JANESVILLE — Jerry Fuchs is sober and looking forward to September.
That’s when the retired General Motors worker will have his name, address and mug shot removed from a website created by the Janesville Police Department that maps city residents who have five or more drunken driving convictions.
Fuchs, 54, has seven convictions, has served a combined three years in jail and prison and wasn’t pleased to join 54 other city residents on the infamous interactive map launched in late 2010.
“People are going to think what they think,” Fuchs said last week. “I don’t think it does anything but smear my name around again.”
Police Chief David Moore has little sympathy for Fuchs and others who are represented by a blue dot on the Project Sober Streets map.
We live in a state where, in 2011, 225 of the 565 deaths on state roadways were alcohol-related, according to the state Department of Transportation. The breakdown for the 600 fatalities in 2012 will, if history is any indicator, likely result in similar numbers.
The Project Sober Streets program, which also lists the status of the offender’s driver’s license, is designed to identify problem offenders, encourage city residents to keep an eye out for those who shouldn’t be driving and create a shaming effect, which could be an effective deterrent for some offenders.
Moore acknowledges the map won’t stop drunken driving in his city but says it is one of the many tools his department uses to combat the deadly problem. City residents with five or more convictions but whose last conviction is more than five years old are removed from the map. Those who are incarcerated are also removed because they are not a threat to the community.
“We realize that a lot of these offenders live in anonymity in our community,” Moore said. “People didn’t know the depth of this problem and the sheer numbers of intoxicated drivers among us.”
Moore was also surprised when he first saw the numbers.
He and the project’s coordinator, Leslie Reid, initially requested data from the DOT for Rock County residents with four or more convictions. They thought they would get a few hundred driver’s license numbers and easily pick out the Janesville residents. The query resulted in 1,054 offenders.
They then narrowed their request to the city of Janesville, but the 391 offenders in the database would have been too overwhelming to manage. When the query went to five or more drunken driving convictions, they found 192. Of those,
74 had their last conviction within five years, but 19 were in jail or prison. That left 55 to research and map. It takes three to four weeks to update the map once a year.
“We didn’t want the project to focus on people that have corrected their actions, so that’s why we put the five-year limit in place,” Reid said. “We have to look up every single (driver’s license), get the
driving history and verify their address. We do the legwork to make sure we
have the most accurate (information)
possible before we put this out on a website.”
The map is believed to be the only one of its kind in the nation. The West Allis Police Department has a map that shows the location of liquor licenses and where drunken driving arrests have been made, but the map doesn’t provide as much detail on offenders. Neither the Janesville nor West Allis maps have the ability to show where the offenders drive on a regular basis.
But any map that shows convictions, whether it’s those offenders with one or 10, is showing only a fraction of the problem. The majority of drunken driving arrests in the state (there were 28,213 convictions in 2011) are first-time offenses, and many of those caught the first time have likely driven dozens of other times while intoxicated, said Nina Emerson, director of the Resource Center on Impaired Driving at UW-Madison.
“A lot of drunk drivers are good (drivers) because they do it all the time. It is so pervasive, but law enforcement is really limited in what they can do,” said Emerson, who is supportive of mapping projects. “Awareness is part of the whole equation. I think it really puts it out there in the public, which is a very good thing.”
Emerson said other steps that should be taken to address drunken driving include raising the state’s beer tax (currently at $2 per barrel), which hasn’t gone up since 1969; requiring more jail time for convicted drunken drivers and finding a way for bartenders to be more proactive in preventing overconsumption.
Fuchs doesn’t believe the map is a deterrent, and he is critical of the state’s drunken driving laws that for those with three or more convictions reduces the legal definition of intoxicated to a 0.02 percent blood alcohol level instead of 0.08 percent.
“I don’t mind paying my debt to society and being responsible for my actions,” Fuchs said. “When you can have one beer and be arrested for drunk driving, it’s ridiculous.”
After the Janesville map, with its unflattering mug shots, was updated in August, the number of dots was reduced to 51. The offenders are scattered throughout the city and include some who continue to make the news.
In December, Peter C. Smith, 29, of Janesville, was arrested on his eighth drunken driving charge after he allegedly ran a red light with his red Chevrolet Beretta. Police say he had a blood alcohol level of 0.15 percent.
“Each community should assess their threats,” Moore said. “For Janesville, (the map is) a worthwhile project.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.