By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Feb 19, 2008 at 5:48 AM

It's not a secret that Milwaukeeans like to drink. They also like to drive, as public transportation and taxis have historically taken a back seat to bar hopping by car. But when drinking and driving mix, trouble starts brewing -- and the results can be deadly.

In 2005, 41 percent of fatal automobile accidents in the state were due to alcohol consumption, and 369 people died as a result of drunk driving.

Accordingly, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation created a special Alcohol Enforcement Grant to deal with the problem. The $25,000 project runs through Sept. 30, and Milwaukee police officers can opt-in for this overtime project.

Officer Bill Hanney is in his sixth year with the MPD. Prior to becoming a cop, he worked as an EMT, and though he doesn't cite a poetic reason for joining the force, he says that being an emergency responder is just part of who he is.

Hanney, 29, says his medical experience comes in handy as an officer, particularly when identifying someone in a diabetic coma. He says he plans on remaining with MPD for the rest of his career, a mandated maximum of 25 years on the force.

Hanney is the cop assigned to my ride-along, a one-night shift with the task force from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. The department runs these patrols every Friday and Saturday night. The police department allowed me to join them, to take photos and to ask questions. We hit the road Feb. 15 to spend a night busting drunk drivers. The results were not what I expected.

11:20 p.m. -- During the warmer months, Hanney is an MPD motorcycle cop with the Patrol Support Division. That means he's not assigned to a specific district and can work where needed. Officers sign up for these OWI patrols as overtime shifts. Hanney says he enjoys the job and volunteers for the task force a few times a month.

Because it's far too cold outside to ride a motorcycle, Hanney's job changes a little in the winter. Fortunately, we're riding in a cruiser tonight. Hanney has already been outside, though, helping direct traffic for the "Lion King" crowds at the Milwaukee Theatre. Once he changes out of his cold weather gear and into a standard police uniform, we grab a car in the garage at headquarters at 7th and State Streets and head out.

For this patrol, Hanney can go anywhere he wants in the city, but he usually targets the "pretty easy spots," he says, like Water Street and National Avenue. We're looking for anything suspicious that could indicate an intoxicated driver. For example, someone heading the wrong way on a one-way street.  Driving without headlights on, sitting stopped at a green light or squealing tires are actions that catch Hanney's attention.

In this four-hour shift, it's not guaranteed that we'll arrest anyone. "It's either on or off," says Hanney. "It could be 15 stops or no busts."

As we drive down 3rd Street, west on Wisconsin Avenue, back north on 4th, then east to Water Street, Hanney explains what he likes -- and dislikes -- about the drunk driving patrol.

"OWIs, I like," he says. "Though it can be a pain in the butt if I get an argumentative drunk."

He says most suspects are cooperative, though he's had to be more stern on a few occasions.

Maybe it's the cold weather -- it's about 16 degrees right now -- but people seem well-behaved tonight.

11:22 p.m. -- A radio dispatcher announces a chase in progress. A white Toyota Tercel is spotted driving about 70 miles per hour down city streets on 5th and Hayes, on the near South Side. The officer in pursuit follows the suspect into a gas station, where the Tercel speeds away. After a minute or two, the officer calls off the chase, citing speeds too fast and unsafe for these icy conditions.

11:40 p.m. -- We head south into Walker's Point, and again, see nothing suspicious. Hanney has a touch-screen laptop in his car that is running a number of applications, including an internal instant messaging program that lets officers know what their colleagues are doing. Right now, most of the calls are garden-variety domestic abuse calls -- nothing related to drunk driving. Then, the call comes on the radio that the Tercel has been stopped at 5th and Lapham. We're close, so we drive over to see if we can help, but a handful of officers already have the suspect in custody.

11:48 p.m. -- We loop back toward Downtown, and at about Water and Erie, we notice a red Ford Ranger driving without its lights on. Hanney turns on his flashing lights, and the driver pulls over immediately. Before the officer even steps out of the car, he runs the truck's plates and they come up clean. The system uses high-speed wireless Internet and checking information is incredibly fast.

Hanney asks the driver if he's been drinking, and he says that he had one drink at his friend's house. I ask Hanney if that's the standard answer. "The drunk ones always say they've had two beers," he says.

The driver doesn't appear impaired, so Hanney takes his license back to the cruiser to see if he has any prior offensives. The process takes mere seconds, and the driver has a spotless record. It turns out that the driver was warming up the car and forgot to turn on his lights. That happens a lot in this weather, Hanney says. He sends the Ranger on its way.

11:59 p.m. -- We park the cruiser on a side street facing Water Street, just north of The Social and Alterra. Hanney, who works a lot of traffic stops, can tell if a car is speeding without using equipment. Still, he says he can get out the laser gun if we don't see anything suspicious. Tonight, the only cars going too fast are the taxis, and there are a lot of them. "I'm just looking for anything silly," says Hanney.

12:05 a.m. -- Hanney gets a call to help out with the suspect in the white Tercel. While every officer can run a field sobriety test, only certain officers are trained to operate the "Intoximeter," which requires certification from the Department of Transportation. We head back to District Two headquarters on Lincoln Avenue.

12:18 a.m. -- In the garage at District Two, the suspect, Edward, is sitting at a table with the officer who began the chase earlier this evening. Hanney begins the interview part of performing an official blood alcohol content test, and Edward isn't very cooperative.

"I'm a felon," says Edward, a 57-year-old white male, missing teeth and sporting some blood and scratches on his face that didn't come from this arrest. "You do your job, I'll do mine."

Edward is sitting quietly and calmly, looking almost annoyed at the interview. He's clearly drunk, but not stumbling drunk. When Hanney informs him he will now run the breathalyzer test, Edward refuses, which is basically an admission of guilt.

Now Edward becomes almost jolly. "I'm nice," he mumbles to no one in particular. "Most of us drunks act nice."

Hanney asks him one more time if he will consent to the test. Again, Edward says "no," and begins laughing. He sees me taking notes and asks if this is his 15 minutes of fame.

He says he doesn't know his address, though his car has Illinois plates. He doesn't have a valid drivers license in Wisconsin or Illinois, and again Edward won't cooperate. The officers already know he's on probation, and he's fled before.

"I'm still going to jail," Edward says as he's led off to a holding cell while the cops begin the paperwork.

12:35 a.m. -- The three officers seated at the table in the garage freeze in mid-sentence when the call comes over the radio that a hip-hop party at an airport hotel has gotten out of hand. One of the officers literally drops a cookie in mid-bite, and they grab their guns from the lockers. In seconds, they squeal out of the garage. Hanney, whose night is getting more convoluted by the minute, looks at me and says, "Let's go."

With or without the Alcohol Enforcement Grant, serious incidents take precedent, and Hanney explains that we'll go to the scene to provide traffic support.

"Fight in progress," reads Hanney's computer, and we're underway. Hanney turns on his siren and rolls up his window. It's loud, even with the windows closed. Cars pull over like the parting of the Red Sea as we hop on the freeway to get the Best Western at 5105 S. Howell Ave.

Hanney drives fast, but not excessively so. He's going about 70, and I ask why we're not burying the needle on this Crown Vic on steroids.

"The difference between 70 and 100 miles an hour is maybe 30 seconds," he says calmly, implying that the time saved isn't worth the risk to either of us. Hanney is married and doesn't take unnecessary chances. He always wears a bulletproof vest, which is optional at MPD. He says his wife isn't too worried about his profession, except when she learns of the occasional reports of an on-duty tragedy.

Heading east on Howard Avenue, police from several districts converge on the scene. "Things get dangerous in intersections," explains Haney, because people hear a siren, pull over, then when the police car passes them, they pull back into traffic. Sometimes they don't think that another squad car is close behind.

Hanney performs a "leap frog" maneuver: he waits in the intersection, lights flashing and siren blaring, while the cruiser rapidly approaching from behind turns south on Howell. The process repeats at the next stoplight with a fire truck.

By the time we reach the hotel, 13 or 14 squads are on the scene, and partygoers are trying hard to leave quickly. Hanney parks the car in the middle of the street and jumps out to direct traffic.

This is a big response, but Hanney says it's better to overreact than to underreact. "Things can get really hairy really quick," he says.

1:05 a.m. -- With the hip-hop melee over, we return to District Two for the part of the job you don't see on cop shows. Hanney spends the next 65 minutes doing paperwork for Edward. The officer who started the chase was supposed to be done working at midnight. But because Edward committed so many violations, that officer has about four more hours of paperwork to fill out.

I ask the cops why someone else doesn't do the administrative work, so they can focus on fighting crime. They both say it's necessary to make sure the charges stick. If the information gets passed to a third party, it can get diluted and smart criminal defense attorneys will find a way to exploit sloppiness.

Hanney is here helping out for a few reasons. Though his initial task to administer the breathalyzer didn't pan out, doing a favor like this will eventually come back to him. Just like Hanney could use a helping hand if he gets called to a domestic abuse incident in which he doesn't have a ton of experience, Hanney happens to be good at the detail work. He's proficient with the computerized system, and some of the older officers lean on him a bit for help with the new technology.

He also has a good rapport with the cops at District Two; partially because he used to work there, but also because OWI suspects are frequently brought to this less busy station. "We could be waiting an hour in the jail" at headquarters before even processing a suspect Downtown, Hanney says.

A simple arrest will take about 90 minutes to process. This one will take much, much longer. Edward will most likely spend some lengthy time in prison for his actions tonight.

It turns out that Edward is the 40th OWI suspect brought into District Two in 2008. In 2007, they booked 210 suspects.

As the officers continue to fill out form after form, Hanney explains some of the finer points of spotting drunk drivers. During a field test, an officer will ask a suspect to look to his or her periphery. If their eyes wiggle back and forth, it's a clear sign they're impaired. Whether or not a "pickle" -- that's what the cops call drunk drivers -- can act totally sober, the wiggly eyes always give it away.

2:10 a.m. -- The clock is ticking on our shift, so we take a slow ride back to headquarters, north on 1st and past Water Street.

As "bar time" approaches, patrons pour out of the Downtown taverns. To my surprise, the people in cars are driving safely and by the book. The drunk, rowdy crowds are the ones standing on corners, waiting for taxis. Admittedly, it's been a few years since I found myself standing outside a Water Street bar at 2:30 a.m., but I certainly don't remember this many people opting against driving drunk.

After a few passes, we head back to the station. In this four-hour shift, we didn't nab any drunk drivers, though Hanney did his part to make sure one really drunk driver, Edward, stays behind bars.

Police work, at least on this Friday night, isn't glamorous. "It's five minutes of thrill and five hours of paperwork," says the officer issuing Edward the multiple tickets.

This time, a shift with the MPD that makes use of the Alcohol Enforcement Grant isn't much like an episode of "COPS," although it got exciting enough when we responded to the hip-hop fracas.

As we wrap up, Hanney points out all the cabs, contradicting a hypothesis I made right before we started tonight: I said that I didn't think enough Milwaukee drinkers took taxis home, and that's it's just understood in this city that people drive drunk. In our limited survey of the city streets on this night, it looks like I was wrong.

But I'm happy to wrong about this one. If enough Milwaukee drivers get the message about DUI enforcement and choose not to get behind the wheel after living the high life, there may come a day when special enforcement grants are no longer necessary.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.