendon. It's nightly, daily, always.

"She had a smile that would brighten up a room," she said. "I think that's one of the things I miss the most.  How she could smile and, you know, moms have the words to say to make every situation better."

E-mail twoodard@wfaa.com

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