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At State College, squad targets suppliers for underage drinkers

Sunday, October 07, 2007
By Bill Schackner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. –The 18-year-old Penn State University student was urinating outside a home near fraternity row late on a Friday night when police swooped in, grabbing his arm before he could escape into a dark alley.

The startled young man, his face flushed after emerging from the bushes, was about to be cited for underage drinking.

He was also about to get another surprise, one that would make him squirm even more.

The officers didn’t simply want to know how much he drank. They wanted him to give up the names of those who provided him alcohol. After a few minutes, the man in the sweaty white shirt admitted being served at an off-campus fraternity where he was a pledge a short walk away.

Two other underage students this night would acknowledge to police they too were drinking at the same fraternity, including one willing to make a written statement. For members of the borough police department’s Source Investigation Program, a special detail known as SIP, it was evidence that would help them begin to build yet another case.

In college towns across America, it’s usually the same old story. Somehow, some way, alcohol finds its way to underage drinkers. Often, those furnishing the alcohol go untouched — even in cases in which the underage drinker becomes violently ill or dies.

But for nearly four years, State College police have taken a different tack in a community that is home to one of the nation’s largest universities. Both Penn State and the borough have been grappling with a spike in overdoses and other alcohol-related problems, mirroring a national trend.

“People are drinking faster to get drunk,” said borough Police Lt. Dana Leonard.

“The first eight weeks of the fall semester are what we call the Red Zone. The weather is still warm and the newly arriving students have plenty of money in their pockets,” he said. “There is a celebratory atmosphere around Penn State football games.”

The semester’s early weeks can be even more dangerous for freshmen. “They’re relatively naive,” Lt. Leonard said.

The department began its SIP program in 2004 with a grant from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which now funds similar programs in several other communities. The money for overtime and training helps field special, two-officer teams in unmarked cars who are freed up from regular patrols.

“A drunk tumbling down the street can take between 15 and 45 minutes to issue a citation to and then send on his way,” Lt. Leonard said. “But getting evidence of who the ‘furnisher’ was takes corroborating evidence and extra investigative time. It takes an officer off the street.”

Going after the ‘furnishers’

On weekend nights, it’s not hard to spot people who are underage and visibly drunk in this otherwise tranquil borough, as throngs of young men and women crowd bars and streets just off the campus of 42,000 students. In fact, officers here who are on the front lines of college excess don’t usually bother to stop someone who is merely drunk as long as he or she is moving forward on the sidewalk and is accompanied by friends.

But too often, they find them lying alone in an acrid puddle of their own making.

This night, on the midnight shift, an ambulance was called about 1:10 a.m. to an alley near fraternity row. A drunken 19-year-old student had just been carried from the front porch of a fraternity house to a parked car, where she was slumped over in the passenger seat, a makeup kit dangling from her fingers.

Propped up by a medic, she tottered to within a few feet of the ambulance’s rear doors, when suddenly she lurched forward, her head dropping toward the pavement. “I’m going to vomit,” she said.

Her explanation that she drank on campus earlier that evening squared with fraternity members’ accounts that they had refused to serve her beer. So the SIP officers, who checked on the woman after seeing her being carried from the house, decided to notify the university so its own police could follow up.

About 4,000 of the 7,000 incidents handled annually by State College police involve alcohol, a share that has been rising in recent years, according to department data.

Often, officers on the midnight shift rush from call to call, breaking up street fights, aiding young people unconscious outside bars, or — as was the case around midnight this same Friday — a young man passed out while seated on a public transit bus.

“I’ve seen people with an extremely low pulse near death,” said Officer Andrew Sim, one of two SIP officers working the midnight shift. “Once we finally do slow down, at 3 or 4 a.m., just driving around the streets you’ll see someone laid out on the sidewalk, lying in a yard.

“In winter months there are hypothermia issues. You don’t know how long they’ve been lying there,” he said. “They’re just soaking wet in the snow.”

Among those cited this summer as a result of an SIP investigation was a fraternity suspected of supplying alcohol to a teenager who later fractured his skull in two places and broke his collarbone trying to do a back flip off a wall outside the post office.

In all, 89 citations for furnishing alcohol to minors were issued in the borough last year, 37 percent more than in the year before SIP debuted. Most are older Penn State students, including hosts of off-campus apartment parties where students sometimes drink for free, Lt. Leonard said.

The furnishing charge, a misdemeanor under the state crimes code, means a $1,000 fine for a first offense but requires evidence of intent. Police often add a second charge, one under the liquor code, that nets a smaller $100-to-$500 fine but does not require intent.

Many who are cited avoid those fines by completing an accelerated rehabilitation program of counseling and community service that removes the offense from their record. But they still pay $945 in program fees and other legal costs.

Starting an investigation minutes after a 911 call about an overdose enables SIP officers to gather evidence quickly, before party-goers change their stories or have second thoughts about cooperating.

“They’re able to investigate while the party is still going on,” said Mark S. Smith, Centre County first assistant district attorney.

‘Red Zone’ dangers

Research nationally indicates that many underage drinkers begin abusing alcohol well before reaching college, starting in high school or earlier. But surveys also suggest the first weeks on campus bring a surge in dangerous behaviors.

By mid- to late-October, between 40 percent and 50 percent of freshmen report they have chugged alcohol or downed shots in the previous two weeks, double the number from the summer before they enroll, according to a survey done for AlcoholEdu, an online program on alcohol delivered to freshmen on 500 campuses.

Those reporting memory blackouts due to heavy drinking grows from roughly 10 percent of those surveyed the summer before college to more than 25 percent.

“They think it’s funny to black out and then hear their friends laughing and telling stories about all their crazy antics,” said Catherine Bath, who lost her son to underage drinking just off the Duke University campus in 1999 and now is vice president of Security on Campus, a safety group based in King of Prussia, Montgomery County. “They don’t know what their limits are, or should be. That’s where fatal mistakes are made.”

If Penn State has been unable to quell dangerous drinking, it’s not for lack of initiatives.

It has an array of enforcement, education and counseling programs and will use Liquor Control Board money this fall to add campus SIP patrols. Non-alcoholic activities are regular weekend fare in the Hetzel Union Building, and a year ago, Penn State banned alcohol from tailgate parties from kickoff to final play at Beaver Stadium, the 107,000-seat home of Nittany Lions football.

Even so, alcohol-related trips by students to Mount Nittany Medical Center are up from 199 in 1999-2000 to 444 in the 2006-2007 school year. The average age of those treated is 20 years old, and their average blood alcohol content has risen to 0.235, nearly three times the state’s legal limit for an adult.

Bill Mahon, a Penn State administrator who co-chairs a town-and-gown committee on dangerous drinking, said he’d like to think the emergency room trips meant awareness campaigns are making students more inclined to get help. But he cited other factors, including the debut of Sunday liquor sales in the state, loosening of bottle shop restrictions and a trend toward more dangerous drinking behaviors nationally on college campuses.

About 100 businesses serving alcohol are located within five miles of Penn State’s Old Main administration building, and some aggressively market dollar-pitchers and 25-cent drafts. One hair salon near campus even advertises complimentary beer.

“It could be any combination of these things,” Mr. Mahon said. “I don’t think we’re unique.”

Two-thirds of those charged with drunk driving in the borough last year were not students, and Mr. Mahon said such ratios illustrate how far-reaching in society the problem is. “This is not just a student issue,” he said.

No illusions

Fake IDs have long been a common accessory for underage party-goers, and digital printing and other advances have helped create more authentic-looking cards. Some bars are fighting back by equipping themselves with electronic card scanners.

But underage students interviewed at Penn State say a far easier route to getting alcohol are loosely controlled off-campus parties.

“Fraternities are the easiest,” said Brittney Barbieri, 17, a freshman from Niskayuna, N.Y. “If you’re a girl, you get in no matter what.”

Grant Miller, president of the Interfraternity Council, disagreed and said declining arrests suggest fraternities and sororities were policing themselves. He said fewer than 10 members have been cited so far this fall for alcohol and only one organization has been accused of furnishing. “Compared to the total number of students, that’s obviously very, very low,” he said.

Local police and prosecutors, meanwhile, tick off a list of deaths and close calls they say reflects a serious community problem.

Anthony Torsell, of State College, recently was convicted of charges including homicide by vehicle after his car struck two pedestrians in downtown State College on a rainy night last October. Mr. Torsell, then 20, was at several off-campus parties and drank jello shots and played beer pong before getting behind the wheel, said assistant Centre County District Attorney Steve Sloane.

One pedestrian, Richard Smith, 21, of Chadds Ford, Delaware County, died. Aaron C. Stidd, 21, a Penn State student from Huntingdon, Huntingdon County, was severely injured.

Last year, Ryan P. Walton, 19, a Penn State student from Harleysville, Montgomery County, was critically injured in a fall trying to escape a sixth-floor dorm room where university police were breaking up an underage drinking party. He was climbing down a makeshift rope and fell about five stories.

“We’ve had an instance of a person who fell out of a window when they missed the bed, diving to get onto it, fell eight stories and lived,” said borough police Sgt. Chris Fishel. “And a person who fell out the back of a window after dancing on top of a stereo and broke their back.”

And sometimes, what sounds like a home invasion, turns out to be a drunk who forced himself into the wrong residence and passed out on a sofa or bed after making a wrong turn.

“We probably get four or five of those a year,” Mr. Smith said.

On the street, some encounters with underage drinkers are tame, like the 19-year-old landscape architecture student who politely asked an officer how to navigate the legal system after being caught urinating in public. Others are more volatile, like the exchange with a student wearing a Nittany Lions cap backward who lobbed obscenities at police after they broke up the second of two street fights involving underage drinkers that erupted just half a block and minutes apart.

Police said they harbor no illusions that a blitz of enforcement alone will stop underage drinking. But they point to subtle signs suggesting some who throw parties are becoming more cautious.

“It used to be much louder, much more damage,” Officer Sim said before hopping back in his unmarked car a little before 2 a.m. near fraternity row. All things considered, he said, “this is pretty calm out here tonight.”

Lt. Leonard said it wasn’t too long ago in America when drunken driving was socially acceptable, and just as that changed with public pressure, so might the perception of furnishing alcohol to minors. “This could be the next big social movement.”

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