Officer Jeremy Schenck started his law enforcement career on the wrong side of a police car.
As a teenager in upstate New York, he was riding in a friend’s car when an officer pulled them over and found they had alcohol in the back seat. While the officer drove him home that night, Schenck worried a little about what his parents would say when they learned he had been about to drink underage. But he was more focused on how cool it was to be riding in a police car.
He knew then that he wanted to be back in a police car — and next time, he would be in the driver’s seat.
With more than 12 years on the Prince William County police force under his belt now, Schenck has abundant experience on the other side, as the one catching those who drink and drive. For five years running, he has been the champion of the county at arrests on charges of driving under the influence.
Each year, Schenck has made more such arrests than any other officer in Prince William. In 2011 and 2012, he caught 255 and 234 drunk drivers, respectively, putting him ahead of police officers in all the jurisdictions in Northern Virginia. Crime statistics for last year have not been released. Mothers Against Drunk Driving recognizes his top status with an award each year.
He has pulled over plenty of teenagers just like the passenger he once was.
“I like it when I get a juvenile and they have a car full of friends,” he said. “They all get to see the consequences of a bad decision their friend made.”
Schenck talks about consequences a lot.
“Most people aren’t thinking they’re going to drive drunk and they’re going to kill somebody or kill themselves,” he said. “I want to get them to think, ‘What will happen if I get a DUI? Will I lose my job? Will I lose my license?’ ”
Inspired by a field training officer on the Prince William force who was known as an earlier DUI champion, Schenck decided as a new officer in 2001 to make DUIs his specialty. At first, he said, he made about 50 DUI arrests a year. His numbers climbed into the 80s and 90s, and eventually well over 200. On top of his regular duty hours, which are 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., Schenck takes on extra six- to eight-hour shifts, funded by special grants from the Department of Motor Vehicles, during which he works on only DUI enforcement.
“I think most police officers come in and they kind of find their niche,” he said. “I didn’t come in to this job to sit at a desk. It’s hard to sit still for me. I want to be moving around.”
Schenck was moved by personal pain as well: He served in the Marines for four years before joining the police force, and he lost two close friends in the service to an alcohol-related car accident.
And Schenck has been the victim in a drunken driving accident: Last year, his police car was totaled one night when a drunk driver pulled in front of him on the Prince William Parkway. Schenck was not injured in the accident.
Schenck knows avoiding drunk drivers is nearly impossible for unimpaired motorists who come into their destructive paths. Other than staying off the road after 1:30 a.m., when customers start pouring out of bars, and maintaining a generous following distance behind any driver, Schenck said he can offer little advice.
Drunk drivers don’t normally look like what you see in the movies, he said. He rarely sees drivers swerving wildly or zooming down the wrong lane — he calls those few textbook cases “academy drunks.”
“If you’re waiting just for those, you’re only going to have two or three a year,” he said.
To catch the others, he looks out for basic driving mistakes — speeding, running through red lights — that often go along with drunken driving. He tends to keep moving rather than waiting at an intersection. He particularly likes traveling on Old Bridge Road in Lake Ridge, where drunk drivers might have a hard time managing the curves.
Schenck said that he thinks Virginia’s mandatory ignition interlock law for anyone convicted of drunken driving, which went into effect in 2012, has reduced the number of drunk drivers in the region. And he hopes that every arrest helps deter future dangerous drivers.
“This isn’t a white, brown, black, yellow thing,” he said. “It’s not a good person thing. It’s not a bad person thing. It’s an everybody thing.”