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Back to Archives | Back to April 2009 Contents 

Curtailing Abusive Drinking in La Crosse

By Edward Kondracki, Chief of Police; and Captain Robert Abraham, Director, Community Services Bureau, La Crosse, Wisconsin, Police Department


In 2004, after the tragic drowning death of a college student, the seventh in eight years, the La Crosse Police Department began reevaluating its response to alcohol-related incidents. The department’s response was prompted by growing concern for the safety of the community at large. These tragedies, resulting from a deeply entrenched drinking culture, forced the police department to seek alternatives to traditional enforcement responses to alcohol problems. La Crosse is a scenic college community on the Mississippi River. However, the city also has a reputation as a college party town. Visitor guides proudly feature tours of the local brewery that include the “World’s Largest Six-Pack.” Each fall, nearly 100,000 revelers visit La Crosse to participate in a beer-soaked Oktoberfest celebration. Fifty bars are located downtown within a three-block radius, most of which are located within two blocks of the river. In 2004, following the accidental river drowning of yet another intoxicated college-age man, the community faced a crisis.


n the last two decades, alcohol consumption by college students and other young adults in La Crosse, Wisconsin, has been a significant problem, one that the La Crosse Police Department (LCPD) had long addressed in a traditional, reactive way. The time and the effort devoted to reducing alcohol-related problems were almost exclusively incident driven.

In 1993, the LCPD established the University Liaison Officer (ULO) program, a part-time assignment for one officer, to improve relations between the police department and staff and students at area colleges. One activity of the ULO is providing prevention education designed to reduce risky or illegal alcohol use by students. The ULO focuses on making presentations on alcohol issues to incoming freshmen and to students before each spring break.

In the bar district, police officers have often responded to calls that usually concerned one of three problems: fights, extremely intoxicated persons, and underage drinkers.

La Crosse, Wisconsin:
By the Numbers
20.1Square miles
30.1Median age
93Sworn officers
136.2Miles from Madison
50,719Population
$10 millionOperating budget
Source: www.city-data.com/city/La-Crosse-Wisconsin.html


In off-campus areas, the police sometimes proactively warned prospective hosts of planned parties of the legal penalties they might face regarding alcohol and loud noise. Usually, however, the response was reactive. Police officers would respond to a complaint about a loud party, break it up, and take enforcement action against the host.


Town Hall Meeting

On April 22, 2004, the LCPD hosted a town hall meeting to obtain community input on the scope of the alcohol problem and the factors contributing to alcohol-related problems in the area. This town hall meeting helped bring public focus to the harm caused by binge drinking as well as aggressive drinking—a behavior that goes beyond binge drinking.

Approximately 500 community members attended the three-hour meeting, including high school and college students, elected officials, families of some of the recent drowning victims, representatives from several community-based organizations, and scores of concerned citizens.

Misconceptions: A number of citizens expressed fears that the drowning deaths were actually a result of a serial killer preying on young men in La Crosse. According to them, the LCPD and other official agencies were ignoring the “facts” and passing the deaths off as accidents.

The police chief carefully described the steps the department had taken to investigate all aspects of the drowning deaths. A review of past deaths was conducted before the meeting to identify the common factors linking those past events with the present. The chief wanted the public to know that the killer in their midst was the misuse of alcohol—not a serial killer.

Follow-up Actions: The LCPD then created an internal action team to follow up on the town hall meeting. This team included both line and staff officers from each of the major bureaus in the department.

The team’s first step was to agree on a problem-solving process and a timeline for progress in each phase of the process. The team selected the SARA (scanning, analysis, response, and assessment) model because its members had training in and experience with this problem-solving process.1

Tasked with using SARA’s problem-solving methods to identify and implement solutions, the team identified several factors contributing to the alcohol-related problems facing the community; most notable was that La Crosse had the second highest density of bars in the United States. The ease of access resulting from this density, coupled with low prices and a disproportionately large age demographic prone to alcohol abuse, created a volatile alcohol consumption environment.


Establishing Goals

Although the community had identified a problem, the goals related to that problem were not entirely clear. After much consideration, the internal team selected two goals for immediate action. The first goal, to engage and mobilize community resources, recognized that community mobilization was necessary because no one stakeholder had the resources to effect or sustain changes in La Crosse’s deeply rooted alcohol traditions. Public institutions, citizens, students, tavern owners, and alcohol experts would have to work together to make lasting positive changes.

Because the tragic drowning deaths diminished citizens’ sense of community safety and increased community fear, the second goal, to enhance community safety and reduce harm linked to acute alcohol abuse, sought to reduce fear. The LCPD internal action team knew that the key to reducing fear lay with reducing binge drinking. To do this, the community would have to come to grips with its drinking problem. The team would have to retrace the paths taken by the seven young drowning victims to find out how they, and hundreds like them on any given weekend in La Crosse, became too drunk to care for themselves.


Immediate Action

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
false IDs.
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.


Future Challenges

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. ■


Notes:

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).

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 4, April 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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