Underage drinking is a widespread problem in the U.S. Its prevalence means that law enforcement agencies across the nation must deal year-round with its repercussions. Revisiting the best ways to prevent and disarm alcohol-influenced incidents involving teenagers will allow officers to improve policing practices that keep the public safe.

Summer brings greater risk for teens
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol is the most used and abused drug in the U.S. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that about one-fourth of all youths ages 12 to 20 drink alcohol, including more than 70 percent of 12th graders. Each year, alcohol is responsible for the death of more than 4,300 underage individuals.

Warmer months are particularly dangerous for teens—especially teen drivers—as schools let out, graduations occur and young people are left with an abundance of free time. A study from AAA found that June, July and August are the deadliest months for teen drivers and include seven of the 10 most fatal driving days of the year.

As the summer months approach, training for these situations becomes more important. Many local departments proactively raise awareness of the dangers of underage binge drinking, driving while intoxicated and the consequences of rowdy house parties. When law enforcement agencies recognize the warning signs for underage drinking, officers can move swiftly to intervene.

Training helps officers anticipate dangerous situations
Busting a party may seem tame, but the task can turn dangerous quickly. Underage drinkers are more likely to flee the scene at all costs, frequently jumping out of windows or stampeding over each other to evade arrest. This reaction can lead to personal injury and property damage. Well-trained police officers can mitigate that risk and bring the party to a halt in the safest, most efficient manner.

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“It’s a challenging incident to respond to, because a lot of times it involves large numbers of kids, and when they’re possessing alcohol, it becomes a safety issue for both the officers and kids,” retired police lieutenant Pat Burns told The Times-News.

Burns, currently the law enforcement liaison for Alamance Citizens for a Drug-Free Community in North Carolina, emphasized that training teaches officers about the factors to consider when dispatched to an underage party, not necessarily how to make arrests and mete out punishment. As police improve techniques for approaching a party, they have more success in keeping the situation calm and gathering useful information. Through training, agents learn which questions to ask when interrogating underage drinkers. Officers also learn to scour social media profiles for information that helps with long-term prevention, such as where such parties are likely to occur, locations of lenient liquor stores or sources of fake IDs.

“We like to remind officers we’re not really doing this to punish kids,” Burns said. “It’s about education, redirection, intervention—those types of things. We’re not trying to create a lasting negative impact on their lives.”

The best techniques are rooted in local knowledge
Law enforcement organizations focus on preventative measures, such as adding patrols to popular bar locations and conducting spot checks of restaurants to confirm they are serving only patrons of legal age. These actions work best when infused with local knowledge, allowing patrol officers to target the areas or establishments they believe will make the biggest difference.

Strong prevention strategy includes coordinating efforts with local organizations. The Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center suggests establishing partnerships with community members, such as liquor stores, to influence and regulate the promotion of alcohol. In some areas, agencies dispatch police to local schools and educate students on the harmful side effects of binge drinking.

The consequences of underage drinking can ruin the lives of the youths taking part, many of whom come from families known by local police. Preserving an open dialogue with area parents and teens allows law enforcement to practice and improve ways of broaching the topic. By training officers in the most effective measures for preventing underage drinking, agencies can enter the high-risk summer months well-positioned to help teens make better decisions.

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