“Nine! Ten! Eleven! Twelve!”
The countdown comes from a yard full of rowdy partygoers surrounding a keg on the 400 block of Hartman Street Friday evening. Despite scores of bicycles parked along the curb and a series of keg-stands—hence the countdown—this isn’t the party Missoula Police Lt. Shawn Paul is looking for.
“It’s probably not an underage party,” says Paul as he approaches the house on foot. “When it’s an underage party everybody scatters. They’ll go out the back door or through the sides.”
Paul is the supervising officer this evening of Operation Party Patrol, the Missoula Police Department’s ongoing six-week blitz on underage drinking. Since tonight marks the height of the University of Montana’s Home-coming weekend, Paul is directing two overlapping shifts and a total of 17 officers. Some will walk the bars in teams, others will ride motorcycles looking for DUI’s, and still others will patrol neighborhoods waiting to respond to loud parties.
“But it’s not just about crashing parties,” says Paul, who let the Indy ride shotgun for the evening. “It’s about addressing the five elements we’re targeting: DUI’s, the over-serving at bars, fake ID’s, open containers and loud house parties with underage drinkers.”
In the first weekend of the department’s “Comprehensive” Strategic Response Plan,” officers issued 54 citations to minors in possession at one party, more than 50 citations for open containers and made three DUI arrests. Over Homecoming weekend, another 50-plus citations were handed out for underage drinking between 5 p.m. Friday and 7 a.m. Saturday.
“This is also about changing the culture and environment of downtown drinking,” says Paul.
The effort includes more than just law enforcement. In 2006, the Missoula Police Department won a national award for reducing underage drinking by involving community partners, and secured more than $80,000 in federal grant funding to expand preventative measures. The project now brings partners like the University of Montana, Missoula County Public Schools, the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth and the Missoula County DUI Task Force together as part of the Missoula Underage Substance Abuse Prevention Team, or MUSAP. The group combines enforcement measures with local education and media outreach.
“No one’s doing this alone,” says Layci Nelson, coordinator for the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth. “True quality and effective prevention work depends on a multi-piece strategy.”
To illustrate the problem, Nelson points to a 2006 Montana Prevention Needs Assessment study (MPNA) that found 43 percent of Missoula County 12th graders—15 percent more than the national average—reported past binge drinking, or consuming more than five drinks in a sitting. While those numbers mark an improvement in the state from a similar 2004 study, Nelson says the numbers are still alarming.
“Significantly more of our youth have attitudes about drinking that are unhealthy,” she says.
Paul witnesses the problem firsthand with another stop just after 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning at a house across from Hellgate High School. As he exits his car, revelers burst out from behind nearby shrubs and trees, fleeing the unfenced yard as officers scramble to nab them.
Moments later, a sobbing young woman appears from the shadows of the yard with her hands held behind her back by an officer. Paul then emerges with an underage male in handcuffs. While four cops secure the front porch and begin checking IDs, additional officers arrive and fan out around the house to catch any other would-be deserters. Sure enough, a young man in a green shirt and khaki shorts darts through the front door of the house, cuts between two partiers and an officer, leaps off the porch and sails over a handrail. Despite landing in a shrub, he continues sprinting down Gerald Avenue and is long gone. Seconds later, another runner isn’t so lucky. An officer tackles the young man while another pins him by the shoulders.
“If you run, you’re going to jail—just to make clear!” an officer announces.
While the exercise may come across as extreme babysitting, Paul says the department’s strategy is slowly starting to have an impact on alcohol abuse. The same 2006 MPNA study that showed Montana above national averages with underage binge drinking, also said 28 percent of Missoula 8th graders feared getting caught by police if they drank in their own neighborhood—a 4 percent rise since 2004. In addition, it noted a 7 percent decline since 2004 in the number of Missoula high school seniors who reported using alcohol in the past month.
Paul says those trends are a result of more than just this weekend’s patrols. Beyond Operation Party Patrol, he says officers will place more attention on curbing alcohol sales to minors in coming months through server and bartender trainings. It’s part of the department’s effort to cut off minors before they reach a house party.
“It’s that first contact where youth get alcohol,” says Sgt. Casey Richardson, who handles the compliance check program. This weekend, he says, 27 alcohol retailers were tested by underage buyers and only one, a new retailer on N. Reserve Street, failed. With fines of $500 to $1,500 facing business owners, he says, “It’s a huge opportunity to educate our providers.”
It’s this multi-faceted approach that both police and local experts say works best. Nelson cautions the key now is, “not letting [the current awareness] fade, and continuing the conversation and coordinated efforts to increase protective factors for young people—from reducing drop-out rates to addressing needs of young parents. It really all is connected.”