Arrested Development

The Tucson Police Department has declared war on underage drinking. Here's to a long, hard slog.

It's about an hour past last call on a recent Friday night, and a party is winding down at an apartment complex a couple of blocks east of the University of Arizona. The beer has run dry, so the guys in the kitchen have turned to shots from a bottle of Smirnoff's green-apple vodka.

"It tastes like a Jolly Rancher that's been soaked in rubbing alcohol," notes one student we'll call Greg. (The students interviewed had reservations about using their real names in an article detailing their drinking habits--after all, a future employer or their parents could be reading--so The Weekly is using pseudonyms.)

Greg is older than 21, but back when he was underage, he paid a guy $60 to get a fake ID that was so lousy that "Pennsilvania" was misspelled. Still, it was good enough that he managed to complete a world tour of imported beer at a local tavern before his 21st birthday.

It worked in California, too. During one trip to Los Angeles, he estimates he'd downed somewhere around 15 beers before sitting down to a late meal at a diner. The waitress laughed at the ID, but she still brought him his order: a taco salad, a chocolate milkshake and a Heineken. Before he finished his meal, he staggered to the washroom to puke.

"I saved half the milkshake to wash the taste of the vomit out of my mouth," he remembers.

Such drunken debauchery shouldn't be mistaken for harmless fun, according to the brass at the Tucson Police Department, who have launched a high-profile campaign against underage drinkers.

Lt. Mike Pryor, a midtown commander, says the department is putting a new emphasis on the battle against minors who drink to send a message: "There are many consequences, and one of them is that it's against the law, and if you're caught, you're going to have a legal consequence."

While police have occasionally run sting operations to bust stores and bars that sell to minors, underage drinking has been a fairly low priority for the TPD. Even before the Arizona Legislature raised the drinking age from 19 to 21 in 1985, younger college kids didn't have much trouble getting their hands on the booze that has traditionally lubricated the university experience. They go to house parties; they get friends who are 21 or older to buy alcohol; they use fake IDs to get into clubs; they travel across the border into Mexico.

But during the last eight months, UA students have been rounded up in several large-scale operations. Police are writing more tickets for MIP, or minor in possession of alcohol. Last year, through Dec. 4, police had written 1,046 citations; this year, the number is 1,244. More than 130 students have been taken to Pima County Jail.

The cops are also busting up more parties. Pryor says his midtown division had attached "red tags" to 406 houses through mid-November, compared to 306 during the same period last year. Under a recently toughened ordinance, a red tag can carry a $100 fine. The tag stays on the house for six months, and future loud parties--or unruly gatherings, as the law calls them--can result in a fine of up to $2,500.

Pryor says student parties have been getting bigger and louder in recent years. "My observations have been these parties are growing in number; they're growing in size. The big ones are bigger. The effects on the neighborhoods seem to be worse," he says.

Tucson police--as well as state authorities--are also patrolling bars and restaurants popular with students, running checks on IDs to weed out fakes. On one weekend night in October, cops surrounded El Charro's eastside location shortly after midnight and asked all patrons to show their IDs on the way out the door. Out of more than 100 customers, they nabbed two underage drinkers and one person who had been served past the point of intoxication.

Pryor says there's a simple reason for the new emphasis on underage drinking: Inexperienced young drinkers do stupid things that are often illegal as well. They play loud music and disturb the neighbors. They litter neighborhoods. They break and steal things. They get into fights. They drive drunk and sometimes crash. And most disturbing to Pryor, they wait for young women to pass out and gang-rape them.

"That's a tragedy for any young woman to have to go through," Pryor says. "It's also a tragedy for the guy who gets caught for it, because guess what he is now: a registered sex offender for the rest of his life. There's another victim of the thing."

Pryor has no idea what percent of underage drinkers end up involved in sexual assaults. But even if the vast majority of underage drinkers never contend with anything more serious than a hangover, the crackdown is worth it, he says.

"Even if it's 1 percent, it's worth my time and your money," he says.

Pryor predicts a long, hard slog to change attitudes so that underage drinking is no longer seen as culturally acceptable.

"It's going to take time, but it's a societal change," he says.

UNDERAGE DRINKERS WHO have been busted say attitudes certainly are changing on campus--but not in the way that TPD intends.

Instead of giving up drinking, students are becoming increasingly hostile toward cops. They feel less like they're being protected from gang-rape and more like they're being targeted by cops who sometimes seem to delight in harassing them. The theme of one recent "date dash"--a fraternity or sorority event in which kids are bused to a party location--was "Fuck the Tucson P.D."

The UA community is a rich criminal environment when it comes to violating underage drinking laws. This year's campus health survey, a self-reporting annual poll, showed that 72 percent of underage students had used alcohol in the last year. That figure is down from 78 percent in 2002, but with roughly half of the UA's 28,000-plus undergrads under 21, that's still a lot of offenders. (Among students over 21, 82 percent said they'd had a drink in the last year.)

Given the number of kids who imbibe, finding underage drinkers doesn't take a lot of detective work. Besides cruising neighborhoods looking for parties and responding to complaints from neighbors, police are eavesdropping on student chat rooms to find out where minors are gathering and operating off tips. In October, police pulled over a busload of sorority girls coming home from a party at a hotel north of downtown and cited 36 of them for MIP.

The first big off-campus bust came last May, when officers went on the prowl for a party in the UA neighborhood on the last day of spring semester classes. The cops found their party on Mabel Street, north of the UA, but it turned out to be more than they expected: Instead of finding 20 or 30 kids, they found about 100. They ended up taking 74 underage drinkers to the Pima County Jail, which wasn't prepared to handle the crowd. The booking process stretched until dawn.

The operation cost somewhere around $8,000, including overtime costs and the expense of booking so many kids, according to Pryor.

When the cops decided to make their next high-profile bust in August, they were better prepared. A team of undercover officers infiltrated the westside Star Ranch apartments and visited several parties. Once the undercover officers reported back, about 50 officers moved into the apartment complex. (On a typical weekend night, about 150 to 200 officers are on patrol across the city, according to Pryor.)

The officers rounded up the drinking kids, sorting between minors and those 21 and older. The underage kids sat around sucking on pennies, hoping it would jinx the breathalyzer. "It's so gross," says one student who was ticketed.

Plus, it doesn't work.

In cases where students wouldn't open their doors, cops forced their way inside with weapons drawn.

"When we have to forcibly enter a residence (with) a search warrant, it's entirely appropriate that we place ourselves in a position to defend ourselves, plus anyone else who may be in jeopardy inside," Pryor says. "While we're standing outside that door, we don't know why they won't open it. Are they hiding a keg, or are they not opening the door because they're waiting for us to break it down, and they have a shotgun pointed at it to take us out?"

By the time they sorted through the crowd, the cops cited more than 125 underage students and took more than 50 underage drinkers to jail.

Pryor says the cost of the Star Ranch bust was "less than you would think. I didn't put a dollar figure on the final thing."

The state covered part of the cost. The overtime bill for additional officers, which ran between $3,000 and $5,000, came from a grant from Gov. Janet Napolitano's Office of Highway Safety, while the Department of Corrections, which is looking for additional funding during the current special legislative session, provided two buses used to take kids to jail. It costs the city about $67 for each booking, so that ran more than $3,300.

Sarah was among the kids rounded up in the Star Ranch bust. A 19-year-old sophomore, Sarah had hosted a party in her apartment earlier in the evening, but the crowd had moved on before the cops rolled in. When the cops started pounding on the apartment door, Sarah and her friends refused to open it. The cops, armed with a search warrant, forced their way inside to arrest them. And given the resistance the kids had put up, they were less than polite about it.

Sarah and her roommates were put on a bus and trucked down to the county jail. She was released the next day.

"I was scared," Sarah says. "I know we were in the wrong, but they didn't have to treat us like animals."

Like many students who get popped for MIP or other alcohol-related offenses, Sarah went through an eight-hour diversion program offered to first-time offenders that has allowed her to keep the arrest off her record. She says she didn't get much out of the course, which cost $180. She still drinks, though not at big parties.

"Last year, I was never afraid of the cops," she says. "Sometimes, I'm like, 'This school sucks.'"

Kelli, a 20-year-old sophomore, also got popped at the Star Ranch bust. She says she'd had one beer and blew a .01 on the breathalyzer. The cops gave her an MIP, but didn't take her to jail. "You're lucky we're not taking you in," she says she was told.

About a week later, Kelli got busted using a fake ID at a Fourth Avenue club. The bouncer turned her in to the cops, who wrote her another ticket.

Kelli says the tickets are the worst thing to happen to her as a result of her drinking. She's aware that some guys might be sexual predators, but says she and her sorority sisters watch out for each other in alcohol-fueled situations.

The two busts haven't stopped Kelli from drinking, although she stays away from booze when she goes to big parties. Whenever she does drink, she makes a point of studying the layout of the house so she can make a quick exit out the back door.

Wally, a 20-year-old pre-med junior who enjoys having a few beers on weekends, was arrested last spring when the crackdown was just beginning. Wally, who started drinking in high school, doesn't see any correlation between his alcohol use and academic performance. He has a 3.9 grade-point average, participates in extracurricular activities and works at a hospital, where he sometimes interacts with police.

Last May, about a week before the big bust on Mabel Street, Wally was hosting a Friday night keg party, with about 30 people hanging out and playing drinking games. The bash was interrupted by the arrival of uniformed officers, who were joined by cops in blue jeans and bullet-proof vests who called themselves the Bravo Squad. Wally came out of his bedroom to find three of the Bravo Squad members demanding to know where he and his roommates had hidden the weed.

The cops lined up the partygoers in the front yard and began carding and citing the underage kids. When he and his roommate refused to take a breathalyzer test, the cops tossed cuffs on them and hauled them into a paddy wagon, where they sat for an hour and half before being taken to the Pima County Jail around midnight.

They ended up in a holding cell among people being held on prostitution, domestic violence and drug charges. They weren't done with the booking process until 6 a.m. and remained behind bars until about 7 p.m. when a judge, who seemed amused by the whole incident, released them on their own recognizance.

The aggressive attitude of the police officers surprised Wally. The previous year, when the cops had shown up in response to a noise complaint, he says, the officer was polite when he shut down their party and issued them a red tag. His arrest has changed his attitude toward Tucson police.

"I liked cops until that night," he says. "The cops were rude and intimidating. They were there to make arrests, not foster good relations."

Wally adds that he doesn't dislike all cops--he respects many of the ones he deals with at the hospital--but he's puzzled by the decision to focus so much manpower and resources to target underage drinking when more serious crimes--homicide, drug trafficking, car theft--are taking place in Tucson.

Pryor says the cops are busting the underage drinkers to stop more serious crimes from being committed by the minors. Besides, the parties end up tying up resources anyway, because he frequently has to send officers to break up parties after there's been a complaint.

"If they weren't doing that, I could use those same resources to go look for burglars, child molesters, peeping toms, overage DUI drivers--any of those things we could be doing. But I can't, because when someone dials 911 to complain about Junior's party, I have to send the police officers," says Pryor.

Wally and his roommate took advantage of the diversion program to wipe the arrest off his record. His roommate also enrolled in an exchange program that will allow him to take classes in another state for a semester or two. He plans to return to Tucson after he's 21.

Wally says he's still drinking, although he's more careful about having big parties.

"You plan it out more," he says. "It used to be you could end up anywhere at any house around campus and get completely blitzed and run through the streets. I think parties are smaller. People are more careful."

Wally remains skeptical that the effort to stop underage drinking is going to have a long-term effect.

"TPD isn't going to win the fight, because drinking is ingrained in the culture and lifestyle of students," he says. "And if the police are effective, then nobody will want to come here. No one wants to come to a place where they're a target."

THE PARTY CRACKDOWN has meant more quiet nights for homeowners in the neighborhoods surrounding the university, according to Dyer Lytle, president of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association.

Lytle says friction between partying students and annoyed homeowners has been increasing in recent years as parties have grown in both size and frequency in his neighborhood, which is bordered by Campbell Avenue, Grant Road, First Avenue and Lester Street. Some bashes drew hundreds of students, which translates into loud noise and blocked driveways, as well as a mess of red plastic cups and broken glass strewn along streets.

As a result of these parties, people have been moving out of the neighborhood. Owner-occupied housing has dropped, says Lytle--a distressing slide, because homeowners tend to take better care of their property, making for a more stable neighborhood.

The increased enforcement, particularly the slapping of red tags on problem houses, has tempered party activity during the last year, says Lytle. "It's effective," he says. "We have some quieting down of some of the problems."

Just a few weeks ago, Lytle says, he visited a loud party in his neighborhood and warned the kids that the neighbors were going to call the police if they didn't turn down the volume. "They quieted down in 60 to 90 seconds," he says.

Lytle, who works at the UA, is quick to stress that most students aren't a problem. "I think a large percentage of students are very good neighbors," he says. "There's a small percentage who aren't good neighbors."

If students were more responsible--if they didn't make so much noise, block so many driveways and litter so many streets--then Lytle thinks the police action wouldn't be necessary.

"I'd like to keep it from happening in the first place rather than have police coming in and whacking people over the heads or dragging them off to jail," he says. "It's unfortunate that it has come to that."

Lytle thinks the school's code of conduct should be expanded to cover off-campus behavior, but university officials have balked at the idea. He's also unhappy about the UA's policy of kicking students out of dormitories if they're caught drinking or smoking pot.

"They don't kick them out of the university," he says. "But they do kick them out of the dormitories. So there's a selection effect. Bad students are banished to the neighborhood."

Lytle doesn't care much about underage drinking, as long as minors don't cause trouble.

"I see nothing wrong with somebody who is 18 sitting at home in their living room drinking a beer, watching TV and then going to sleep," he says. "To me, we need to crack down on people bothering neighbors."

Lytle says he's spoken to UA alumni who remember going out to the end of Campbell Avenue for parties back in their day.

"But now, where can you go to have a rowdy party?" he asks. "Maybe they need some concrete building somewhere where you go in there and do your thing. I don't know the answer to this, but I'd like to see a venue for this kind of thing.

"Although," he adds, "it would probably be illegal."

ILLEGAL, YES--AND IRRESPONSIBLE, according to Lt. Pryor, who says there's no such thing as responsible underage drinking.

"I don't think we can say it's acceptable," he says. "Let's look at smoking. Is there a responsible way to smoke? I think that's the parallel you have to draw. I don't think we can point to any smoking-related success stories, nor can we point to any alcohol-related success stories."

But that analogy raises another question: Is there a responsible way to drink once someone is older than 21?

"That's legislated," Pryor says. "If you're following the law, and you're not driving and not over-imbibing, our culture says that's responsible. I don't think my opinion on that is important. But when you're underage, you don't have that legislative authority to do it."

With or without legislative authority, the kids are still drinking--and some are laughing at the idea of a crackdown. At a party last weekend, Casey and Xalen, two underage young women, said they weren't at all concerned about getting busted.

Casey has a fake ID from her cousin which gets her into bars; it even works when she wants to buy booze at grocery stores. "The bouncers don't even check me anymore," she says.

Xalen, who has big hoop earrings, a stud in her nose and a pot pipe tucked between her breasts, says many cops are still breaking up parties without issuing citations. She escaped a citation herself at a Halloween party shut down by police.

"Zero tolerance--yeah, right," says Xalen, rolling her eyes. "I think people are just really paranoid."

What does Pryor say about kids who say they're still drinking despite the increased enforcement, even if they're less likely to do it at a big party?

"I'm a police officer," says Pryor. "I can't say it's OK. But I can recognize that the first step in preventing the tragedies is to concentrate on the most destructive types of drinking. The binge drinking and the party environment tends to be extremely destructive to everybody involved and everybody around it.

"If people are, on their own, trying to become more responsible, I think ultimately they'll realize, 'Gee, this isn't all it's cracked up to be,' " Pryor adds. "It's a step toward making the ultimate right decision, which is to wait until they're 21."

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