St. Petersburg DUI officer notches arrest No. 1,000

Night after night, he prowls the streets to save lives.

By Abhi Raghunathan, Times Staff Writer
Published February 17, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - The driver's blood-alcohol level alone would have made the arrest stand out.

Terry Lee Andrews, 57, who was taken to the Bayfront Medical Center after crashing into another vehicle, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.376, more than four times the level at which a driver is presumed impaired. He had been drinking at a club before he made a U-turn into traffic.

For Officer Robbie Arkovich, the arrest marked a personal milestone. It was his 1,000th DUI arrest, the most department veterans can remember by an officer.

Arkovich joined the department's driving-under-the-influence unit about nine years ago. It didn't take long for him to log his first drunken driving arrest.

Then Arkovich nabbed another. And another. Before long, he was racking up DUI arrests the way baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn collected hits.

Arkovich, 41, shrugs off the statistics. He says plenty of other officers would have reached that number if they had stuck with the job.

But most officers don't stay.

Instead, they leave the unit for other jobs after a few years, worn down by having to deal with drunks every night and having to sacrifice their nights and weekends.

Some people Arkovich arrests send him thank-you cards, telling him he helped change their lives. Most people don't.

"I would definitely say that most people are not happy when we arrest them," Arkovich said. "It's the minority of people who understand that they got themselves in trouble."

* * *

Arkovich grew up in Seminole County and was a police Explorer in high school. He majored in journalism at the University of Central Florida, and worked as a newspaper photographer before moving to the area with his wife, who was going to Stetson University College of Law.

He still takes photographs in his spare time.

Arkovich always thought about becoming a police officer, so he signed up for a job in the department's communications center. He spent five years there, then did stints as a patrol officer and a community police officer.

As a young police officer, Arkovich rode along with officers on the DUI task force. He admired the work they did because it produced results.

A lot of police work can be tedious: responding to low-grade domestic violence calls, fistfights, parents who want an officer to scare their kids straight, complaints about barking dogs.

But Arkovich felt the DUI unit took people who could hurt others off the streets. The officers saved lives.

"It's one of those areas in police work where you really get to help people," Arkovich said.

So when an opening came up in 1998, he applied and got a spot.

"I don't know anyone who has stayed for as long as he has," said Sgt. Keith Peaton, who oversees the DUI unit.

* * *

Arkovich's workday begins at 6 p.m. and runs until 4 a.m. He works Wednesdays through Saturdays, a lot of holidays, and has trouble remembering the last time he had a New Year's off.

Usually, he has paperwork waiting for him when he arrives. Sometimes, a DUI arrest is already in progress. The department's unit has a conviction rate in the high 90th percentile.

Arkovich is lean and trim. He talks in crisp, complete sentences and can delve into an explanation of case law in the middle of a DUI arrest. He rarely drinks.

On a recent Thursday night, he headed out with Officer Terri Nagle, who was back from a six-month medical leave.

While Nagle was arresting a drunken driver, the woman had fallen and broken Nagle's leg.

Many drunken drivers make for difficult arrests. Nagle said some act polite and friendly, then explode as soon as the handcuffs come out. They kick and punch, flail and spit. One woman in a cruiser managed to angle her head just so to spit on Nagle after her arrest.

Arkovich's cruiser has suffered, too. A few weeks ago, a young man he arrested became so angry that he managed to kick out a rear window.

The job is conducive to dark humor. A few years ago, the DUI task force began writing down funny quotes on an office board.

This is so unfair. I'm the designed driver, said one woman, who was more than twice the legal limit of 0.08.

I'm a functional Xanax user, said another.

As they headed out for new arrests, and possible additions to the board, Arkovich and Nagle watched for anything that looked suspicious: a car without headlights, a driver swerving wildly, cars stopping in the middle of the intersection or driving slowly.

"Let's go fishing," Arkovich said, as they cruised through the 34th Street corridor, a hot spot on Thursday nights.

This time, the arrest came to them.

An employee at a McDonald's called police after a man in the drive-through reeked so strongly of alcohol that the fumes nearly made her gag.

When Arkovich arrived, a few other officers were there and had taken away a large kitchen knife the man had stuffed in his pants.

Arkovich walked up to the driver, Bert Martin, a bulky 52-year-old.

"How much have you had to drink, sir?" Arkovich asked.

"Not that much ... four cans," Martin replied.

Then, he elaborated, while swaying from side to side: four 32-ounce cans of Miller.

The first field sobriety test Arkovich gave him tested whether Martin could follow a red light with his eyes without jerking too quickly from side to side, a symptom of intoxication. He couldn't.

Then, Martin tried to walk along a yellow line and then turn around and walk back. He wobbled.

Finally, Martin had to stand on one foot. That also didn't go well.

Back at the station, Martin blew a 0.18.

The next evening, a Friday night, Arkovich was out on the streets again.

Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or 727 893-8472.

Annual DUI arrests by St. Petersburg police:

2005: 558 arrests

2006: 584 arrests

2007: 468 arrests