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Providence lags smaller cities in DUI arrests

It started as a night out with friends in Providence.

But it came to a crashing end in the early morning hours of Nov. 13.

“I was rear-ended pretty hard. Hard enough where my car ended up on the other side of the intersection,” said driver Jena Rossignol.

Rossignol and her passenger escaped with whiplash.

But when the women got out of their car at Hope Street and Doyle Avenue, she said there was a bigger problem.

“I found out that the driver was drunk, very drunk. It was so obvious. He was slurring his words. He was bobbling, wobbly. He passed out at one point in the car, in the passenger seat,” Rossignol said.

Rossignol said the officer at the scene told her that no one was available to give the other driver a breath test.

“I couldn’t believe it. And I said, ‘Well, can you get someone who is certified for a Breathalyzer?’ And he said nobody is certified right now who’s on duty,” she said.

NBC 10 obtained a copy of the police report that said no alcohol or drug tests were given. It also said that both drivers were in “apparently normal condition”.

“He didn’t even do a sobriety test. And I even made sure that that police officer saw how drunk he was,” Rossignol said.

NBC 10 uncovered the actual number of officers certified to run Breathalyzers in communities around the state.

  • Warwick — 119 officers are certified or 73 percent of the force
  • Cranston — 95 officers are certified or about 70 percent of the force
  • Woonsocket — 53 officers are certified or 58 percent of the force
  • East Providence — 42 officers are certified or about 50 percent of the force
  • Pawtucket — 65 officers are certified or about 40 percent of its department

In the state’s largest city, only 20 Providence officers are certified to run Breathalyzer machines. With about 477 officers, it’s about 4 percent of the force.

“You can stop as many people as you want. But if you’re not going to have people actually certified to do the testing, that’s a problem,” said Gabrielle Abbate of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Abbate said her concern goes beyond the Breathalyzers to the number of convictions.

In 2009, the most recent statewide data available, Providence took 85 drivers to court for driving while intoxicated or refusing a Breathalyzer.

Smaller communities, however, had much larger numbers.

  • Woonsocket — 166 were taken to court
  • Coventry — 165 were taken to court
  • Middletown — 122 were taken to court
  • Warwick — 371 were taken to court

“I think that that just says that they’re not putting a spotlight on DUI,” Abbate said. “If you listen to law enforcement officers that are in other communities, they’re arresting people that have come from Providence.”

NBC 10 asked the Providence Police Department why there was such a gap in the numbers.

“I’m not sure. It’s a good question. We’ll have to take a hard look,” said Col. Dean Esserman, chief of the Providence Police Department.

Esserman said when he took over the department eight years ago, violent crime was out of control and he was forced to shut down the department’s traffic division to deal with it.

“But it’s never enough, because in a big city you’re pulled so many different ways. We’ve put so much of an emphasis on bringing violence down in this city and we’ve succeeded,” he said.

Esserman said the city’s Breathalyzer numbers deserve a hard look. He said the department may have as many as 60 officers certified once new recruits hit the streets.

He also promised to find out what happened to Rosignol.

When asked if the police department could end up in a situation where nobody is available to administer a Breathalyzer test, Esserman said, “We need to make sure people are always available. This story that you’ve just brought to my attention will be investigated fully today.”

Rosignol said she got a call from Esserman following his interview with NBC 10.

She’s still concerned that more officers aren’t certified and more arrests aren’t being made.

“Isn’t that what their job is, to keep us safe? I don’t feel like I’m safe,” Rossignol said.

Esserman told NBC 10 that 13 Providence police officers just completed a special drug and alcohol recognition training. They’ll be certified in the next few months, which will mean more officers in the field who can spot impaired drivers.

He also said Providence’s DWI conviction numbers for 2010 were higher with more than 100 arrests, compared to 85 in 2009.

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