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More patrol for DUIs, distractions

Most days, Sgt. Shane Richard loves his job at the Becker County Sheriff's Department.

Then there are those days he dreads. The ones where a deadly automobile crash has him walking up somebody's steps with horrid news.

"It's almost like it's in slow motion," he said. "You know they have no idea why you're there, but you know how it's going to play out. You know you're about to ruin somebody's life."

Like most of his fellow officers, Richard has had to tell many people that their loved ones are not coming home.

In Becker County, the number of times this scenario is repeated bounces back and forth in the ebb and flow of fate. But although Becker County made the news last summer that it was on the not-so-distinguished list of the top 13 deadliest counties in the state for automobile crashes, the overall look isn't as glum as it can appear.

The list is compiled from the state's crash statistics over three years, and it is formulated by the number of deaths per capita. With less populated communities like Becker County, it only takes a few fatal crashes to send the county shooting up towards the top of the list. So what is the reality of the situation in the county?

According to the statistics from the Department of Public Safety, the number of accident-related deaths is averaging roughly the same over several years in Becker County, but the numbers of injuries actually seem to be trending down significantly.

"I think that's due to more public awareness of seatbelts, the fact that vehicles are just built better now and that drinking and driving isn't considered as acceptable as it used to be," said Richard.

In 2004, there were four deaths and 272 injuries; 2005 saw six deaths and 215 injuries; 2006 suffered four deaths and 243 injuries; in 2007, there were five deaths and 203 injuries, and in 2008 there were six deaths and 179 injured.

Reports indicate that in 2009 there were 10 deaths and 182 injured. In 201,0 those numbers dropped way down to one death and 140 injuries. And in 2011, there were four deaths and 167 injuries.

The 2009 through 2011 three year cycle may be the one that put Minnesota on the list, but these numbers can actually be encouraging to local law enforcement officers not just because injuries have jumped way down, but also because enduring the shame of being named one of the top 13 deadliest counties prove helpful when attaining funds to help drop the numbers even more.

The Becker County Sheriff's Department, in conjunction with the police departments in Detroit Lakes, Frazee and Lake Park/Audubon, has seen their Safe and Sober grants increase from $37,300 last year to $59,240 this year. And local officers know exactly what to do with that money.

"Ninety-nine percent of it is going for extra patrols," said Detroit Lakes Police Officer Sgt. Robert Strand, who is charged with scheduling the additional events for the Safe and Sober campaigns.

According to Strand, hundreds of extra overtime hours are being spent on the road from this past October when the grant cycle started to when it ends in September. He says area officers will have saturated the county with so many Safe and Sober Campaigns, the number of days spent in one year will equal two full months where extra patrols will be out targeting certain problems.

They've already conducted a "move over" day for Ted Foss, a Minnesota trooper killed while on a traffic stop.

"That's to remind drivers that whenever possible, to move over into the left lane when passing an officer that's pulled somebody over," said Strand.

There was also a seatbelt blitz in October and another one coming up in April and May. Officers spent a lot of extra hours in December targeting drunk drivers and will again in November, March, June and July, during which time they'll also have extra officers cracking down on speeders.

April will also see a "distracted driving" blitz where law enforcement will be specifically out looking for drivers not paying attention to the road.

"If we see people looking down for an extended period of time, we'll go after them, looking for texting and that kind of stuff," said Strand.

With all of these extra sets of eyes watching drivers, Becker County may certainly expect to see its arrest and traffic tickets numbers go up, but according to Richard, he hopes that translates into the more important numbers going down.

"I'd rather give out 100 tickets any day than to have to knock on someone's door and tell them their loved one is dead."

Officers will be sending out public notices before each campaign starts in the hopes drivers heed their warnings.

"Hopefully if people know we're out there looking for them, they'll call for a sober ride home," said Richard. "They'll wear their seatbelts and pay attention so that nobody else gets hurt."