Effort to curb teen drinking gains new allies

Peninsula police have uncorked a new and improved list of sting operations aimed at putting a lid on teenagers’ schemes to buy booze.

Burlingame and Half Moon Bay police have added officers and stores to the twice-a-week northern San Mateo County sting operation against underage drinking that now covers 10 cities.

In the operation — called “<21 COAST,” or Consumption of Alcohol Suppression Team — undercover officers use underage decoys that attempt to buy alcohol. The decoys also try a shoulder-tap scenario commonly known as a “Hey, mister” in which the decoy asks someone 21 or older to buy them alcohol.

The operation, which is kicking off its second year in the north county with the addition of the two new police departments, is already making an impact, said Sgt. Dan Steidle of the Pacifica Police Department.

Undercover officers hear proof of the program’s success by listening to the wires worn by their decoys during the operations, he said.

“We’ve heard the customers [and clerks] say, ‘I’m not going to do that — I’ve heard what the police are doing [and] I don’t know if you’re working with the police,’” he said.

From July 2007 to June 2008, the team conducted 21 operations and made 154 misdemeanor arrests — 107 customers who bought for minors and 47 store clerks who sold to decoys.

Some authorities argue that underage drinking should be a priority in the county, where nearly two-thirds of 11th-graders, 44 percent of ninth-graders and 22 percent of seventh-graders have had a drink, according to a 2006 Health Department survey. In addition, nearly four-fifths of 11th graders and two-thirds of ninth graders said booze was fairly easy or very easy to obtain.

To solve the problem, the community needs more than just enforcement, said Jennifer Hughes, vice president of student services for the San Mateo Community College District. The new Project EAGLE in her district, for instance, aims to educate 1,500 students this year to dissuade them from using alcohol and drugs, she said.

It appears to be working for some younger students, too.

“The kids want to make it cool not to drink,” said Jefferson Union High School District prevention and wellness coordinator Nancy Eagan.

“It’s becoming harder now for them to get [alcohol] because of this good work” by the police, she said.

To help pay for officer overtime, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control gave out 45 grants this year. Five police agencies received the maximum of $100,000, including San Mateo County and San Francisco police, said ABC District Administrator Eric Hirata. The money is generated through liquor-license fees the department collects from store owners, he said.

mrosenberg@sfexaminer.com

By the numbers

Underage drinking in San Mateo County

  • 21: Sting operations from July 2007 through June
  • 154: Arrests made from July 2007 through June
  • 10: Police agencies participating
  • 78%: 11th-graders who said alcohol was fairly easy or very easy to obtain
  • 64%: 11th-graders who have drunk alcohol
  • 44%: Ninth-graders who have drunk alcohol
  • 22%: Seventh-graders who have drunk alcohol

Source: Pacifica police, San Mateo County Health Department

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