CHARLOTTE, NC (Anna Douglas/The Charlotte Observer) - At first glance, it looks a lot like a drunk driving sting.
Police waiting in a parking lot, looking for drunk people – especially the ones headed toward a car with keys in their hand.
A police officer pulls them aside and asks if they're too intoxicated to drive, and how they're planning on getting home.
"At first, they think this is a joke. Something's up. They'll say, 'You're trying to trick us,'" says Chief Michael Crowley, head of Alcohol Beverage Control law enforcement in Mecklenburg County.
But, officers with Operation Safe Streets aren't arresting people.
Instead, a team of about a dozen police officers work in pairs around Mecklenburg County to stop people before they drink and drive. Police officers identify themselves, tell people they are not under arrest and will even help them pay for a ride home if they don't have money.
Operation Safe Streets has prevented 600 people from driving impaired since the program began about two years ago, Crowley said. None of those people were handcuffed. Most of them, Crowley said, will admit they've drank too much to drive safely.
In Huntersville, officers once found a man asleep, laying on the pavement, near his car. He told them he was taking a nap and would be fine to drive home. But, officers saw he was too drunk to drive safely and called him a ride. His car stayed behind.
Recently, Crowley stopped a college student from driving home from a bar on Montford Drive, a popular entertainment district in south Charlotte. The young woman was fumbling with her keys and having trouble opening her car door.
"Her friends had left. She was extremely intoxicated," Crowley said. "That would be like a bullet, coming out of gun, going down (Interstate) 77."
Montford and its dozens of restaurants and bars are usually in the Operation Safe Streets weekend rotation. ABC officers target popular bars, concert venues and crowded nightlife areas, typically on Friday and Saturday nights. Past locations around Charlotte include NoDa, downtown/Uptown, Ballantyne and Wilkinson Boulevard.
During Thanksgiving and Christmas, drunk driving enforcement is more common, Crowley said. But, traditional DUI and DWI checkpoints will likely only stop a small percentage of dangerous, impaired driving, he said.
A checkpoint – where multiple police agencies block roadways, stop drivers, check IDs and give blood-alcohol breath tests – is a large investment of officer time and department resources. An all-night effort with at least 25 officers might log a dozen drunk driving arrests.
And, lately, Crowley said, checkpoints are increasingly thwarted by social media and other forms of mass, instant communication. Once the word gets out about a checkpoint location, he said, the chances of catching drunk drivers goes down because people can take alternative routes.
Checkpoints target drivers who may be under the influence of alcohol and drugs. In North Carolina, where more than 300 people die annually in crashes caused by impaired driving, the legal blood alcohol content limit is .08. The amount of alcohol a person may consume and remain under the limit varies depending on a number of factors, including weight, overall health and gender.
Operation Safe Streets, Crowley said, has intercepted people of all ages and walks of life from driving impaired. Officers are also increasing their focus on pedestrian safety by finding rides for people who are intoxicated and planning to walk home.
ABC of Mecklenburg County has partnered with three local taxi companies to provide ride vouchers for intoxicated people who shouldn't drive home but cannot afford a cab. Officers also use Lyft and Uber.
Most often, though, Crowley said, the people officers find drunk in parking lots have a friend or family member they can call for a ride. He estimates the agency has spent about $450 on transportation. ABC law enforcement is mostly funded through the controlled sale of liquor at North Carolina ABC stores. The officers are also responsible for policing underage alcohol sales, retail ABC permits and alcohol education and safety classes.
Aside from an advantage to public safety, Crowley said Operation Safe Streets is helping reduce a backlog of court cases, as well as hospital and jail costs associated with drunk driving.