Businesses feel targeted; say stings aren't the answer by David Lias Several representatives of businesses that hold on-off sale malt beverage licenses in the city told the Vermillion City Council Monday that the police department's recent sting operations weren't conducted fairly.
They also questioned why Police Chief Art Mabry immediately resorted to undercover tactics rather than directly communicating with the license holders if he feels there is an underage drinking problem in the community.
"What's disturbing about these two stings is the gross unfairness in which they were conducted," said Jere Chapman, owner of the Silver Dollar Restaurant, which failed the first sting but passed the second one.
Chapman said he was assured by Mabry after the first sting that all license holders would be treated equally. After the second sting, Chapman contacted the chief once more.
"After checking his list, he assured me that all those missed on the first sting had been checked," Chapman said.
Police reports show, however, that one business that failed the first sting wasn't part of the second undercover operation.
Eleven businesses that were stung March 28 and followed the law were hit again with another sting on May 6.
Eight license holders, including the city-owned clubhouse at The Bluffs Golf Course, have yet to be subject to an undercover alcohol purchase attempt.
"How is this fair? It also looks bad when even one of the licenses held by the city has not been checked," Chapman said. "It also looks bad when two downtown bars have not been checked as of yet."
Little Italy's, a restaurant that's located near the Silver Dollar on Cherry Street, he noted, has been stung twice, and passed each sting.
"Are the police telling us that Little Italy's is a bigger problem than the downtown bars?" Chapman asked. "I'm not saying all downtown bars serve to minors, but we all know they have more opportunities to do that."
Chapman said after his meeting with Mabry following the March sting, he was told by the chief that Vermillion has a reputation as a party town and that he was going to do something about it.
"Where does he get his information?" Chapman asked. "Second, he told me that these stings will not target anyone, and all will be considered and checked. Were they?
"Third, he told me he does not care if the minors he hires to conduct these stings lie to us," Chapman said.
During the second sting, a Silver Dollar employee asked the undercover minors their age.
"They both answered 21," he said. Chapman said it may be legal for an undercover agent to lie, but the community needs to decide if it is right or fair for its police to support that activity. He added that the state's attorney wasn't happy that employees of the police department were not telling the truth during the sting operations.
Chapman requested city aldermen to do two things.
"First, if stings are going to continue, please instruct the city manager to require the chief to conduct them fairly, and make sure that the hired minors cannot lie.
"Number two and more importantly, realize that stings have never worked in the past in solving the minor problem, and they'll never work in the future," Chapman said. "If they (the police) are at all serious about working with this problem, let's have a coming together of law enforcement and licensed establishments and figure out what will work."
Chapman said he is disappointed with Mabry.
"The attitude of the new chief of police is let's not work together. He sets us up for failure. He wants to catch us," Chapman said.
City Manager James Patrick said at a recent marketing seminar held at USD, the number one complaint of students who are considering attending the university is the perception that Vermillion is a party town.
"The idea of a party town has gone beyond the borders of Vermillion," Patrick said.
The city manager also mentioned the 60 minors who were arrested for underage drinking at a fraternity party earlier this
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Chapman suggested that police focus on youth who break drinking laws, not establishments like Little Italy's or his restaurant.
"There are problems in Vermillion that need to be addressed," Chapman said. He said police and license holders need to meet and discuss why underage drinking is a problem in the community, and what can be done to help alleviate it.
"Statistics have proven that they (stings) don't work," Chapman said.
Patrick said local law enforcement just "flat out missed" conducting stings both times at some establishments, including The Bluffs.
"There's no excuse, we talked about it," Patrick said. "It wasn't due to any other reason."
Patrick said the city wants to work with license holders. He added that the Coalition for Drug, Alcohol and Domestic Abuse had been established at USD to help set up a task force of businesses with malt beverage and liquor licenses to try to address the underage drinking issue.
Chapman told Patrick he's seen little indication of local law enforcement's willingness to work the bars, restaurants and convenience stores.
"I've been in business in this town for many years," he said. "This is the first time in my career I've felt threatened."
"I would certainly like to see our time spent checking the patrons rather than checking out the owners," said Alderman Dan Christopherson. "If we spent our time going in and helping the bar owners check patrons on a regular basis, it would help the problem of underage drinking much more than stings."
Cliff Deverell of Hy-Vee in Vermillion, said the community's reputation as a party town can be traced to the publicity spread by the police department of its sting operations and arrests at the fraternity party.
Deverell said stings may be legal, but that doesn't mean they are right for every community.
The sting operations, he said, "take someone who is not a police officer and have him purposely break the law to try to get someone else to break the law.
"The thing that really irks me," Deverell said, "is why can't the authorities at least try to come to us if they feel there is a problem? They've run these stings and now they want to work with us. What the hell happened before they ran the stings? If they think there is a problem, all they would have to do is say to all 35 license holders that we think we've got a problem and we've got to work on it."
Deverell asked the city council to consider the problems that arise when an undercover agent is successful in purchasing alcohol from a business and employee that never had the intention to sell to a minor.
The employee is fined, and likely may lose his or her job. The business is fined, and has its license suspended temporarily.
While all of that is happening, the root of the problem of underage drinking isn't being addressed.
Deverell doesn't credit the practices at Hy-Vee for its success at passing both sting operations.
"We got lucky both times," he said.
Hy-Vee has cash registers that force cashiers to punch in the birth date of anyone attempting to purchase beer.
It's not a foolproof piece of technology, he said, noting that anyone whose run a calculator knows how easy it is to accidently hit a wrong number.
Deverell told aldermen that alcohol stings used to be conducted by the state in communities throughout South Dakota. Gov. William Janklow finally put a stop to them.
"A letter he sent to South Dakota retailers says, 'I thought you guys were at fault. We found very little beer was sold to minors by retailers.' "
The majority of people under 21 who drink get their alcohol from home or from friends who are old enough to legally purchase it. They don't get their alcohol by buying it directly from businesses, he said.
"And yet we're going to take it on the chin as retailers," he said. "Picking on the retailers is not the way. We are your taxpayers, and we are your tax collectors."
Deverell suggested that the funds spent by police on the two sting operations be used to bring Techniques of Alcohol Management (TAM) instructors to Vermillion and offer classes to license holders and employees for free.
Wendy Lockwood, co-owner of Pump N Stuff in Vermillion, offered to have police monitor alcohol sales at her convenience store through her business' video surveillance system. She gives a $50 reward to employees who catch minors that try to buy alcohol. She offers a similar award to employees if the person who attempts an illegal purchase is convicted.
"We don't want kids to come in to our store," she said. "Kids don't get all of their beer from retailers. They get older brothers and sisters and friends to buy their alcohol for them."
Pump N Stuff passed the first sting. Lockwood was in the Vermillion store, TAM training a new employee, when that clerk was caught in the second sting.
"She made a human mistake on that sale. There's no question about that," Lockwood said.
"I feel we've been targeted by the new police chief, by the city council and by the city in general," said Gregg Peters, who owns and operates Jones' Food Center with his wife, Nicole.
Peters said his business has been the subject of numerous tobacco and alcohol stings in the eight years its been in operation in Vermillion. It turned away every minor who attempted to make an illegal purchase.
"I don't understand why we would be targeted twice when there are businesses downtown, there are businesses in our parking lot, that have failed stings in the past and didn't get tested twice," Peters said.
The local sting operations, he said, are flawed. And those flaws could eventually force a small community business, faced with fines and a license suspension to close.
"I just personally find that offensive," Peters said.
He urged aldermen to not solely focus on the supply side of the underage drinking problem.
"The one thing that everyone needs to remember is if there is no demand, we don't have to worry about the supply," Peters said.
He added that he truly believes there is no business in Vermillion that would risk fines and license suspensions and intentionally sell alcohol to minors just to make a few extra dollars. "No one is going to risk their livelihood in that way."