DUI arrests spiking

But cops also cracking down on traffic scofflaws in Oak Park

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By BILL DWYER

If you're drunk and considering getting behind the wheel of a car, Oak Park police have a simple message for you: "Don't do it."

Last October, Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley and his three deputies sat down with village trustees for a lengthy study session. Among the issues brought up was a widely held perception that drivers are increasingly ignoring such traffic laws as pedestrian right of way in crosswalks, No Turn On Red signs, lane usage and stop signs.

"I wanted to get tougher not only on DUI, but to crack down on just the general disrespect for traffic laws in the village," said Tanksley.

The result has been an exponential increase in DUI arrests. In the first 11 months of 2005, 28 people were arrested for DUI in Oak Park. As of Monday, 70 drivers have been arrested for the offense in 2006.

It helps to have young, aggressive officers on the street, and Oak Park does. Two of those officers, Michael Murphy and Paul Fellows, are responsible for more than half of those arrests?#34;Murphy with 23, Fellows 20. During roll call last Wednesday night, the two were presented with certificates of appreciation for their efforts.

Fellows said last week that he doesn't approach the job with anything outside of regular police awareness.

"It's thinking, looking, observing," he said.

He says he isn't lusting to put another arrest notch on his belt.

"The last thing I want to do is write a ticket. The thing is to gain compliance. I want you to get home safe."

Some people, though, make the streets anything but safe.

"I think there are some individuals who are determined to drink and drive no matter what we do," Tanksley said. People such as the 36-year-old woman who struck another car on Harlem near Augusta Boulevard in February, then sped away. After swerving numerous times into oncoming traffic and attracting police from Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park, she pulled a U-turn before running into a Forest Park squad car.

The woman, who at first refused to exit her SUV after the accident, had slurred speech and an empty alcohol bottle in her car. Besides aggravated DUI, she was found to be driving on a revoked license and had no proof of insurance.

Due to previous DUI convictions, the charges against her were upgraded to felonies, something made possible by new Cook County State's Attorney guidelines released Jan. 1, 2006. Under those new guidelines, police can bump DUI charges to felony status when suspects have prior convictions for DUI or are driving on revoked or suspended licenses when arrested.

"I think for these repeat offenders, there needs to be more jail time," said Tanksley. "Maybe that will curb their behavior."

Then again, maybe not. Two weeks later, River Forest police stopped a 48-year-old northwest suburban man for reckless driving who they say was driving both under the influence of alcohol and on a revoked license. The man had five prior DUI convictions and seven prior convictions for driving on a revoked license. He now faces serious prison time if convicted.

A side effect of the increased traffic enforcement has been the increased apprehension of people driving on revoked or suspended licenses and/or with no insurance, what said Tanksley called "associated charges."

Oak Park police ran another Roadside Safety Check last Friday night from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m.?#34;their fourth of the year. The six-officer operation yielded two DUIs, seven arrests for driving on revoked or suspended licenses, as well as eight tickets for uninsured vehicles and two seat belt violations.

Tanksley said his department will continue to put pressure on people risking other people's lives by driving irresponsibly.

"It just wrecks families," he said. "It's such a senseless taking of life."

James Doerr's life, for instance, ended early on Feb. 6, 1990, as he was attempting to cross the street near the corner of Clinton and Roosevelt on his way to the Berwyn VFW Hall. Unfortunately, at that same moment, 30-year-old Stanley DeBlase was driving westbound on Roosevelt on his way home to Forest Park after celebrating his birthday by allegedly drinking in Cicero, according to police. Doerr was run down and killed.

DeBlase was arrested three weeks later and eventually received six years in prison for leaving the scene of an accident involving death. Doerr's large Oak Park family was left to go on without him.

'I don't drink'

Officer Paul Fellows' 20th DUI arrest this year came Sunday night around 2:30 a.m. in the 6200 block of Roosevelt Road after he noticed a Cadillac parked illegally more than 12 inches from the curb with the engine running, lights on and driver slumped in the seat. When he pulled behind the car and flashed first his lights, then his sidelight, he got no response.

Looking in the rolled-down driver's window, Fellows allegedly smelled alcohol and saw a plastic cup filled with brown liquid in the center console. He knocked on the door several times before rousing the driver, Albert Ronnel, 37, who allegedly swayed and leaned on the car for support as he exited the car. Fellows reported he could smell alcohol "from five to seven feet away" from Ronnel, who, he said, had slurred speech, blood-shot eyes and difficulty walking. When Fellows asked Ronnel if he'd been drinking, Ronnel reportedly answered, "I don't drink."

After Ronnel refused a field sobriety test, Fellows arrested him and photographed the cup of brown alcoholic liquid allegedly found in the car. Ronnel reportedly refused a breathalyzer test back at the station, which will almost certainly earn him a six-month license suspension. Whether he is convicted of actually driving drunk will be up to the court system.

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