The Police Executive: Facing the Challenges of Underage Drinking
Thomas H. Carr
Chief, Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas
Office of National Drug Control Policy
Washington, D.C.

The facts are clear. In the United States, impaired driving is the most frequent violent crime. In 1995, 8,934 people died in traffic crashes involving 15- to 20-year-old drivers. Approximately 40 percent of the fatally injured drivers had a positive blood-alcohol content (BAC). Close to 60 percent of the people who died in crashes where a young driver was involved were young people themselves. Additionally, persons aged 15 to 20 years comprised 7.1 percent of licensed drivers in the recent past but accounted for 14.9 percent of all driver fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Statistics on alcohol consumption among juveniles are also alarming. Former Surgeon General Antonia Novello, an outspoken advocate for reducing underage drinking and a crusader for enhanced prevention efforts and enforcement of the laws, has cited surveys that estimate that 40 percent of the 20 million junior and senior high school students in the United States drink weekly and as many as 7 million of them purchase the alcohol themselves.

For these and other reasons, more and more people are beginning to recognize that underage drinking is a very serious problem demanding more deterrents than just a 21-year-old minimum drinking age. However, the reality is that, in the United States, there is ambivalence toward drinking in general and especially toward minors’ drinking. Many feel that teenagers always have drunk and always will drink; consequently, juvenile drinking is not treated as a serious infraction. All too often, parents regard underage drinking as a “rite of passage” and express relief that at least their children are not using illicit drugs.

How can we begin to reexamine existing laws and policies relating to underage drinking to at least reduce juvenile access to alcohol and discourage juvenile impaired driving? It is clear that responsibility for change rests with a number of different groups— teenagers, parents, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, judges, and retailers, among others.

Because of the nature of the offense and the risks to public safety, law enforcement—specifically, police executives—can and must take the lead in this issue. Today, enlightened police executives acknowledge that reducing underage alcohol use and driving under the influence (DUI) requires passing new legislation with strict penalties, requiring the courts and juvenile agencies to use the penalties, and encouraging law enforcement to enforce those statutes aggressively.

To lead an underage DUI campaign in the community and build a comprehensive enforcement program that involves police, prosecution, court, and other public agency and private citizen cooperation, the police executive must begin with the very basics. Clearly, to address underage drinking and driving, one has to recognize that there is a problem. This recognition comes from gathering information from a variety of sources on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction or statewide basis to get a true picture of the nature and extent of the issue in question. (See the description of Albany’s community survey and the chief’s DUI checklist in Strategies for Success: Combating Juvenile DUI— Part I: Building Programs That Work.) All states have central repositories or data bases for this key information. The Department of Motor Vehicles can readily identify the number of teenage drivers involved in alcohol-related traffic crashes and the number whose licenses are suspended or revoked due to an alcohol infraction. Most state medical examiners’ offices keep detailed data gathered from autopsies that police executives can use to discover more about juvenile alcohol usage. All this information can be compared with data maintained in the state’s juvenile justice system and, of course, in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Together with drug and alcohol treatment data available from state and local departments of health, police executives can obtain an informed understanding of the juvenile drinking problem in their area of responsibility.

Police executives must also examine the laws governing alcohol use by minors. Twenty-three states fail to prohibit minors from trying to buy alcoholic beverages. Twenty-one states have no laws to govern alcohol consumption by minors. Several states do not ban minors from possessing alcoholic beverages. Just as alarming, 19 states do not make it illegal for minors to present false identification in order to buy alcoholic beverages. The simple truth is that it is not difficult for a minor to obtain alcohol in most states. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently found that the alcohol-related automobile crash fatality rate for 16- and 17-year-olds was double that for drivers 25 years and older. For drivers aged 18 to 20, the rate was triple that of drivers 25 and older.

Does this mean new laws are needed to keep minors from consuming alcohol and driving under the influence? Not necessarily. Perhaps the best way to answer this question is for police executives to take a closer look at existing laws that form the basis for the enforcement efforts in their departments. If underage drivers are not being arrested for driving under the influence at a rate commensurate with the fatality rate for underage drivers, enforcement efforts may indeed be lax. On the other hand, this disparity between the fatality rate and the arrest rate may be tied to the BAC required for a prima facie case for driving impaired. Maryland, as an example, lowered the legal BAC for minors to .02, as compared to the .10 BAC then in effect in most states. This translated almost immediately into an 11-percent reduction in collisions where minors were at fault. When Maryland mounted a public awareness campaign regarding its new law and targeted high school students, the number of crashes caused by minors fell by 50 percent.

A recurring challenge in the whole underage drinking issue rests in the business community itself, where alcohol may be readily available to minors. Law enforcement agencies must determine whether establishments in or near their jurisdictions sell to minors, whether they check for proper identification, and whether these businesses are, in fact, being penalized for any illegal activity.

Another way police executives can learn more about underage drinking problems in their jurisdictions is to poll their officers. Beat officers know the problems the community is facing. They also know how cool the court system is to the issue of underage drinking. Often, officers are reluctant to arrest minors engaged in alcohol-related activities if they believe the court, the juvenile justice system, or even their own department is not responsive. All too often, this is a greater barrier to overcome than lax or outdated laws.

It is also useful for police executives to talk with the business community. In particular, police executives should seek out those who operate businesses catering to the young. Fast food and convenience store managers and their employees, for example, generally have a firsthand view of the underage drinking problem in the community that they are eager to share with law enforcement. The local insurance community has a stake in this problem, too. Automobile insurance agents routinely gather facts about drinking and driving for their companies. Candid conversations with these groups can be a source of very telling information about underage drinking.

Community-based groups formed to reduce underage drinking and DUI should not be overlooked. Such groups as Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) serve not only as excellent sources of information about these issues but also as catalysts to ignite community concerns. The zeal of SADD and MADD members can bolster law enforcement executives’ efforts to convince others of the soundness of an arrest-based underage drinking campaign.

One group that astute executives should consider throughout the planning, implementation, and evaluation process is the media. Both the written and electronic media will be keenly interested in this program. The media should be invited to join in the effort to reduce underage drinking. When the members of the media serving the community support an arrest-based strategy, the police executive’s job—indeed the work of all members of the criminal justice system, as well as the treatment, prevention, and education disciplines—becomes much easier.

Armed with the latest and most accurate information about underage drinking, police executives must take the lead in assembling a team to develop community-based solutions. One of the most efficient and proven methods of creating a team is to identify the principal stakeholders who are most affected by the issue. In addition to the police, other governmental groups are clearly responsible for dealing with at least a portion of this broad-based problem. Likewise, a number of civic and business groups will want to offer their input.

An enforcement-driven underage drinking program requires that everyone involved—police, prosecutors, judges, legislators, juvenile justice practitioners, social services providers, educators, and community and religious leaders—be a part of the problem-solving process. Police executives must patiently and wisely work with all these groups to develop solutions for the community.

One of the greatest challenges is for police executives to ensure that the group works as a team. Perhaps the best method for accomplishing this is to employ the team-building technique known as the five R’s. The R’s stand for rules, roles, relationships, responsibilities, and results.

Each member of the group must understand the rules, in this case the laws that govern an enforcement-oriented underage drinking program. Unreasonable or unrealistic expectations as to what the police, courts, and juvenile justice system can legally do to curb underage drinking will quickly lead to a breakdown within the team. A thorough understanding of the laws currently in place will save the team valuable time. Prosecutors are generally the best choice to examine the laws and explain them to the team.

Each team member must understand the roles that the team and the various governmental components and private groups have in curbing underage drinking. Police, prosecutors, judges, ministers, business owners—all the various members of the community have a role to play. The key is for everyone to understand and acknowledge the limits of each group’s role. The police executive must allow time at team meetings for roles to be defined and agreed on.

Because this is a team whose members have a stake in the solution, the police executive must nurture the relationships that exist or establish those that need to be developed. Police depend on prosecutors to present evidence to the court. The court depends on the juvenile justice system and the treatment community to treat those committed to their care effectively. Parents depend on educators and the school system to reinforce the idea that minors should not drink alcoholic beverages. This domino-like relationship must be understood if the team and, eventually, the community are to be successful.

Once the relationships are developed, police executives must be sure that team members understand and accept their individual responsibilities as well as those of the team. All too often the best-intentioned teams falter because their members fail to accept responsibility or understand where their responsibility ends and another’s begins. Again, police executives must closely monitor the team’s activities to safeguard against a breakdown in this area.

Once rules, roles, relationships, and responsibilities are established, police executives and all others who are part of the team have to agree on the results. Unrealistic expectations frequently lead to conflict between team members and in the community as a whole. If the team locks onto the notion, for example, that the intended results of its work must be the complete elimination of underage drinking, problems may arise. Further, intensive evaluation plans need to be established to determine what works, what does not work, and what would be likely to work in the future.

One benefit of having a multidisciplinary team composed of a broad cross-section of the community is widespread political support and a greater chance of gaining funding for the program. More specifically, any grant application showing numerous resources devoted to a single, comprehensive program designed to reduce underage drinking will have great credibility that in turn will increase the likelihood of funding. Funding could be sought for enforcement-based programs coupled with an intensive public education campaign or for an alternative sanction program, to name a few approaches.

The degree of success an enforcement-oriented underage drinking program will enjoy is directly related to the police executive’s commitment and the department’s command structure. Police departments with high numbers of DUI arrests all have one thing in common—a top-down command emphasis on traffic enforcement and, more specifically, on DUI enforcement.

The posture of law enforcement executives toward underage drinking must be clearly and concisely communicated to their entire departments. Every department member must accept DUI and underage drinking enforcement as an extremely important task and a professional responsibility. The police executive’s job is to create an atmosphere of enthusiasm for the program.

A reward system is frequently useful for instilling in the department an enforcement-based approach to underage drinking. High arrest producers should be rewarded for their efforts. Incentives designed to acknowledge an individual officer’s or a shift’s performance tend to raise and sustain a department’s overall performance.

Training is also a primary ingredient for ensuring success in this type of undertaking. Underage drinkers and minors who drink and drive exhibit different characteristics than do adults. When consuming alcohol, minors typically congregate in parking lots or fields as opposed to meeting in bars or nightclubs. Underage drinkers generally operate on Friday and Saturday nights between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. Adults charged with DUI are normally arrested throughout the week and tend to be detected later at night. Additionally, youthful drivers tend to increase their speeds and engage in risk-taking maneuvers when driving under the influence. Older drivers drive more slowly and are prone to be less daring than their youthful counterparts. In 1993, researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute uncovered some startling facts about teenagers and nighttime driving that underscore the differences in drinking and driving patterns between minors and adults. The research showed that while only 20 percent of teenage driving occurs between 9:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., more than 50 percent of the fatal accidents involving teenagers occur then. Patrol officers usually require additional training geared to the detection and arrest of underage violators.

There are many components police executives may want to consider incorporating in enforcement-driven underage drinking programs. As mentioned earlier, Maryland’s .02 BAC law, when coupled with an intensely focused public information campaign, cut crashes caused by minors by 50 percent. But another technique some states have used in conjunction with lower BAC laws is the administrative license revocation, or ALR. Under ALR, a police officer can confiscate a driver’s license on the scene if the driver refuses to take a chemical test or shows an illegal level of alcohol in his or her system. Studies show that ALR is effective in reducing driving fatalities.

Another component police executives may want to discuss with their teams is provisional licensing. Research on provisional licensing laws in the United States and abroad has found that the number of juvenile-involved motor vehicle collisions dropped when a provisional licensing system was installed. Under this system, young drivers are generally restricted as to the time of day they are allowed to operate a vehicle and, in some instances, to the number and age of passengers that may accompany them. Needless to say, when used with the .02 BAC laws and ALR, a law enforcement-driven underage drinking program can really begin to take shape.

Many law enforcement executives grow discouraged over the fact that these new and innovative laws are not in place in their jurisdictions. Indeed, some use this as an excuse for not employing an arrest-oriented program to curb underage drinking. Other police executives, however, work to amend existing laws and introduce new ones, while using the laws that are available to tackle the problem. The main goal of an alcohol control policy is to limit the harm drinkers do to themselves and to others, but another goal is to control the costs associated with the policy itself and with its unwanted side effects.

Most scholars who have studied our nation’s Prohibition era attribute the mob violence of the 1920s and 1930s to the strict controls placed on alcohol production, transportation, and sale. The Volstead Act (prohibition’s enforcement statute) undoubtedly cut down on the national consumption of alcohol; arrests for drunkenness fell sharply, as did deaths from alcoholism. Fewer working men squandered their hard-earned wages on drink. But in insisting on total abstinence, the law drove millions of moderate people to direct violation of the law. “Bootlegger” became a household word. The saloon disappeared, but the speakeasy emerged, usually operating under the benevolent eye of the local police. As could have been predicted, most liquor traffic fell into the hands of gangsters. Hijackings, bloody turf wars, drive-by shootings, and huge illegitimate alcohol trafficking profits took their toll on public sentiment. The lessons learned in the “noble experiment” should not be forgotten when developing modern alcohol control policies.

School policies, for example, often call for expelling students who are caught drinking or possessing alcohol on school property or at school events. Unless an alcohol treatment component is available and made part of the consequences for violating school policy, the act of expelling the student for inappropriate behavior may result in reinforcing the child’s temptation to drink. “What do I have to lose now?” is the attitude many children take when placed in this position.

Some communities have experimented with imposing curfews on young people in an attempt to limit their ability to obtain and use alcohol in public settings. Extreme care should be taken in designing a curfew ordinance. Curfews can punish all minors, not just those who misbehave or violate the drinking laws. The infringement on personal liberties and the perceived unfairness of such policies generally lead to their failure. Some curfews are not easily enforced. Many are manpower-intensive for the police, and they tend to strain an already overworked juvenile justice system. Furthermore, if the penalties set for the curfew violations are too minor or too severe, or if they are too sparingly or too selectively imposed, the value of the curfew may be severely diminished.

For enhanced effectiveness, curfew ordinances should be community based and combined with other services, such as teen recreation centers and jobs programs. Phoenix designed a curfew as one component of its citywide crime prevention and reduction program. After the implementation of a juvenile curfew in May 1993, Phoenix experienced a 10-percent decrease in juvenile arrests for violent crimes (homicide, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault) during the 11-month period from June 1993 to April 1994, compared with the period from June 1992 to April 1993. For more information on representative curfew programs, see Curfew: An Answer to Juvenile Delinquency and Victimization? (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1996 (April)), which is available from the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse, P.O. Box 6000, Rockville, MD 20849-6000, phone (800) 638-8736.

The question for law enforcement executives is whether they can devise a policy able to protect the legal uses of alcohol while controlling the harm so often befalling drinkers and others. Unquestionably, alcohol policy must be constructed around two primary objectives: preventing children from drinking and preventing all people from drinking and driving. Police executives are duty bound to develop an enforcement policy that meets these objectives.