A snap decision outside of some Mesa convenience stores resulted in tough lessons for 10 shoppers during a recent police operation.
The shoppers were cited in connection with purchasing alcohol for underage youth during an undercover operation called “Shoulder Tapping,” which is run by the Mesa Prevention Alliance in partnership with the Mesa Police Department.
The operation uses trained youth volunteers posing as alcohol seekers outside of various Mesa convenience, liquor and grocery stores. With money in hand, the youth approach unsuspecting adults in the parking lot and ask them to purchase alcoholic beverages for them. Adults who decline receive a printed card commending their actions, but adults who purchase alcohol for the decoy are given a citation.
In past years, authorities simply issued warnings and provided education to adults who agreed to purchase alcohol for the youth, but on Oct. 18, Mesa police began issuing citations. The crime is a Class 1 misdemeanor and carries a possible $2,500 fine and six months in jail.
“If we are going to hold the kids accountable, why in the world would we just give warnings to adults?” said Mesa police Sgt. Rob Scantlebury, who supervises the operations and co-chairs the Mesa Prevention Alliance.
The operations, which have taken place for two years, show that approximately 30 percent of adults who are approached agree to purchase alcohol for the youth, said Mesa Prevention Alliance executive director Karen Frias-Long. Decoy youth are trained to approach any adult, unless police believe the adult is dangerous.
“We have gotten every demographic you can imagine – old people, young people, people offering to call other family members to buy alcohol for them and people recommending liquor stores to buy from,” Scantlebury said.
In the Oct. 18 operation, many of the adults who were cited at first denied purchasing the alcohol for the youth and some later admitted they were just trying to help the teen have fun.
This idea of helping youth have fun with alcohol worries Mesa Prevention Alliance members, who track data and have learned that about 20 percent of high school seniors acquire alcohol from a parent or responsible adult. Because of this trend, the alliance has placed an increasing focus on educating adults and holding offenders responsible.
“Kids actually see parents as one of their biggest influencers,” said Cassidy Olson, of the Tempe Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking and Drug Use.
Olson said her organization does not organize Shoulder Tapping operations, but it focuses on other initiatives targeting adults such as educational events and providing free drug test kits to parents. The City of Tempe has historically dedicated a high level of police resources toward underage drinking enforcement because of the volume of young adults consuming alcohol around Arizona State University.
In fact, Tempe was also the first city in the East Valley to pass a Social Host ordinance, which went into effect in Feb. 2012, Olson said. A Social Host ordinance holds adults accountable for allowing underage adults and youth to consume alcohol in their home by charging them city fines, in addition to the standard criminal fines.
The Mesa Prevention Alliance would like to see a Social Host Ordinance also passed in Mesa. And the Chandler Coalition on Youth Substance Abuse is now trying to encourage the city of Chandler to pass a similar ordinance, said Melissa Jimro, senior vice president for programs and community impact for ICAN, the nonprofit that operates the coalition.
The coalition’s staff met with Chandler City Council members in late October to discuss the need for a Social Host Ordinance, and the group plans to formally present its plans to the City Council in early 2014, Jimro said.
“If a parent provides alcohol in their home for their child, and they’re under their supervision, some of them think that’s ok, but research has shown that this can lead to more alcohol use and abuse of alcohol and destructive behaviors,” Jimro said.
The Chandler Coalition on Youth Substance abuse holds Shoulder Tapping operations quarterly and Jimro said about 20 percent of adults in the organization’s operations decide to purchase alcohol for the youth. In the group’s most recent Shoulder Tapping operation in September, 11 out of 54 adults agreed to purchase alcohol for the teen decoy.
In Chandler, adults who agree to purchase alcohol for a teen during a Shoulder Tapping operation are not cited, but are instead stopped and educated before actually making a purchase.
Jimro said that the coalition would like to see the number of adults agreeing to purchase alcohol for youth decline – in the same way the Chandler business community dramatically decreased the number of underage liquor sales.
“We used to have a program that sent teens in to buy alcohol from the stores and it was so successful that we did not find the need to continue funding that program,” she said.
The Mesa Prevention Alliance’s next Shoulder Tapping operation is scheduled for December, and Mesa Police said they will continue to issue citations to adults who purchase alcohol for teens.
“If they get a citation, they are going to tell everyone in their lives about it,” Scantlebury said. “This is what I want. I want it to impact their lives so that they do things differently.”
He added, “Imagine if this is your kid, and someone bought them alcohol and they got drunk and walked out in traffic or had sex with someone they didn’t want to.”
The Mesa Prevention Alliance is currently asking adult Mesa residents to help the organization gather information on underage drinking through participating in the 2013 Community Norm Survey. The survey will be open through Nov. 14. To take the survey, visit mesapreventionalliance.org.
Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of stories examining the efforts of the Mesa Prevention Alliance to curb alcohol consumption by East Valley teens.
Part 4: Alliance enlists helps of police to find parties, cite participants