By Tamara Best
With the official start of summer here, local law enforcement officials say they are looking to curb the annual trend of underage drinking which peaks this time of year.
Since February, the 104th Precinct has been conducting a series of stings on major streets in the area, penalizing businesses that sell alcohol to underage customers.
“It’s definitely a quality of life issue that we have to address and we take it seriously because the alcohol leads to other problems,” said Special Operations Officer Lt. James Lombardi, who helps coordinate the precinct’s efforts to reduce the sale of alcohol to minors.
Between May 17 and June 13, the precinct issued a total of 264 summonses, of which 112 were alcohol related. In 2009 for the same time period, 370 summonses were issued with 160 for alcohol sales. Though numbers are on a slight decline from last year, the 104th Precinct is gearing up to conduct more stings in coming weeks.
In an effort to identify businesses selling alcohol to minors, officers from the 104th Precinct conduct undercover visits to local stores and bars.
Auxiliary police officers between the ages of 18 and 20 who are specially trained for underage alcohol sales attempt to purchase alcoholic beverages. The auxiliary officers are from other precincts to ensure their personal safety and are always under the supervision of officers from the 104th Precinct while working. Officers are not allowed to participate if they are within six months of their 21st birthday, Lombardi said.
“They are really professional and they love it,” he said of the auxiliary officers.
The auxiliary officers enter a business and attempt to buy an alcoholic beverage, without presenting any form of I.D. If the seller asks the officer to present I.D., they are not issued a summons. Officers are required to reveal their real age if and when asked by the seller.
“We’re not trying to fool the owners, we just want them to ask for I.D.,” Lombardi said. “I would prefer to give zero summonses.”
If the seller provides the undercover officer with alcohol, another officer in uniform will then enter the business and issue the seller with a summons. The purchased alcohol is poured out and the officers move on to another location.
Since February, the precinct has conducted undercover operations at 56 locations and has issued 21 summonses over the last 28 days alone. Most stores checked for violations have I.D. signs posted for the sale of tobacco but very few for alcohol.
Out of the 56 visits, there was a heavy concentration of sales on Woodward, Onderdonk and Seneca avenues in Ridgewood. Woodward Avenue had some of highest numbers of stores with more than one violation including Rodriguez Deli, Anais Deli and Woodward Supermarket.
Management at Rodriguez and Anais Delis were unavailable comment upon store visits by press time. However, management at Woodward Supermarket, who declined to give their name, said the two sales were an honest mistake.
“The guy came in and looked like he was in his 30s, he didn’t look young so the clerk didn’t think to check for I.D. But now, we always check,” they said.
Businesses that receive three or more summons are cited for nuisance abatement, which penalizes entities that pose a recurring problem to the public. Businesses cited for nuisance abatement face possible fines and closures of their store, according to Lombardi.
***Booze and Consequences***
According to The International Institute for Alcohol Awareness, underage drinking cost the state $3.2 billion in 2005. New York ranks 38th in the highest amount spent for the cost of youth for underage drinking.
Aside from costing tax buyers money, underage drinking poses problems for law enforcement.
“The drinking leads to other behavior, sometimes violent,” Lombardi said, adding that alcohol is often a factor in assault and other violent domestic cases.
However, the most significant threat underage drinking poses serious injury and loss of life.
Consumption of alcohol by teens contributes to three of the most common causes of death according to the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS). Last year 1,900 people under 21 died in alcohol related accidents, 1,600 from homicide and 300 from suicide in addition to injuries ranging from fall, burns and drowning.
Organizations devoted to curbing underage drinking say prevention and education on the part of retailers is crucial to efforts to stop minors from having access to alcohol. OASAS has an “Underage Drinking Not a Minor Problem,” campaign, a toolkit which gives others who want to spread the warning about underage drinking through flyers, public service announcements and other resources.
The New York State Liquor Authority also provides a handbook for retailers that offer tips on how to check for valid I.D. when presented by customers.
Additionally, this week state Senator Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester) introduced legislation aimed at curbing underage drinking by offering incentives to bar owners who participate in training programs.
"As we enter the high season for underage drinking - with proms, graduations, summer festivals, block parties and July fourth right around the corner - we've got to be on alert and ready to take action,” he said. “By enlisting local bars and restaurants we prevent more minors from being served and together ensure a safer summer for all New Yorkers."