Keeping Charleston’s Streets Safe

I am always impressed by the outstanding grad students here at The Graduate School of the College of Charleston. Our students and graduates are comprised of some of the finest public servants, scholars, and activists that you’ll find anywhere.

David Wojslawowicz is certainly no exception. A 2008 graduate of our M.A. in  History program, and now a student in our Master of Public Administration program, Senior Police Officer Wojslawowicz embodies the qualities that so many of our graduate students share: a dedication to the greater good, a strong intellect, and a desire to make a positive impact on the world. As an officer with the City of Charleston’s DUI task force, he makes a definitive impact by keeping drunken drivers off our streets and literally saving the lives of the city’s residents and visitors.

His outstanding work caught the attention of The Charleston Post and Courier’s David MacDougall, who wrote this article about him in today’s paper:

DUI’s Worst Enemy

Officer among state’s most prolific in enforcing drunken driving laws

The Post and Courier

Monday, November 9, 2009

Charleston Sr. Police Officer Matthew Wojslawowicz administers a field sobriety test to a driver. He was testing for horizontal gaze nystagmus, an involuntary jerking of the eyes as a result of intoxication.

Charleston Sr. Police Officer Matthew Wojslawowicz administers a field sobriety test to a driver. He was testing for horizontal gaze nystagmus, an involuntary jerking of the eyes as a result of intoxication.

It’s a Friday night, and Charleston Senior Police Officer Matthew Wojslawowicz is staring intently into the eyes of a young man he’d just pulled over.

Wojslawowicz, a member of the city’s DUI Task Force, is among the most prolific officers in South Carolina in enforcing the state’s drunken driving laws.

He was staring into the young man’s eyes to see how smoothly they were able to follow a moving object, a ballpoint pen he was slowly and ever so deliberately moving far to the mans’s left, and then far to his right.

It’s the first part of the Standardized Field Sobriety Test. He was looking for horizontal gaze nystagmus, an involuntary jerking of the eyes as a result of intoxication. The other parts include the “nine-step walk and turn test” and the “one-legged stand.”

Pronouncing his last name correctly (voy-sla-VOH-vitch) is not part of the test. If it were, most of his fellow police officers would fail. They simply call him “Wojo.”

Wojslawowicz, 28, is a certified instructor in the Standardized Field Sobriety Test and frequently holds classes for other officers.

A native of Bayonne, N.J., Wojslawowicz decided in high school that he wanted to be either a police officer or a teacher. He enrolled at University of Richmond with plans to teach history in high school or college.

“One day I woke up and decided my skills would be better used in law enforcement,” he said. After graduating with a master’s degree in history, he applied to the Charleston Police Department. He wanted to move even farther away from the cold weather he grew up in, and he was fascinated by the region’s history, he said.

Wojslawowicz was hired by former Police Chief Reuben Greenberg in 2003 and worked as a regular patrol officer for the first three years.

In 2006, he moved to the Traffic Division and started handling more DUI cases. In June 2008, he wrote up a proposal for a DUI Task Force and presented it to police Chief Greg Mullen. This year, the S.C. Department of Public Safety honored Wojslawowicz as Officer of the Year for his DUI enforcement efforts in 2008.

He said he likes working DUI cases, despite the verbal abuse he often gets from drunks. “Some people get into this because they have a relative killed by a drunk driver or something,” he said. “Fortunately, that hasn’t happened to me. That’s not why I do it. I think I am really doing something that saves people’s lives.”

Not only the lives of drunk drivers, he said, “but the lives of countless others who could be killed by them.”

Mullen has beefed up traffic enforcement considerably and emphasized getting drunk drivers off the road. There were two officers on the task force when it started. Now there are six. The department just received a $169,697 highway safety grant that will be used to strengthen the task force, said police Lt. Chip Searson, supervisor of the traffic unit.

“Over the past several years, the Charleston Police Department, with the inception of the DUI unit, has made a renewed commitment to remove individuals who chose to drive impaired from our streets and highways,” Searson said. “Matt Wojslawowicz is a dedicated professional who has made a significant impact towards that unit’s success.”

Arrest records show that the effort has been successful. In 2006, there were 143 DUI arrests. In 2007, there were 489 and in 2008, there were 662. The department had more than 600 DUI arrests in 2009 as of last Friday.

Officers on the task force would not have such high DUI arrest numbers were it not for the participation of all of the city’s police officers. Task force members can, and will, spot drunken drivers on their own, but many of their cases begin with a call for help from a regular patrol officer.

Though task force members specialize in DUI cases, they also write regular traffic tickets.

On this past Friday night, Wojslawowicz parked his cruiser in a position where he could aim his radar at traffic crossing the Ashley River Memorial Bridge from the peninsula into West Ashley. The posted limit on the bridge is 35 mph. Few people were driving that slow. Wojslawowicz could get them all for speeding if he wanted to.

“I don’t write anybody a citation for anything that I would do myself,” he said. “We all go over the speed limit.”

Like most police officers, Wojslawowicz allows a certain amount of leeway between the posted speed limit and the speed that will get him coming at you with blue lights flashing.

A pickup truck came off the bridge at 54 mph. Wojslawowicz flipped on the blue lights, wheeled the cruiser around and pulled the driver over. Wojslawowicz sees every stop for speeding as an opportunity to look for a DUI. This driver was not visibly intoxicated. He was issued a citation for speeding.

Wojslawowicz doesn’t let people off with warning tickets. “How can I let one person go with a warning and give a ticket to another person? I go to sleep at night knowing I was fair to everybody,” he said.

His cruiser, a police-package 2008 Dodge Charger with a 5.7-liter, 368 horse power V-8 engine, serves as his office, complete with a laptop computer, a printer, a radar system, and an in-car video system. Personal accessories include a GPS navigator and a satellite radio receiver.

He described himself as a huge sports fan and said he listens to games on the satellite radio. That Friday night, he was listening to NCAA basketball games.

Though he is single with no children, Wojslawowicz said he doesn’t have a lot of time for fun because he’s working toward a master’s in public administration at the College of Charleston. The coursework keeps him busy, but he has season tickets to Cougars basketball games. He and his father attend them whenever they can. His parents moved to Charleston last year.

Though he loves the satellite radio, the most valuable gadget in his car is the video camera. It records video and sound for every traffic stop, every DUI arrest. In DUI cases, the video alone is often enough to elicit a guilty plea, he said. And the camera protects him from citizen complaints.

“If you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing on this job, the camera will be your best friend,” he said.

He has set a personal goal of writing at least 10 traffic tickets and taking at least one drunk driver off the street every night he works. “It’s a goal,” he said. “Not a quota.”

There are no quotas in the department, he said. Still, there was a misunderstanding recently when Searson sent out a motivational memo with suggested goals for traffic officers, Wojslawowicz said.

Meeting his self-imposed goal is rarely a problem, he said.

On that same Friday night, he was able to write four speeding tickets while watching the traffic coming off the bridge. Then he started cruising the streets of the city, looking for intoxicated drivers.

The crunch and squeal of a pickup truck’s tire hopping a curb as it turned onto Calhoun Street caught his attention. He followed the driver closely for a block and saw the truck swerving from side to side. He flipped on the blue lights and pulled the truck over.

Wojslawowicz approached the driver, a 21-year-old college student, and smelled alcohol on his breath. The driver said he’d been to a party where he’d had a few drinks.

Wojslawowicz asked the driver to step out of the truck and he began the field sobriety test. The driver failed the test, and he was arrested and handcuffed for a trip to police headquarters on Lockwood Drive.

There, in a jail cell where the city’s two Datamaster breath analysis machines are installed, Wojslawowicz gently instructed his prisoner on the procedure. The driver refused to take the breath test, choosing instead to lose his driving privileges for six months.

All told, it took about 90 minutes from the time Wojslawowicz pulled over the driver to the time a police transport officer took charge of the prisoner for the trip to the county jail. Had the man’s friends not been on the scene and able to drive away his truck, there would have been additional time spent waiting for a tow truck, Wojslawowicz said.

And he would spend an additional half-hour or so back in his cruiser, writing up his arrest report, before being able to go back on the street to hunt for another DUI offender.

Wojslawowicz doesn’t mind the time it takes. “When you take someone off the street for DUI,” he said. “You’re making a sizable impact.”

So, we send our congratulations and much-deserved appreciation to David Wojslawowicz for his outstanding service, and we wish him the best in his continued studies at The Graduate School of the College of Charleston.

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One thought on “Keeping Charleston’s Streets Safe

  1. Phil Dean

    One of the best things about The Woj is going to court and hearing lawyers and judges struggle with his name.

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