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Drug use boosting central Pa. DUIs

BELLEFONTE, Pa. - Police in this Centre County town made about 25 driving-under-the-influence arrests in 2009. This year, that many people have been cited for drug-related DUIs alone.

BELLEFONTE, Pa. - Police in this Centre County town made about 25 driving-under-the-influence arrests in 2009.

This year, that many people have been cited for drug-related DUIs alone.

Add that to the arrests for alcohol DUIs, and by the end of the year, the number will likely be pushing 100. By the second week of December, Bellefonte police had reached 93 DUI arrests.

"It is a big jump," Chief Shawn Weaver said.

He attributes the increase to several things. The department has two new, young, motivated officers working nights who are aware of Bellefonte's DUI problem.

And, as with most of the county's police forces, his officers have grown very aware this year of how frequently drivers are intoxicated with drugs rather than alcohol.

"It's more aggressive enforcement, proactive enforcement," Weaver said.

The percentage of drug-only DUIs is so large that Weaver is considering sending one of his own officers for training that would make him better able to recognize drug impairment.

Now, all seven Centre County police agencies - including two state police barracks - rely on one trooper at Rockview to do the in-field testing required to arrest someone for driving under the influence of drugs.

DUI arrests are skyrocketing across the county.

"It has not slowed down," said Sgt. Ryan Hendrick, who runs the Centre County Alcohol Task Force. "Really, the amount of details that we're doing has remained consistent over the years, just the DUI arrests seem to be going up."

Two months after the task force's grant was renewed, it had already made a third as many arrests as it made in the previous 12 months.

So even though funding for the program was cut, Hendrick said police were holding the number of checkpoints steady.

"We all know there is a problem with DUI enforcement, and we will continue to maintain or increase the activity that we have," he said.

"The problem's always been there," Weaver said. "I just think now we've got the right chemistry within the department. Five of our guys that work night shift are accounting for the majority of these numbers."

None of the arrests have been from checkpoints, but from traffic stops stemming from poor driving.

Whatever the reasons, word is out among locals in Bellefonte. Weaver said he hears that the community has taken notice.

"I took the job to make the town safe," he said. "And, obviously, drunk driving is an unsafe act, and it's an act that is so easy to not do. It's just a senseless crime."

Weaver knows his officers don't get to all of the people driving under the influence. He estimates the arrests probably account for one-tenth of intoxicated drivers.

Even on the Pennsylvania State University campus, where numbers decreased, Assistant Chief Tyrone Parham said: "You never really know the number of people that are drunk driving."

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said the biggest factor in the rising numbers was people impaired by drugs, legal and illegal.

"It's brand new," she said. "So, in the past, a police officer would pull somebody over who was acting bizarre, but say they passed a [portable breath test], they'd have to say, 'Well I don't know, but they're not drunk.' "

Now, instead of letting them go, a growing number of officers pick up the phone and call a trained drug-recognition expert.

"I'm surprised by that number," Parks Miller said. "It makes me wonder how many people got away with drug DUIs before."

At checkpoints, Hendrick, of the task force, said officers see the whole gamut - from people who take too many of their prescription pills to abuse of illegal drugs, and, most recently, a growing fad among teens using "fake drugs."