Each year, 3,000 to 4,000 people are booked into Tulsa’s David L. Moss Correctional Center, the county jail, on complaints of public intoxication.
Some are chronic alcoholics. Others went out for a good time and had too much to drink, said Tulsa Police Department Maj. Travis Yates.
Either way, Yates said, most detained for public drunkenness are taken to jail for the night, locked up in a place that also holds those arrested for more serious crimes, and later charged. The booking process usually takes almost two hours of an officer’s time – time that could otherwise be spent on serious police work, Yates said.
“We’re turning our back to a lot of it (the publicly drunk) now because officers know ‘If I take it, I’m not going to be available for an hour or two,’” Yates said, speaking at a recent meeting of the “Stepping Up” subcommittee of the Criminal Justice Planning and Policy Council.
That is why Yates and others are glad that Tulsa officials are considering establishing an alternative program for those detained on public intoxication complaints.
City officials are in talks with a Tulsa nonprofit addiction recovery center, 12 & 12, about creating a “public inebriate alternative." Both city and 12 & 12 officials say any deal is likely a ways off.
Police and substance abuse professionals believe it could help individuals suffering from alcoholism get help and it would save the city money. The program also would free up officers for other work and decrease the municipal courts’ caseload, advocates say.
Once colloquially referred to as a drunk tank, a public inebriate alternative allows police officers to take a drunken individual to the facility rather than to jail.
Under Oklahoma law, if a jurisdiction has such a facility, it must place those detained for public intoxication in the facility for 10 hours and not charge them for the offense. Their stay there is confidential.
“If all they are is public drunk, and they’re not creating a disturbance and there’s not any warrants for their arrest, you have to take them to the alternative. You can’t take them to jail,” Yates told the subcommittee.
Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett, Police Chief Chuck Jordan and others toured Oklahoma City’s public inebriate alternative, which has been active since the 1970s, and liked what they saw, said Lloyd Wright, Bartlett’s press secretary.
“If you look at the model in Oklahoma City that has been in place for decades, it’s clearly a great alternative,” Wright said. “We all thought real positive things about it and said this would be something really important to look at.”
Wright cautioned that no deal has been reached, and the idea is in the early planning stages. The facility’s location and cost, and how beneficial it would be to the city, are still to be determined, he said.
“We’re trying to look at it and analyze it and see if this works in Tulsa,” Wright said. “That’s going to take some analysis and time. We’re not ready to begin saying, ‘We’re opening an inebriate center.’”
Yates said such a program could cut down the time police officers spend on those calls to around 15 minutes.
“It would add, essentially, 12 officers,” Yates said. “I think the courts are really going to like this, because it (public drunk charges) is really clogging up the system. Three or four thousand people could be taken out of the system.”
The cost to taxpayers would likely be less than the cost of incarceration, Yates said. “We believe it will be better for taxpayers than what we’re currently paying.”
12 & 12 Executive Director Bryan Day confirmed that the organization is in talks with the city. The organization offers medical detoxification, ambulatory detoxification, outpatient services and long-term and residential treatment for those suffering from addiction.
Yates said on-site medical detoxification is one reason 12 & 12 could be a good option for a public inebriate facility.
“They would have the ability to walk across the hall if they wanted and immediately go into medical treatment for it (alcoholism),” Yates said.
Brad Collins, services analyst director for 12 & 12, said the facility would help not only those who suffer from alcoholism, but also those picked up after partying too much.
“So many folks get tied up in the legal system for something as simple as a public intoxication charge,” Collins said. “It gives people the opportunity to sleep it off without getting a criminal record, and get access to (addiction) education if they do see it as a problem.”
At one time, Tulsa had a public inebriate alternative. In 2001, the city contracted with Avalon Correctional Services to operate such a facility. But after only a year the contract was not renewed due to lack of use.
Day said things have changed, and with Tulsa police facing a shortage of officers, it’s likely the alternative would see more use.
“If an officer has this as a solution and it’s a 10-minute or 15-minute booking process against a potentially hour-long booking process, I have every reason to believe the community would use this,” Day said.