ELLSWORTH, Maine — For the past three years, law enforcement officers have targeted underage drinking through a countywide task force.
With a recent $10,000 grant from the state Office of Substance Abuse, the Hancock County Underage Drinking Task Force will continue that effort and beef up its compliance checks on businesses that serve alcohol.
The task force is a multijurisdictional team created in 2005 through a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to combat the problem of minors consuming alcohol. It includes 20 officers from agencies throughout the county and enhances the efforts of local departments, according to Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Thornton, who is the task force’s co-director.
On regular patrols, Thornton said, officers face a range of situations and have to prioritize calls. The task force patrol allows the officers to focus solely on underage drinking.
“We have more time to sit on a store or a house, to track where there’s a party,” he said. “That’s our only responsibility, short of a shooting or a fatal accident where we need manpower. Our primary goal is what OSA calls ‘party patrol.’”
Those efforts are important, Thornton said, because alcohol and other drugs are a major factor in many of the crimes he and other officers deal with around the county.
“I know some people don’t like to hear it called a drug, but alcohol is a gateway drug,” said Thornton, who also is a drug recognition expert who works with drug education programs in schools and communities in the county. “None of these kids starts out to be a junkie. But probably 90 percent of the thefts we deal with is tied to some sort of drug. And when I ask them how they got started, it always goes back to drinking.”
The task force gathers information from a variety of sources, including patrol officers and the county’s drug task force. The officers are regularly in touch with school officials and even use the Internet to gather tips about what is happening in the area. They’ve identified “hot spots” and also target five specific times of the year: February and spring vacations, graduation weekend, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Some of those times coincide with college breaks that bring college students home and into contact with high school students.
Although larger parties have garnered headlines, the task force also has worked “under the radar” to discourage teens from drinking over the three-plus years it has been in existence.
“We’ve had good numbers,” Thornton said.
In a 14-month period between October 2007 and December 2008, the task force was responsible for 152 citations, summonses and arrests, including 108 charges against people under age 21 for possession of alcohol, and charges against 11 adults for furnishing a place for minors to drink.
“We’ve been successful,” Thornton said. “The numbers are one thing, but there also are intangibles, the things you can’t prove — what have we prevented? They see Chris Thornton in his cruiser, and they’ll see me in my Trailblazer. If we’re spotted, I think it has a deterrent effect. I think some kids are a little more nervous and maybe they’ll think twice about drinking that beer or going to that party.”
If the efforts to target underage drinkers have been successful, Thornton said, there is one area where the task force has not had the same effectiveness. That’s in checking on establishments that sell alcohol — bars, restaurants and retail stores — to ensure they are not selling to minors.
In a 2006 task force sting operation, all eight stores investigated sold alcohol to an underage female. All eight stores were cited for selling alcohol to a minor. Subsequent operations resulted in somewhat better compliance, but, according to Thornton, there are still some repeat offenders.
When the state did away with the Bureau of Liquor Enforcement in 2003, the task of enforcing compliance fell to sheriff’s departments, Thornton said. He noted that no extra funding was provided to those departments for the effort. As a result, he said, there has been no concerted effort to conduct compliance checks.
“I think we’ve dropped the ball on holding these establishments’ feet to the fire,” he said.
The grant will help with that effort in Hancock County, he said. It will provide funding for a training session to give officers instruction in compliance. All 20 team members will take part in the training, Thornton said.
“We’ll get out and get into these places,” he said. “We’ll pop into establishments and do spot-checks.”
The training will provide officers with the necessary tools and information to be able to conduct a comprehensive compliance check to ensure that the state’s liquor laws are adhered to. The effort will rely on plainclothes as well as uniformed officers.
The grant also funded purchase of equipment for the task force.
Grants are a necessary part of the task force, since they provide all of the funding for its operations. No county funds are allocated for the task force, and, Thornton said, given current economic conditions, it is unlikely funds will be included in future county budgets.
That keeps Thornton on the lookout for additional sources of funding, including touching base with Healthy Community organizations around the county, which occasionally have funding available for enforcement efforts.
Current funding will keep the task force on the job into the summer. Thornton said he’d be looking for more funding to keep the task force in operation.
“I’d hate for it to be just a flash in the pan,” he said.