The Middletown Police Department (MPD) is cracking down on underage drinking laws using an $85,000 grant received in 2006. The grant was obtained from the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services through the Rushford Center, a substance abuse and mental health provider in Connecticut.

“We enforce the laws that already exist,” said Deputy Chief of Police Patrick McMahon in an e-mail to The Argus. “This enforcement grant allows us to be more proactive.”

MPD is using the grant money to step up DUI patrols, enforcement of false identification laws and compliance checks for establishments that sell liquor.

“Local data indicated that the magnitude and severity of underage drinking in the Middletown community was high,” said Rushford’s Prevention Manager Sheryl Sprague, who applied for the grant, via e-mail. “We hope to reduce retail availability of alcohol to minors, increase enforcement of alcohol laws and policies and reduce social access to minors.”

One of the largest issues that data collection in Middletown revealed was that minors in the community have considerable access to alcohol.

“Data regarding sale of alcohol indicate that Middletown bars, restaurants and stores far too often illegally sell alcohol to those under the legal age of 21,” Sprague said.

To address this issue, MPD is focusing not only on enforcing laws that affect minors who illegally purchase alcohol, but on ensuring that liquor vendors are not selling to anyone underage. This involves checking licenses of liquor-serving establishments and conducting compliance checks. Undercover compliance checks in 2006 identified four Middletown establishments that sold alchohol to two volunteer minors.

Eli Wilson ’09, Beer Manager at Forest City Wines and Spirits on the north end of Main Street, believes the grant has the potential to benefit liquor stores if it provides better ways to identify minors.

“As far as policing underage drinking, we are by law required to check ID,” he said. “[But] there is actually a fair amount of discretion involved. The state does not provide us with a concrete way of telling if an ID is fake or real. My manager feels that if the state wanted to be very serious about policing underage drinking, at least in terms of buying alcohol, they should provide us with some kind of booklet.”

Wilson said he would like to see more collaboration between police and liquor vendors in order to help such establishments prevent sale of alcohol to minors. Forest City, he said, tries to enforce alcohol laws as best as possible; he has never personally seen someone turned away because of a fake ID, however.

Stricter enforcement of drinking laws could have many effects on University students. MPD has been in contact with Public Safety regarding the grant.

“Students hosting large scale parties where alcohol is present have the obligation to uphold the law, including not providing alcohol to minors,”  Sprague said. “Under the social host law they can receive legal consequences for providing alcohol to those under 21, especially if high school age students are involved.”

Under Connecticut General Statute 30-89a, allowing minors to drink on premises one has control over is an infraction for a first offense, and a misdemeanor for any subsequent offense. A misdemeanor can result in up to 12 months in jail.

In addition to the risks students 21 and over may face by hosting parties, the grant may influence the minors on campus. The grant focuses not only on the law enforcement, but also on compliance.

Sonia Mañjon, Vice President for Diversity and Strategic Partnerships, has provided information about the grant to WesWell. Mañjon meets with Middletown’s Mayor, Chief of Police, and Chief of Fire Department in a quarterly meeting to discuss town-gown relations. When she learned of tighter enforcement of alchohol laws, she passed the information along to Director of Health Education Lisa Currie. Sprague has also been working with WesWell to encourage students to drink safely and responsibly. 

“We hope to reinforce health and safety messages,” she said. “Large scale parties where minors are providing or consuming alcohol will be addressed.”

Despite the many ways the grant could influence the University, it is primarily focused on middle and high school students, according to Sprague.

“Students need to understand that this isn’t targeted at Wesleyan,” said Dave Meyer, Director of Public Safety. “It’s community-wide.”

MPD, the Rushford Center and Public Safety agree that University students should be aware of the grant and its possible repercussions. They hope that it will result in increased compliance with underage drinking laws.

“Underage drinking is not a harmless rite-of-passage,” Sprague said. “More young people die of alcohol-related causes than all other illicit drugs combined. The societal costs of underage drinking are huge.”

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