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Breaking the Ties Between Youth and Substance Abuse

Ventura Police Department programs, including efforts to keep kids away from alcohol, focus on education, enforcement and offering positive alternatives.

October 01, 2000|MIKE TRACY | Mike Tracy is chief of the Ventura Police Department

Police officers know from experience that a significant number of police calls for service are related to alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, our youth have not escaped the influence of this social problem. State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer recently released a survey that showed a decline in alcohol abuse among students. That's the good news--current prevention strategies seem to be reaching teens who are casual alcohol users. However, the fact remains that the number of students who report using drugs and alcohol on a daily or weekly basis remains unacceptably high. One indication of this problem is that recent statistics show 21% of drivers under 21 who are involved in fatal collisions had been drinking alcohol.

At the Ventura Police Department. we are addressing the problems of substance abuse among youth from several fronts. Our Safe Schools Program puts police officers on campus to educate students about the dangers of alcohol, drug and tobacco abuse. Working with school officials and our other police resources, school resource officers are also charged with enforcing a zero tolerance policy against substance abuse on campus. Through the Youth Activities Program and the Police Activities League, officers work with youth to give them positive alternatives to substance abuse.

Specifically with regard to alcohol abuse, the Police Department is working collaboratively with the State Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) on several educational and enforcement programs designed to reduce drug and alcohol use among minors. This effort is funded through a $99,000 grant from ABC. Under this grant, the Police Department will coordinate educational programs for merchants who sell and distribute alcoholic beverages, and ensure targeted enforcement directed at minors who purchase and merchants who sell alcohol in violation of state law.

The educational phase of the program aims to cut sales of alcoholic beverages to minors by educating merchants and their employees. The Police Department recently hosted the first of these educational programs to provide accurate information to retail businesses and their employees on alcohol responsibility and California law. This free, voluntary program provides practical information on serving alcoholic beverages safely, responsibly and legally. More than 60 local businesses were represented in this training.

Officers also conduct visits and inspections of businesses licensed to sell alcohol and identify problems or illegal procedures. The main purpose of this part of the program is educational. Officers point out violations and suggest practical ways for the merchant to solve problems. A second, follow-up visit by the officer is done to verify that the merchant is in compliance.

The second phase of the program is enforcement--arresting minors who buy alcohol and adults who assist them. In July we began a two-officer bicycle patrol in Ventura's downtown corridor. Officers on bikes can easily navigate downtown traffic and are accessible. The officers' primary goal is to reduce underage drinking and make a teen's access to alcohol more difficult. They will also work to reduce the number of businesses that sell alcoholic beverages to minors.

The enforcement program most people are familiar with is the decoy program, known as a sting operation. A teenager, working with an undercover officer, tries to buy alcohol from a store, bar or restaurant. If the teen is successful, the employee who sold the alcohol and the licensee are issued citations. Our goal is to stop minors from buying alcohol. It would be ideal if all businesses refused to sell to these minors and no citations were issued.

A recent survey by the Los Angeles Police Department indicated that 46% of all teens who use alcohol try to get an adult to buy it for them. In the Shoulder Tap Program, a minor decoy, working with an officer, asks adults outside liquor stores or other businesses to buy him or her alcohol. If the adult buys the alcohol, he or she is arrested for furnishing alcohol to a minor. The goal of the Shoulder Tap Program is to make adults aware that buying alcohol for teenagers is illegal.

Occasionally, with the cooperation of a retailer, an undercover officer poses as a liquor store clerk. When a minor tries to buy alcohol using false identification or no ID, or an adult buys alcohol for a juvenile, a second undercover officer moves in and arrests the violator.


The goal of all of these enforcement programs is to ensure that alcoholic beverages are served and sold safely, responsibly and legally. Implementation has drawn a positive response from the business community. These efforts can be successful only with the cooperation of licensed alcohol retailers and their employees, so we are encouraged by that positive response. We want licensees to know the law and take seriously their duty to the community not to sell alcohol to minors.

Clearly, alcohol abuse is a major social problem. The Police Department's primary role of enforcement is an important strategy to address this issue. Furthermore, we have a responsibility to educate the public and the business community about their responsibilities under the law, and of the danger that alcohol abuse imposes. But the problem--and the solution--is not strictly in the domain of law enforcement. Parents must take personal responsibility for helping their children make the right choices. We must also ensure that our other public services, including medical, mental health and schools, are properly charged and funded to work collaboratively to solve this serious problem. Together we can continue to keep Ventura a safe place for all of us to live and work.

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