Friday, March 7, 2014
AUGUSTA — You're outside a convenience store, topping off your car's gas tank or crossing the parking lot to buy a cup of coffee. You notice a car inching toward you. Inside sit two young men. They fix their eyes on you. The car stops in front of you.
"Hey," the passenger says. "I'm going back to college next week and I'd like to have a few drinks with my friends, but I'm not 21. Would you buy me a 12-pack?"
"No thanks," you say.
"I have money. And I'm almost 21," the man pleads. "Can you help me out?"
Other than being underage, the young man is not what he seems. He is working undercover with police, one of whom is driving the car, which is rigged with a wire. Two other uniformed officers sit in a nearby cruiser, listening to every word. Refuse the young man's request and you will never know they were there.
But if you take his money and head into the store, an officer will greet you outside with a summons charging you with furnishing alcohol to a minor.
Augusta police have conducted a number of these underage drinking details, called shoulder taps, and, until last week, had always charged at least one person who was willing to break one law to help a complete stranger break another.
"There's nothing in for you to do it, so why would you do it?" wonders Augusta Police Lt. Christopher Massey.
Local and regional police have stepped up enforcement of underage drinking laws since budget cuts forced the state to curb its effort a number of years ago. County and municipal task forces have been created to find underage drinkers and those who supply them.
"The overall goal is to stop these things from happening. It's not to go out and say, 'Hey, we caught 30 kids,'" said Oakland Police Sgt. Tracey Frost, supervisor for the Northern Kennebec Underage Drinking Task Force. "We've had way too many instances of young kids getting killed because they were driving under the influence or having to go to the hospital because they've overdosed."
The shoulder tap is just one method used by police. Frost said the county task forces, made up of local and county police from a number of agencies, gathers information about planned drinking parties and monitor spots where those parties occur repeatedly. Police also check cars for illegal transportation and organize undercover counter details to see if stores will sell to underage patrons.
"When we first started doing that in 2008, if we hit 20 stores, 16 of those stores would sell," Frost said. "Now, if we hit 20 stores, maybe one will sell. That has improved significantly."
Augusta police, which lends officers to the Southern Kennebec County Underage Drinking Task Force, has formed its own force to work within the city. Massey, who heads up that task force, agreed word is spreading.
"Because we've done these details it's gotten a lot more difficult to find stores that will sell without an ID," Massey said.
Augusta Deputy Chief Jared Mills said he hopes the fact that everyone targeted in last week's detail was unwilling to buy is a sign that the public is getting the message as well.
"I look at this as a successful operation," Mills said. "I hope that the public is getting the message that we are out there enforcing these laws and there are consequences."
How it works
Last week's detail began several days in advance with finding a buyer to work with police. The person must be 18 to 20 years old and must have undergone a background check. Massey said police have used interns in the past, but he and Frost said most of the undercover buyers work as corrections officers at the Kennebec County jail.
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