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Youth Alcohol Enforcement: a community project.

Communities across the United States continue to see the epidemic of underage drinking grow. Various factors, such as peer pressure and a national media that emphasizes the allure of alcohol and downplays its negative effects, help explain why it has become so widespread.

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In Missouri, we have a teenage drinking problem that mirrors the national trend. Statistics reported that 87 percent of high school students have experimented with alcohol. (1) In fact, 56 percent of young people will have tried it by the 8th grade (2) --this figure becomes even more alarming when considering that individuals who have their first drink at age 13 have a 47.3 percent chance of becoming alcohol dependent during their lives. (3) And, binge drinking is not just a significant problem among college students--one report indicated that 11 percent of 8th graders, 22.5 percent of 10th graders, and 30.2 percent of 12th graders have engaged in this behavior in the past 30 days. (4)

Representing over 20 percent of all alcohol-dependent people, (5) underage drinkers do not consider the consequences. Abuse of this drug has devastating effects. For instance, it can contribute to depression and suicidal behavior among teens, hamper their ability to earn a high school diploma, or, perhaps, lead to an early death.

Such an alarming situation presents a challenge and demands an urgent response from the law enforcement community. In addressing the problem in Greene County, Missouri, we initiated an innovative project--Youth Alcohol Enforcement.

OUR RESPONSE

Background

In 2002, I continued to observe a disturbing trend of alcohol overdoses among our young people and underage drinking parties in rural areas of the county. As with other law enforcement agencies, we responded with traditional tactics. Deputies would arrive at the location and make a grand entrance. Teens would scatter, often leaving their vehicles and friends behind. Officers then would attempt to locate the host of the party or who they determined to be an adult. Deputies would issue a stern warning that if they had to return to the residence, someone, if not everyone, would go to jail. The officers then would make the individuals pour out any remaining alcohol. Making a criminal case based on possession proved difficult. (6) And, because of their inability to follow up due to varied shifts and calls for service, deputies could not see the results of any juvenile referrals they had made.

I reviewed the majority of the reports we generated and determined which ones I should assign to an investigator for further action. Many pertained to responses to large disturbances and assaults involving youths and alcohol. Some referred to deputies handling medical calls in which a minor overdosed. I was sending detectives out regularly to follow up on these cases and refer them to juvenile authorities for action plans.

In analyzing the problem, I spoke with uniformed deputies and had them determine how minors obtained alcohol. The most common methods included having an older friend buy it, purchasing from various liquor retailers in the county, soliciting adults to make the purchase, and, in other cases, receiving it from parents hosting underage drinking parties.

In June 2002, we formed a relationship with Community Partnership of the Ozarks and a small group of teenage students committed to curbing alcohol and cigarette consumption by minors. Detectives began by attending a pizza party with these youths and then interviewing them. We decided to attempt a series of liquor store compliance checks. Community Partnership of the Ozarks obtained a small grant to pay off-duty detectives to assist in this process. I obtained a list of every retailer in Greene County and sectioned them into four zones, assigning a team of two detectives to each one. We made green and red flyers for distribution during this process. Establishments that passed the compliance test by not selling to one of the volunteers received a green one, which stated that, as a reward, a public service announcement recognizing their compliance with the law would run in the local newspaper. Stores that sold to one of the youths received a red flyer advising them of the potential consequences and that they were on notice for selling to a minor.

The Program

In August 2002, we started our program, Youth Alcohol Enforcement. A grant awarded to the Greene County Sheriff's Department, Springfield Police Department, Greene County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, and Community Partnership of the Ozarks paid for overtime money for detectives to participate. Also, the Greene County prosecuting attorney provided a letter of immunity for volunteers involved in the investigations. This program has proven effective in our fight against underage drinking throughout the county and features several components.

Proactive Enforcement

In one phase of the program, we conduct proactive enforcement on retail stores, as well as clerks, that sell alcohol to minors. Detectives, using a divided list of establishments in Greene County, accompany groups of young volunteers. They watch the teens enter stores to attempt a purchase. If a sale occurs, the volunteer brings the alcohol to a detective who secures it as evidence. Then, the other officer issues a summons to the clerk. Not only does a criminal case result but the store incurs a violation of its liquor license.

Compliance Checks

Another effort involves bar and restaurant compliance checks. In these instances, detectives enter establishments that serve alcohol and watch customers approach waitresses and bartenders to attempt a purchase. Then, in suspicious situations, officers confront buyers and check identification. If minors were served, the detectives issue a summons and seize the alcohol. Also, we submit a report to licensing authorities.

Badges in Business

Another operation places our detectives in stores where they watch clerks identify customers and ensure they sell only to adults. When offenders present fake identification or a minor attempts to make a purchase, detectives identify themselves, collect the appropriate evidence, and either issue a summons or make an arrest. This program benefits both the law enforcement agency and the retail establishment as both gain additional familiarity with each other's roles in preventing juveniles from obtaining alcohol.

Patrol Efforts

Detectives also patrol frequent party locations in the county to look for gatherings of underage drinkers. Using unmarked cars, they can avoid discovery until it is too late for the offenders. While conducting these types of patrols, our officers have discovered that once they identify themselves, the youths scatter. Detectives surround the party and uniformed deputies occupy the road area. We have found that the most difficult part of these operations is to catch minors with the alcohol in their hands. (7) Detectives make more cases by interviewing each attendee and obtaining written statements. Generally, youths are truthful; most have not had frequent contact with law enforcement and usually cooperate. After the interviews, detectives have suspects point out the container of alcohol that they possessed or drank from. Then, the officers seize the container, obtain a sample, and submit it to the crime laboratory for testing. We then ask suspects to complete a voluntary written statement; most provide a detailed one.

Stings and Stakeouts

In our youth-contact stings, detectives sit in undercover vehicles while waiting for minors to approach them. Some do and, after a short conversation, will ask the officers to purchase alcohol for them. Then, the detectives identify themselves and issue the suspect a summons.

Detectives also stake out retail liquor stores to watch for illegal customer activity. We routinely observe cars with multiple youths inside pulling into these parking lots. Through binoculars, our officers watch money change hands before only one of the passengers enters the store, thereby arousing suspicion that no one else in the car is of legal age. Then, after watching the individual leave the establishment, give change, and, perhaps, distribute the alcohol, we feel that reasonable suspicion exists and that a vehicle stop and further investigation are justified.

After making the stop, detectives separate the parties and interview them. Usually, we have found that the car consisted of young people who paid the sole adult passenger to buy for them. We send these cases to a special prosecutor who works with us. The adult buyer is not offered a plea and receives the full fine and costs, along with a conviction. On their first offense, the juveniles are mandated to attend a diversion program on alcohol abuse. For second offenses, they also receive the maximum fine and punishment. These deterrents help ensure the success of the program.

OUR RESULTS

We have found that our efforts through Youth Alcohol Enforcement have proven a resounding success. Our officers have seen measurable results in their battle against the dangerous epidemic of teenage drinking. For example, in a recent 1-year period, we worked 1,022 hours of overtime. During this time, we issued 153 citations or arrests for minors in possession of alcohol, 163 for supplying intoxicants to minors, 104 for driving while intoxicated, and 335 for other criminal violations. We consistently have seen similar results.

In one tragic case, we responded to a home in rural Greene County in reference to a deceased male juvenile. Upon investigation, we determined that he had overdosed on alcohol and died after a party at the home. Detectives tracked down the adults and minors responsible for supplying the alcohol to him. We discovered that the adult female resident had allowed several drinking parties in the past. This case gained significant media attention for some time and highlighted our mission to prevent such needless deaths. As a result, we obtained more support to continue our efforts, along with assurance for a grant renewal when our funding became low.

CONCLUSION

Alcohol abuse among young people continues to be a serious nationwide epidemic. In response, our department continues to see the need for effective proactive police work in the community.

I believe that Youth Alcohol Enforcement has proven successful. The statistics speak for themselves. And, we have seen a reduction in the number of liquor stores that sell to minors. The success of this project has depended on not only our dedicated officers but the community, including the retail business owners who have taken an active role in the prevention of sales to minors.

Endnotes

(1) National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, Best Practices for Underage Drinking Prevention (Alexandria, VA, 1997).

(2) Community Partnership of the Ozarks, Underage Drinking in Missouri (Springfield, MO, 2002).

(3) Center for Science in the Public Interest, Youth and Alcohol (Washington, DC, 1999).

(4) Supra note 2.

(5) Supra note 3.

(6) Until August 2005, authorities in the state of Missouri had to build cases on physical possession; consumption alone was insufficient.

(7) States differ in their recognition of possession by consumption.

Chief Deputy Arnott serves with the Greene County, Missouri, Sheriff's Department.
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Author:Arnott, Jim C.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
Words:1787
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