CARIBOU, Maine — Like many law enforcement agencies across the state, the Caribou Police Department has taken advantage of any available funding to help them curb underage drinking. Techniques implemented with such funding have had an impact, Caribou Police Chief Michael Gahagan acknowledged Friday, but recent evidence has shown it hasn’t stopped the problem altogether.
“In the last month, we have dealt with three cases of underage drinking where the blood-alcohol content of the kids has been two or three times the legal limit for adults [of .08 percent],” he said Friday. “And these kids have been 13 and 14 years old.”
Because of the ongoing problem, the department continues to apply for grants to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors. This week the department received word that it was one of 15 Maine police departments awarded funding to engage in underage drinking enforcement operations over the next two years.
The $12,960, two-year grant was written by and will include work with the Aroostook Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, or ASAP. The money will fund implementation of research-based enforcement strategies aimed at reducing youth access to alcohol through retail outlets such as convenience and grocery stores, and so-cial outlets such as family and friends in central Aroostook County.
In addition to Caribou, the project will involve the Ashland and Presque Isle police departments and the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department. The departments will form the Aroostook Underage Drinking Enforcement Task Force, which will provide interested rural police departments in central Aroostook with law enforce-ment backup for large underage drinking parties at no cost to the department.
The ASAP Coalition is a countywide prevention organization with more than 15 member agencies representing multiple community sectors and geographic areas. It functions to bring County communities together to address substance abuse and the factors that cause it through prevention efforts and education.
According to the ASAP Coalition, local data suggest that underage drinking in The County occurs in isolated locations such as in fields or woods, and in homes, a finding that Gahagan said he agrees with.
“Most underage drinking that we get word of is happening during ‘pit parties’ or at homes when the parents are away,” he said. “When we get word of these happening, we work to break them up and issue charges when possible.”
The chief said a big obstacle to quashing underage drinking is manpower, which the grant will help address.
“When we get word of underage drinking, we head out to the site to investigate,” he explained Friday. “But often when you get there, everyone scatters, and you have one or two officers trying to identify 20 or 30 kids who are running away.”
The grant will finance backup in the form of officers, which will be a huge plus for participating departments. The chief said officers not only can help bust up the parties and interview suspected participants, they also can set up surveillance equipment so that even those who scatter when police arrive may be identified later on video.
The grant also will expand the reach of the department, he added.
“If we get word of a party on the outskirts of Caribou, such as Woodland, it is out of our jurisdiction,” said Gahagan. “But with our other law enforcement partners, we can address issues in a larger area.”
Gahagan stressed that underage drinking is not something that is reported very often, but it does seem to be more prevalent in the summer months.
The newly formed Aroostook Underage Drinking Enforcement Task Force also will offer training to alcohol retailers throughout Aroostook County, while the sheriff’s department will conduct compliance checks at local alcohol outlets to ensure that retailers are following Maine retail laws that prevent sales of alcohol to minors.
Other strategies aimed at decreasing social access to alcohol, including party patrols, source investigations and parking lot surveillance, also will be put in place.
Implementation of these strategies will be coupled with ongoing press releases from the ASAP Coalition, which will highlight enforcement activities and consequences for those arrested by police.
The grant begins Oct. 1, Gahagan said, and will run through fall 2012.