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Treatment for underage drinking?
Statesboro public safety looks to Athens for ideas
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After diagnosing Statesboro as having an underage drinking problem, police leaders this week proposed a treatment that involves hiring an alcoholic beverage control officer, creating a “hospitality review board” and giving licensees a role in policing themselves.
The approach Statesboro Public Safety Director Wendell Turner outlined Tuesday for City Council is modeled on a plan developed for Athens-Clarke County, home of the University of Georgia, more than a decade ago.
“This is what has worked in another community, a lot larger than ours, at a university that’s a lot larger than ours, facing the very same problem. So there’s no need, in my opinion, to reinvent the wheel,” Turner said.
The Oct. 7 Statesboro City Council packet, available online at www.statesboroga.gov, includes a copy of a “Youth Alcohol Enforcement Initiative” proposal prepared for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department in 2002. Athens’ enforcement practices are still based on this plan.
“All the same symptoms that we’re seeing today were actually seen in Athens, mid- to late-1990s and even early in the 1980s,” Turner said.
Before going further into his proposal, Turner polled City Council members on their support for creating the position of an alcoholic beverage control officer. Councilman Phil Boyum had already backed this idea in an op-ed published Sept. 21 in the Statesboro Herald. Three of the other council members indicated their support. Councilman Travis Chance at first asked if he was being asked for official consent on an unofficial proposal. But Chance said, “I don’t have a problem with it,” when Turner explained that he was asking only for support in concept.
The officer would at first hold “stakeholder meetings,” which Turner said could include public safety and health officials and representatives of the school system, the university and the religious community, as well as bar owners and managers and elected officials.
From this input, the hospitality review panel would be formed. The board would help alcoholic beverage licensees monitor themselves, plan for training and education on compliance, and discuss possible enforcement actions, Turner said.
The alcoholic beverage control officer would coordinate the enforcement activities, but other law enforcement personnel would still be involved in enforcement.
Boyum suggested assigning the program and officer to a multi-jurisdiction agency.
Turner had talked to Athens-Clarke’s police chief, and one Statesboro alcoholic beverage licensee has been invited to Athens to learn more about the program there, Turner said.


    Youth dominate Statesboro
Reasons for looking to Athens for ideas are obvious, with Georgia Southern University students being the heart of the issue here. The death of GSU freshman Michael Gatto, 18, of Cumming, after a violent confrontation in the now-closed Rude Rudy’s bar on Aug. 28, allegedly at the hands of Grant James Spencer, 20, also a GSU student, has focused new attention on underage drinking in Statesboro.
UGA, with more than 34,000 students, is more than 1½ times larger  than Georgia Southern, with roughly 20,000.
But high school through college-age people make up an even larger portion of the population of Statesboro, which has 29,900 residents by the 2013 Census Bureau estimate, than of Athens-Clarke, a consolidated city-county with 121,000 people. In the 2010 census, people ages 15-24 comprise 52.9 percent of Statesboro’s residents, compared to 33.1 percent of Athens-Clarke’s population and only 14.1 percent of the total U.S. population.
Another statistic, one that Turner mentioned to Statesboro City Council, is that 48 percent of Georgia Southern students are under age 21, the minimum legal drinking age.
In fact, 48.5 percent was the portion of all of the university’s 20,517 students, including graduate students, who were under age 21 as of fall semester 2013. The 2013-14 Georgia Southern University Fact Book gives a breakdown, and backing all 2,613 graduate students out of the equation reveals that 55 percent of GSU undergraduates were under 21.
But some Statesboro nightclubs, classified as restaurants under the city’s ordinances, which make no provision for bars as such, market specifically to students. Some have signs stating that a student ID is required.


    Sizing up the problem
Another part of Tuesday’s presentation was the Statesboro Police Department’s report sizing up the problem. This was based on the compliance checks, some by uniformed officers and others by undercover officers under age 21, done since Gatto’s death, plus statistics on past enforcement.
The Georgia Southern University Police Department and the Georgia Department of Revenue worked with Statesboro police on the compliance checks and report.
“The results of the operation demonstrated there is an underage drinking problem, focused in and around the GSU campus and primarily from on-premises consumption licensees,” Turner told the council.
Of 84 Statesboro businesses currently licensed to sell alcoholic beverages, 45 are licensed for on-premises consumption. The other 39 are stores.
Six restaurants faced license hearings Tuesday before City Council, each from a single incident of an employee serving alcohol to an underage customer.
But the police visits also revealed problems with employee training, noted Detective Lt. Rob Bryan, who presented the numbers on compliance checks and citations.
“Many of the bartenders and servers, bouncers, other staff at some of the facilities had little to no training as it pertains to their job descriptions,” Bryan said. “Training is available from multiple sources. Staff should also be trained on state law and local ordinances that govern alcohol sales.”
Statesboro’s Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance requires licensees to train employees on the provisions of the ordinance and relevant state laws.
City Council let all six of the licensees up for hearings off with warnings after they agreed that violations had occurred and promised greater attention to employee training.
Despite the recent focus on enforcement, the Statesboro Police Department had performed far fewer compliance checks for sale of alcohol to underage persons so far this year than in 2013. Bryan’s report showed 35 citations for underage sale resulting from 140 checks in 2013, but only eight citations for underage sale on 26 checks so far in 2014.
Two of the eight citations this year were for instances in which patrons supplied drinks to underage people, Bryan said, explaining why only six resulted in administrative cases against the license holders.
Meanwhile, Statesboro police have issued 217 citations for underage possession of alcohol this year, exceeding last year’s total of 188 with nearly a quarter of 2014 remaining. Police note that possession cases are much easier to make than proving who provided the drink.
Also in the report, the Department of Revenue checked 73 Statesboro licensees and issued six citations for sale of alcohol to underage persons in 2013-14. Meanwhile, the GSU Police Department issued 103 citations in 2013 and 96 citations in 2014 through mid-September for underage possession of alcohol. The university made 612 on-campus judicial referrals for various alcohol violations in 2013 and had made 472 in 2014 through mid-September.
The next step for City Council appears to be to hold more public input meetings. A work session on the Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance is slated to be part of the 9 a.m. Nov. 4 council meeting.
The council held two public input meetings on a proposed overall revision of the ordinance earlier this year but has yet to adopt that ordinance.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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