In addition to forming the internal action team, the police department increased patrol and enforcement within the downtown entertainment district following the town hall meeting. Three officers were dedicated to the assignment in the entertainment district, working the hours when alcohol-related calls historically peaked. Later, this unit evolved into a dedicated team: the Alcohol Compliance and Education (ACE) team.
The city established an Alcohol Task Force representing diverse community perspectives. Task force membership included the LCPD, the La Crosse Community Foundation, all three institutions of higher learning in La Crosse, the United Way, the city council, the Tavern League, the Coulee Council on Addiction, the Wisconsin State Assembly, and private citizens.
With input from the ACE team, the Alcohol Task Force established four primary objectives, as well as a timeline to achieve these objectives by 2010:
- Increase awareness of the dangers of excessive alcohol use and binge drinking
- Establish ordinances that address public safety and alcohol-related issues
- Assess and improve infrastructure and safety in the downtown and riverfront areas
- Assess community readiness for cultural change
To support these objectives, the Alcohol Task Force established 19 action items with a timeline and specific responsibilities for task force members. The ACE team created a chart listing each action item to help keep the project in focus and to monitor results.
Finding Effective Solutions
The ACE team consulted with experts and reviewed research on effective, evidence-based strategies for reducing binge and aggressive drinking. The team sought to identify validated, effective solutions proven by either research or use in other communities.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), effective solutions include enforcement of drinking age laws; restrictions on alcohol retail outlet density; mandatory beverage server training; compliance checks on retail outlets; and beer keg registration requirements.2
As major participants in the community’s Alcohol Task Force, police team members built relationships with other task force member organizations. University alcohol experts and medical alcohol abuse centers provided a wealth of background information that helped the team identify effective, efficient, and enduring solutions. The team augmented this direct information with data and graphs from national and local sources depicting college alcohol trends.
Benchmarking during this phase consisted of interviews with representatives from Winona, Minnesota, a small college city that resembles La Crosse in many ways, and Madison, Wisconsin. Madison is much larger than La Crosse but faces similar challenges: a college-age population that is disproportionately large; a defined area of high bar density; and a significant problem with alcohol-related arrests and injuries.
Based on information compiled during the analytical phase, the team and the task force established definitions for two key terms: binge drinking and aggressive drinking. For binge drinking, the NIAAA definition was adopted: a binge is a “pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. For the typical adult, this pattern corresponds to consuming five or more drinks (men), or four or more drinks (women), in about 2 hours.”3
The analysis process identified another concern: the incidents affecting public safety most frequently in La Crosse involved drunken people whose alcohol consumption far exceeded the definition of binge drinking. This extreme form of alcohol abuse was defined as aggressive drinking.
The Alcohol Task Force focused on the four previously mentioned alcohol-related objectives. The goal of the LCPD’s ACE team was to develop an action plan designed to support task force objectives. Solutions included the following:
- Implementation of “social detox”: a nonmedical alternative to involuntary hospitalization
- Increased patrols in trouble “hot spots”
- Strict enforcement of existing laws regarding overconsumption and underage drinking
- Implementation of responsible beverage server training
- Participation in all relevant committees formed to address alcohol issues
The ACE team also identified and considered solutions in addition to those proposed by the Alcohol Task Force:
- A new public intoxication ordinance
- Remedial education for individuals charged with public intoxication
- Increased ULO activity to facilitate collaboration among all three colleges
- More frequent tasked patrols of the riverfront area adjoining the downtown
- Compliance checks on bars and beverage servers (see figure 1)
- Improved service and increased ridership on Safe Ride buses
|Figure 1. Officer Al Iverson interviews a La Crosse|
bartender as part of a bar check.
Photo courtesy of the La Crosse Police Department
The ACE team also recognized that mobilizing the community to address the issue of aggressive drinking was a top priority. The team agreed that the total number of new programs involving community partners would be one benchmark of success.
Further ACE Team Actions
As a result of the community’s focus on alcohol-related problems, ACE team members have been reassigned from all other direct patrol duties. ACE officers were given the flexibility to work any hours between 3:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., freeing them to participate in community meetings, to conduct enforcement, and to provide education based on opportunity, not on arbitrary schedules.
The team proposed and helped gain city council support for an ordinance requiring retail outlets to maintain a registry of beer kegs sold. Retailers record the unique serial numbers from each keg and verify the names and ages of purchasers. According to research on best practices, monitoring beer makes it easier to prosecute those who sell or provide beer at large private parties—especially those serving underage drinkers.
The ACE team also developed and delivered a curriculum for beverage server training, designed to enhance bar compliance with mandated sober-server rules, improved detection of underage persons, and prevention of service to visibly intoxicated persons.
Furthermore, the team proposed a new ordinance that targeted individuals who were extremely intoxicated and were behaving in a manner contrary to public safety and order. They recognized that successful passage of the ordinance required community support from students, tavern owners, and the public at large. Many citizens were concerned that the police would use the public intoxication ordinance indiscriminately to target anyone who had been drinking.
To alleviate these concerns, ACE officers developed and provided an evidence-based training curriculum that gives violators an opportunity to participate in an alcohol education class in lieu of paying fines. This remedial option became crucial during the ensuing public debate about the proposed ordinance. Having a nonpunitive, educational option for offenders validated the police department’s philosophy, which was to prevent the next offense from occurring.
|Figure 2. Officers Bob Wieczorek (left) and Al Iverson (right), ACE team members, shred confiscated |
Photo courtesy of the La Crosse Police Department
In accordance with best practices, ACE officers tested compliance by sending civilian volunteers and plainclothes officers into bars to observe door identification checks and server practices. The compliance team included one person under the legal drinking age. Compliance inspectors conducted checks during various times of the year at bars throughout the city.
Results in the Community
The results of this collaborative community effort far exceeded initial expectations.
Students: Students and staff at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, Viterbo University, and Western Technical College formed a united group called the Tri Campus group to address their common concerns with alcohol issues. The group is permanent, with ongoing support from students, the LCPD, and school administrators.
In most cases, students have come up with innovative ideas for reducing aggressive alcohol consumption. For example, a group of university marketing students developed the “Safe La Crosse” campaign that raised awareness about alcohol’s harmful impact on student safety. The class followed the campaign with research showing that the intended audience, college students, recalled campaign messages.
Safe Ride/U-Pass, a program intended to provide students with a safe alternative to walking or driving back to campus from downtown, now functions as a partnership between the La Crosse Mass Transit Utility and local universities to provide bus service free of charge on weekends until bars close. Student tuition fees now sustain the program, which was initially funded by a federal grant. The program continues to evolve based on students’ needs. The ULO, actively involved with the program since its inception, continues to provide advice to the Tri Campus group, which administers the Safe Ride program, on ways of improving ridership. Since 2004, ridership has increased 17 percent to more than 50,000 students each year.
Civic Groups: The Operation River Watch program was created as a partnership between the LCPD, college student organizations, and other civic groups to patrol the area along the Mississippi River on weekends. Since 2006, Operation River Watch has intercepted 42 extremely intoxicated individuals who were walking toward the river.
Bars: Through mandating sober-server rules, improving detection of underage persons, and preventing service to visibly intoxicated persons, La Crosse has improved bar compliance. The training curriculum developed by the ACE team receives high marks from servers in evaluations completed after the class. Additionally, servers report a much higher degree of confidence in their abilities to identify underage and intoxicated individuals and to respond appropriately.
Public Intoxication Ordinance
The LCPD has taken a holistic approach in its response to the enactment of a new public intoxication ordinance by including education and prevention training. Enforcement of the ordinance has led to more opportunities to educate offenders and members of the public about the effects of public intoxication on the community. Consequently, the department has earned widespread public support for its enforcement of the ordinance.
One of the best examples of this support comes from persons charged under the ordinance who have subsequently attended alcohol education classes. In anonymous evaluations, attendees overwhelmingly praise the course and ACE instructors while reporting they have developed an improved awareness of alcohol-related issues and have acquired skills to change their alcohol consumption habits.
During the first year of ordinance enforcement, 171 violators attended alcohol education classes. Of these, only one has reoffended. Meanwhile, 22 of 78 violators who did not attend alcohol education reoffended. Without alcohol education, offenders were 47 times more likely to repeat their offenses.
A survey conducted on the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse campus last year showed that 90 percent of respondents support the ordinance. The La Crosse Common Council voted unanimously to continue the public intoxication ordinance after its initial one-year trial period.
During the first four years of La Crosse’s focused response to its alcohol problems, inspectors found that most licensed alcohol outlets were in compliance; that is, most bars check patrons’ ages, have trained door and server staff, and are careful about serving visibly intoxicated patrons. Departmental studies reflect a 50 percent improvement in compliance in the three years following the implementation of ACE team inspections. The ultimate goal is to improve compliance to 100 percent.
Through the development of community partnerships, the LCPD has effectively reduced the frequency and severity of alcohol-related injuries and deaths, creating a safer environment for the community and improving relationships with the student population and the community.
The city of La Crosse has benefited from these ongoing, permanent relationships, including the development of better working relationships between police and media organizations. The public now receives timely and accurate information on alcohol-related incidents and ongoing prevention efforts.
The department has permanently changed its operating procedures: the ACE team is a fixed, funded unit within the agency. As such, the team will continue to expand its knowledge and apply lessons learned in ongoing efforts to reduce the harm caused by aggressive alcohol consumption.
Despite the many achievements, some problems remain, either because solutions are not feasible or because they lack sufficient support from lead agencies. For example, social detox, an alternative to formal medical intervention, has support from alcohol treatment organizations but lacks funding. Infrastructure changes have been delayed by a lack of consensus among public works planners, the Alcohol Task Force, and citizens.
These few ongoing challenges aside, the ACE team and its community partners have striven to accomplish every task and objective set forth by the LCPD and will continue to address the ongoing challenges of the drinking culture deeply entrenched in segments of the local population. ■
1“The SARA Model,” Center for Problem Oriented Policing, http://www.popcenter.org/about/?p=sara (accessed February 9, 2009).
2See Alexander C. Wagenaar et al., “Environmental Influences on Young Adult Drinking,” Alcohol Research and Health 28, no. 4, (2004/2005): 230–235, http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh284/230-235.pdf; and “Underage Drinking: A Growing Health Care Concern,” NIAAA Web site, http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/PSA/underagepg2.htm (both accessed February 13, 2009).
3National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Underage Drinking,” Alcohol Alert, no. 67 (January 2006), http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AA67/AA67.htm (accessed February 9, 2009).