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Special KCPD Unit Focuses on Saving Lives, One Drunk at a Time You Don't Want to Meet These Cops This Holiday Season

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Above image credit: A Kansas City police officer administers a sobriety field test. (Courtesy | Kansas City Police Department)
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9 minute read

You could say that Kansas City police officer Douglas Davidson is a bit of an overachiever.

Fellow officers describe him as “very tenacious,” “an excellent time manager” and “self-motivated.” He’ll offer a wry smile to concede the assessments.

You could be on the receiving end of Davidson’s work ethic: If you’re foolish enough to tempt fate on the streets of Kansas City, to drive drunk or what’s increasingly popular, to mix and match pot with booze.

Under those circumstances, it’s more likely that you’ll meet Davidson than other officers – especially at night. He prefers the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift. It allows him to arrest record numbers of impaired drivers and get home to greet his young children as they awaken, then feed them breakfast.

Officer Davidson has the distinction of arresting more people for drunk or otherwise impaired driving than any other member of law enforcement in Missouri. He achieved that notation by making 260 driving while intoxicated or impaired arrests in 2020. (He’s already surpassed 300 for 2021).

The officer in second place wasn’t even close, posting 190 arrests last year. That officer, Jordan Infranca, is also with KCPD’s DUI (Driving Under the Influence) unit. 

In fact, six of the top seven officers cited in data compiled by the Law Enforcement Traffic Safety Advisory Council (LETSAC) were all members of the Kansas City DUI Unit. A Joplin officer came in sixth, with 154 arrests.

The Kansas City unit – six full-time officers and one sergeant – is unusual in local policing. They don’t answer 911 calls. They’re not assigned to a specific patrol division. Rather, they work out of the South Patrol station. From there, they’re responsible for traversing the 319 square miles of Kansas City, Missouri. 

As a comparison, Independence had to do away with its DUI unit several years ago, to meet staffing issues. A detective in the traffic unit handles felony DUI cases.

But in Kansas City, alarm about high numbers of fatal car crashes in recent years (103 in 2020), set in motion changes in approach, the implementation of portable technology and a hyper-focus on impaired drivers.

Talk to Davidson and his peers at any length and it becomes clear their pride is not derived from the plaques, pins, certificates and numerical tallies they earn.

It’s the correlated, but immeasurable — lives they have saved. 

“Every arrest means that we don’t have to go knock on someone’s door tonight, to give a death notification,” Davidson said.

Moved by Shoes

Davidson’s carside approach when stopping someone on suspected drunk driving is congenial. It’s an attitude that’s now stressed in training.

“I try to tell them, ‘look, I get it,’ ” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes. You got caught. Now let’s just get through this.”

He keeps his personal thoughts to himself, understanding that lecturing someone under the influence isn’t likely to have an impact. Not at that moment.

Still, even with high arrest numbers, this is the “tip of the iceberg,” according to their sergeant. 

People are ingesting higher quantities of alcohol, as many have grown used to the generous pours they’ve been providing themselves at home during COVID lockdown. That’s as opposed to measured servings at a bar or restaurant.

Mixing booze with other drugs, especially pot, also is increasing. PCP and methamphetamine are also found in toxicology reports, in combinations with alcohol.

All of it means more potential for fatal crashes. Of the 1,335 DUI arrests by the unit in Kansas City during fiscal 2021, 40% involved crashes.

The DUI unit responds to car accidents, and virtually every car fatality, if impairment is suspected. An officer assigned exclusively to a DUI unit, can see several hundred bodies in a career.

Davidson is particularly moved by the victim’s shoes.

Shoes often stay in place when a body takes flight. It’s physics, the nuances of centrifugal force. 

“That’s where they died,” he said. “At that spot.”

What Police See

Before he was a police officer, Nathan Magers served in the U.S. Marine Corp.

He did two stints in Iraq, including the invasion. The carnage that he sees from car crashes, the horrific ways a human body can thrash about, even slamming through barely unrolled side windows, leaves him with this assessment: 

“It’s worse,” he said. “What I’ve seen in car crashes is worse than what I saw in two tours of Iraq.”   

That, and a deep understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder, is significant in how he trains and sets expectations for the unit.

“Everyone on this unit deals with death and destruction every day,” Magers said.

Like the other officers, he shares a deep conviction about the dangers of driving impaired.

“It’s literally the same thing as murder,” Magers said. “It is truly a socially acceptable crime and there’s very little social accountability about it.”

But a softer approach, one that doesn’t chastise or belittle a driver, is the goal. 

“Human beings need to be listened to, heard and understood,” Magers said. “We need to do that while still wearing the badge because nobody is happy to see a cop.”

The most frequent time to be arrested for DUI in 2021? That would be 1-2 a.m. on a Saturday. But not by much. Arrests happen throughout the week. Sundays, for example, can be crazy busy. 

The “bread and butter” red flag of an impaired driver are those who drive without headlights. It’s surprising, the officers said, given that so many newer models have automatic headlights. 

Other indicators that can raise reasonable suspicion and cause the officer to activate the lights and sirens are:

  • Speeding, or driving too slow.
  • Driving fast, then slow, fast then slow.
  • Lane straddling, drifting around the roadway.
  • Repeatedly tapping the brakes, a signal that a person’s depth perception is affected.

People are legally drunk in Missouri when their blood alcohol level is 0.08 or higher. The average for those they arrest is 0.15. Anyone registering at 0.25 or higher must immediately be taken to a hospital. 

Kansas City police officer Douglas Davidson (left), police officer Nathan Magers (center) and Sgt. Corey Carlisle.
Kansas City police officer Douglas Davidson (left), police officer Nathan Magers (center) and Sgt. Corey Carlisle. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

But it’s not necessarily the blood alcohol measurement that’s involved. It’s the level of impairment. That’s why field sobriety tests are used. 

Sgt. Corey Carlisle said that people who survive a crash with high blood alcohol levels, are usually processed from the hospital.

Nothing but time can dissipate alcohol and drugs from a person’s system. Repeat offenders, arrested repeatedly within months, happen with a stunning regularity. And people sometimes are arrested in the early morning hours, as they drive to work, often shocked that sleeping a bit, eating and showering hasn’t sobered them.

Most people, if pulled over and asked how many drinks they’ve consumed, fudge the truth and admit to “two beers.” Police know that’s likely a lie, a low ball estimate.

But with pot, it’s different. People almost swagger about it. 

“‘Yeah, I just did a bowl,’” Carlisle said he’s heard too many times to count.

Magers said that when he trains new recruits at the Kansas City Regional Police Academy, there seems to be little initial understanding that marijuana, especially the potent grades available now, is dangerous to consume, and then drive. Recruits learn to manage traffic stops for suspected DUI.

The team is especially concerned with the legalization of medical marijuana, all of it making marijuana more commonly used and too often, assumed to be safe to combine with driving. They also see fentanyl mixed in, which can be fatal at even very low doses.

In recent years, the unit has been stopping fewer cars but are making more arrests. 

In 2018, there were 387 DUI’s made by the DUI unit. By 2020, the number had increased to 1,046.

“We are arresting a lot more DUI’s and getting drunks off the road,” Carlisle said. “There is a correlation with our increased enforcement.”

Some of the arrest data from 2020 appears to indicate disproportionate levels of arresting Black drivers for DUI, compared to their numbers in the overall population. The officers insist that they can’t tell the race of people when initially deciding to stop a car, especially at night and when the car is driving fast.

White men, aged 21 to 29, were the highest arrest category, by far. And white women far outpaced Black women in arrests.

Things Have Changed

Kansas City’s DUI unit was founded nearly 50 years ago, in 1972. A few of the original members were recently located.

Finally, the answer to an acronym they had seen used as the name of the unit in old reports was revealed. ASAP stood for Alcohol Safety Action Project. It was devised by the original members. 

The Kansas City Police Department's original Alcohol Safety Action Project team in 1972.
The Kansas City Police Department’s original Alcohol Safety Action Project team in 1972. (Courtesy | Kansas City Police Department)

The full wording was recently incorporated along with the unit’s original cartoon drawing of a drunken car slammed into a street light outside a tavern on a challenge coin. It’s a token given to patrol officers for work on accident and DUI cases. The flip side depicts a non-cartoon rendering of current trends – a beer, a shot glass, a martini, a marijuana leaf and pills.

Once, federally funded checkpoint stops were what most people thought about for drunk driving arrests.

But in 2017, the state legislature was spooked by the threat of legal liability from shutting down lanes of traffic and fourth amendment concerns. Their answer? To allow $1 statewide per year for checkpoint funding.

That meant departments had to find money elsewhere for the overtime-heavy operations or stop checkpoints.

Kansas City managed to do three more, Magers said, but have since ceased.

Lost was the deterrent effect. Police always announced the checks ahead of time and word would quickly spread on social media, in the belief that it would deter drunk driving.

The replacement approach: Saturation patrols, or “wolf packs,” now circle areas of the city known for traffic accidents and entertainment districts.

Increasingly, more reliable technology is greatly aiding the work. The latest addition is the SoToxa Mobile Test System. Industry literature touts it as able to “detect up to 6 drug classes within 5 minutes from a single oral fluid collection sample.”

Another portable device is a handheld breath sensor that can test while still on the roadway with a suspected impaired driver. The attached printer is key, because a time-stamped paper record is legally required. 

A token given to patrol officers for work on accident and DUI cases.
A token given to patrol officers for work on accident and DUI cases. (Mary Sanschez | Flatland)
A token given to patrol officers for work on accident and DUI cases.
A token given to patrol officers for work on accident and DUI cases. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

Eventually, the officers might be able to draw blood samples themselves, while with a suspected impaired driver. Now, it’s done at area hospitals. 

For patrol officers who aren’t specially trained or don’t have access to the equipment, a DUI arrest can take hours. The DUI unit often takes over in such instances, allowing the patrol officer to return to answering other calls for help from the public.

Davidson is especially adept at quickly processing arrests.

Davidson grew up on his family’s hog farm near Mountain View, Missouri.

He put himself through college, earning a criminal justice degree, by sorting packages for UPS. He had to quickly take them off a conveyor belt and sort them into one of 18 cages, depending on the package. He worked the night shift.

And yes, these officers drink alcohol, except for Carlisle. A light drinker anyway, he totally quit 10 years ago.

And, despite the seriousness of their work, there are just the dumb things that people do under the influence. Things that fall into the “can’t make this up” category.

Consider electric Bird scooters. You can and will be arrested if you operate one drunk or high. 

A woman drove a Bird north on the entrance ramp to Interstate 35 from Southwest Trafficway. She took the route because her GPS told her it was the fastest way. She had a bottle of booze with her, as she’d run out, took the Bird to a liquor store and was on her way home.

A good Samaritan carefully followed behind the woman until officers could haul her over. That driver kept other cars from running her over.

Most of these officers can cite a drunk driving-related incident that motivates their work.

For Magers, it happened when he was in his office at South Patrol. He heard the impact of the head-on crash on Interstate 435.

One victim was a woman he’d attended high school with at Oak Park. The other victim was her fiancé. They likely died on impact and burned in the explosion. The impaired driver who caused the wreck was relatively unscathed, walking around the highway.

Carlisle was hit twice in his patrol car by drunk drivers. One driver sued him and the department but lost the case.

Davidson points to two head-on crashes, with fatalities in 2016, that happened before he requested to join the DUI unit. He thought he could help prevent such tragedies.

What’s striking to Davidson now is how easy it is to not drive drunk. And yet, people persist.

There’s an Uber ride at the touch of an app. And programs during the holidays allow people to admit that they’ve been “over served” for a free lift home.

“I’m going to try and stop them,” he said. “Because I know what a drunk driver can do.”

Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS.

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