Mabry: Underage drinking problem must be addressed

Mabry: Underage drinking problem must be addressed Ask Vermillion Police Chief Art Mabry why his department ran two beer stings in the community in the span of approximately six weeks, and he recalls an incident that was the talk of the town earlier this year. by David Lias Ask Vermillion Police Chief Art Mabry why his department ran two beer stings in the community in the span of approximately six weeks, and he recalls an incident that was the talk of the town earlier this year.

"We had one case here in the spring when we charged 60 juveniles for underage drinking at a fraternity party," he said in an interview in early May, shortly after city police completed their second beer sting in the span of approximately a month. "In a community the size of Vermillion, that's a pretty significant percentage at one party."

Underage drinking is a significant issue in today's society, not only across the nation, but also in Vermillion and South Dakota, said Mabry, whose been on the job as head of the city's police department since Jan. 6.

"We (the police) have the opportunity to see it probably more so than anyone else, because we're the ones that have to deal with the aftermath of it," Mabry said of the problems related to alcohol abuse, "whether it be a traffic accident, whether it be fights, whether it be domestic situations. It is an issue in Vermillion.

"And we have, for lack of a better word, 'routine' calls where officers find kids parking someplace, underage, drinking alcohol. One of the best ways to try to curtail it is to get to the source of where that alcohol comes from," he said. "And maybe a more philosophical point of view is we have a commitment to the entire community to make it as safe as possible."

That's why Mabry had police officers and underage agents launch the first sting against businesses holding on and off-sale malt beverage licenses on March 28.

He followed up with a second sting on May 6.

Underage agents attempted to buy beer in 23 Vermillion businesses March 28. Six of those businesses sold alcohol to the agents.

In the May 6 sting, 18 license holders were stung. Four failed by selling beer to the underage agents. One of the six businesses that failed the first sting also failed the second one.

Eight license holders so far haven't been subject to any undercover attempts by minors.

"There were a lot more places that passed this (second) compliance check than failed it. Of the six that failed the first time, only one failed the second time," Mabry said.

There is still room for improvement, he said, noting that over 25 percent of businesses checked in the first sting sold to minors. In the second sting, the number of businesses caught in the sting decreased to 22 percent.

The Vermillion Police Department recruited its underage agents from an out-of-state college that has a criminal justice program.

"We talk to the administrator of that program, and explain the operation to them and ask them to recommend two students that they feel would work well with that type of operation," Mabry said. "We meet with those students, we explain what we're going to do, and explain what they should and shouldn't do, and then we make arrangements for a time and date to start the operation."

Mabry said the agents wear a "wire" or concealed listening device so police officers stationed outside can monitor the conversations between the agents and the clerks or bartenders.

"The main purpose of the monitoring is to insure their (the agents') safety. Obviously, when they are working with us, we have that responsibility," Mabry said. "We don't record the conversations, but we do monitor them, and make sure that the individuals are safe."

The minors use their own driver's licenses as they attempt to buy beer.

"We don't try to trick anyone in any way, shape or form. They go in, they typically order a couple beers, or if it's a convenience store, they pick up a 12-pack and go to the counter." Mabry said. "If they're asked for their ID, they produce it. If a sale is made, they take it, they come out to the officer, they write out a statement, they identify who sold to them and we go back later and confirm that identification."

A report is then made and sent to the county state's attorney, who makes the final decision about what charges will be brought against the license holder and the employee that the made the sale.

"One thing we tell them is not to lie," Mabry said.

One Vermillion businessman caught in the first sting said the

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police department's agents aren't following that order. Jere Chapman, owner of the Silver Dollar Restaurant, said one of his waitresses asked the two minors if they were 21 years old as she checked their driver's licenses. Chapman said his employee told him they replied affirmatively.

"The officers that monitored the transactions indicated to me that he did not hear them ask or answer in that way," Mabry said. "Another officer said on one occasion, he did hear them say that. If that's what they did, they weren't supposed to."

It's an issue, however, that the police chief quickly sets aside.

"The example I will use is when I was an undercover narcotics officer, do you know how many people asked me, before they sold me drugs, if I was a cop? Just about every one of them. I told them, 'No, I wasn't.' That's certainly acceptable," he said.

The two undercover agents who participated in the last sting were from Iowa. Mabry notes that Iowa's driver's license are designed to help make identification of minors rather easy.

A line of type above the photo on an Iowa minor's license states he or she is under 21 and states the month, day and year of the holder's 21st birthday.

"It makes it pretty simple for anyone checking IDs. All you have to do is be able to read and know what date it is," Mabry said. "You don't even have to do any math.

"One of the things I find frustrating is that every place that sold to them looked at their driver's licenses," he said. "I don't think that clerks are saying, 'Okay, I know you're under 21, but I'm still going to sell to you.' But I think they're getting careless. I think they're going on the assumption that if somebody is going to show them a driver's license, they must be under 21. You can't make those kind of assumptions."

Mabry said the two beer stings has helped point out that a minor can purchase beer in Vermillion.

"If underage persons want to buy alcohol, the best way to do it is walk in there like they own the store, and if you ask (their age) what, in their mind, do they have to lose? But they may convince them (the clerks). This operation has demonstrated that some can be convinced," Mabry said.

The second sting was conducted shortly before the end of classes, and the summer exodus of University of South Dakota students, many who are between the ages of 18 and 20, occurred.

Mabry gave no hint that the timing of the stings is related to the number of young people who are residing in Vermillion at the time.

"The stings will be conducted randomly. Obviously, a sting doesn't do a whole lot of good if they know it's coming. We may do one tomorrow, we may do one in six months," he said. "I think that's one thing that maybe caught people by surprise. I don't think they expected to have another operation so quickly."

Mabry hopes the stings have helped license holders realize how important it is to make sure not to let any minor purchase alcohol in their establishments.

"I want these businesses to not sell to juveniles for two reasons: Number one, because not selling to them is the right thing to do. Number two, because it's against the law," he said. "But if the only reason they don't do it is because they're gun-shy that there might be another sting operation, I'll take that, too."

Mabry said he isn't concerned that the undercover operations may drive a wedge between local law enforcement and businesses in Vermillion. "We have a commitment to the community as a whole. If catching somebody selling alcohol to a minor offends them, so be it," he said. "We enforce traffic violations, and we aren't accused of being anti-motorist. There are plenty of options out there for these businesses to use that would cut down on this."

Mabry suggests license holders and their employees undergo TAM (Techniques of Alcohol Management) training.

"That serves two purposes. It helps reduce the selling, and it serves a significant purpose to the business establishments in that if their employees have been TAM trained, their first violations are monetary fines and not suspensions of their alcohol licenses," he said.

There are other steps businesses can take to insure that no attempts by minors to purchase alcohol are successful.

"There are driver's license card readers. There are cash registers that, when you make an alcohol purchase, it forces the clerk to enter the birthdate, and if they're under 21, it won't allow a sale to take place," Mabry said. "There are mechanisms out there that can help avoid this problem."

He added that his department will do all it can to assist alcohol license holders.

"We will work with them in any way, shape or form to control this issue," Mabry said. "I think the TAM training is an example. But again, our responsibility is to the community as a whole, not to any specific area.

"Our commitment is to make Vermillion a safe place. If you have an alcohol license, there comes with that license some responsibility, and I expect every business to exercise that responsibility. I think the community expects that, too."

Mabry said establishments selling alcohol should be able to pass the sting operations. He knows that people make mistakes. He doesn't accept that as an excuse, however.

"We typically don't do them (the stings) on a real busy night. The last sting was done in the middle of the week. I would love to see a compliance check and get 100 percent," he said. "I don't know that that would ever happen. I hope it does someday.

"People will make mistakes, and I guess in my 30 years of law enforcement, I've met two kinds of people � those who try to do the right thing, accept responsibility when they err, and strive to correct those mistakes. The other type of person I've met is those who have been caught who hide behind excuses and deflect the responsibility on others."

Mabry said he's very impressed by five businesses that made the mistake the first time and corrected it.

"Obviously we have one in there that's done this twice, which is an indication to me that the potential is there of being a habitual offender," he said. "That's up to the state's attorney to address."

How will Mabry know if the police stings are having the desired effect?

"Hopefully we'll get a decrease in cases involving juveniles and alcohol," he said. "I'm not saying it's going to stop; obviously business establishments aren't the only place where they can get alcohol.

If they don't try to purchase it themselves, "about the only other source I can think of would be home, and obviously that would be the parents' responsibility to deal with that," Mabry said. "There is nothing that would prevent them from driving to Yankton to buy it.

"I doubt that we can stop it, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore it. The sting operations can certainly make Vermillion a place where it is known among juveniles that it is not a place to go to buy beer."

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