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Potsdam police crack down on underage drinking

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POTSDAM — Underage drinking has been a problem in Potsdam for a long time, especially when college students are involved, but village police are cracking down.

Last month, two student volunteers under the age of 21, working with police, entered liquor stores and convenience stores around the village and attempted to buy alcohol. None of the 12 stores that were visited sold alcohol to the minors.

“We are very happy with the stores for staying in compliance with the law,” said village Police Chief Kevin A. Bates.

The department is planning a similar check on local bars.

The undercover check is not the only way the department will try to curb underage drinking. Since taking over as chief in March, Mr. Bates has been looking for ways to tackle the problem, including figuring out how to define it.

Although the Police Department has made only 15 arrests and given seven warnings for underage possession of alcohol since the start of the 2012, underage drinking is a larger problem than those statistics would suggest, Mr. Bates said.

Arrest reports for alcohol-related incidents do not include whether the suspect was underage, making accurately estimating the extent of the problem difficult.

Every three months, the chief releases a quarterly incident statistic report. This regularly includes the number of “highly intoxicated” people, those too drunk to be left on their own.

“I wanted to find out, how many of these people are underage?” Mr. Bates said.

The latest report was the first to include information on the number of highly intoxicated people who were underage. From April to June, 14 of the 20 highly intoxicated people encountered by police were not old enough to legally drink alcohol.

Future reports likely will include more statistics regarding incidents of underage drinking.

Even with accurate statistics, many situations in which young people drink are tough for police to combat. With SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University in the village and SUNY Canton, St. Lawrence University and the SUNY-ESF Ranger School in Wanakena nearby, house parties pose a common problem.

Police can’t enter a house party unless they have legitimate reason to do so. When they do get in, partygoers are eager to get out.

“Oftentimes when we can get in, the exits are overflowing with people leaving,” Mr. Bates said.

Enforcement alone isn’t enough, Mr. Bates said. Many of those arrested or warned for underage drinking are picked up again later for similar offenses. Enforcement must be offset by education, he said.

Parents often call the Police Department angry that their children were arrested for “just drinking,” Mr. Bates said. Alcohol and college life are synonymous for many.

But highly intoxicated people, regardless of age, can be a nuisance or a danger to themselves or the people around them, Mr. Bates said.

Nine percent to 10 percent of those arrested for driving while intoxicated in St. Lawrence County are under the age of 21, according to Michele J. James, who leads the St. Lawrence County Stop-DWI program.

Ms. James has been meeting with volunteers and law-enforcement officials from around the county, gathering statistics on underage drinking and looking into how to stop it. She agrees that education is the best method.

“We’re trying to look at what problems we can deal with here in St. Lawrence County,” she said.

Despite the difficulty in obtaining accurate statistics, there is evidence that the fight against underage drinking is slowly yielding results. Ms. James said that over the years, she has seen the underage DWI rate drop to the 10 percent it is today.

“I’ve been at this job for 12 years and it’s been higher than that in the past, so I think we’re making inroads,” she said.

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