After a late night out, the drive home becomes a perilous journey to reach one’s final destination unscathed. Unfortunately, not everyone ends their evening so lucky. According to the Tampa Alcohol Coalition (TAC), Hillsborough County has the highest number of DUI arrests in the state.
In order to fight the growing population of underage and binge drinkers, the Tampa Police Department and TAC are attempting to fight the alcohol problem from all angles. This includes employing undercover police officers and planting underage decoys. Ellen Snelling, co-chair of the TAC, explained how progressive action is needed to keep communities safe.
“Our organization attempts to provide a link between the law enforcement and bar owners,” Snelling said.
Oftentimes that link is a good one, providing training in correct alcohol distribution and identification checking. However, the sometimes-unlawful employee must beware. Carefully planned decoy operations have become frequent around local area venues.
“The TPD will send an undercover officer and an underage decoy into a bar to check and see if the bartenders are serving someone who is obviously underage,” Snelling said. “They also make sure the person checking IDs is looking for fakes.”
According to Snelling, the city’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco held a task force from February through April, where agents would regularly go to university spots like Peabody’s, Tampa Brickyard and UA Hangout to see how the establishments were conducting business. To avoid the notion of entrapment, the police department and undercover agent follow a clear and legitimate course of action. The decoy must be under the age of 21 and attempting to gain entrance using his or her real ID. If the doorman follows state laws, the decoy would then be admitted to the establishment with an “X” or other symbol denoting the decoy’s youth on his or her hands. With that mark clearly visible, the decoy must then go to the bar and order a drink. If given one with an undercover agent monitoring the situation, an arrest is made.
In April, USF quarterback Matt Grothe found himself in this exact situation. Grothe was charged with a misdemeanor for selling two beers to an 18-year-old who was working with the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. At the time, Grothe was working at the Bull Ring Sports Bar, which has since been closed down for unrelated reasons.
According to Snelling, the TAC does not promote or participate in these “sting” operations.
“We will accompany officers from the TPD or agents from the task force on a ride-a-long, where we go with them as a community member to see how they are doing their job,” Snelling said.
Other than raising awareness of underage drinking, the TAC also encourages bar owners and management to lessen weekly drink specials.
“Drink specials like ‘kill-the-keg,’ ‘ladies drink free’ and ‘nickel beers’ – those are things we try to prevent,” Snelling said. “There isn’t a law against it so we can’t stop them, but we can explain the dangers.”
Although the TAC has been effective in its efforts, not everyone in the bar business agrees with its negative attitude toward drink specials. Ashley Casey, a USF finance major, has been working in Tampa’s bar circuit for seven years and believes tighter security is the answer.
“With my experience behind the bar, I don’t think drink specials are that much of a danger,” Casey said. “Drink specials draw a crowd, and if the staff and management are properly trained and security is checking IDs at the door, there isn’t much underage drinking or people getting out of control.”As a bartender at MacDinton’s Irish Pub, Casey is required to renew her food and beverage certificate every six months to a year.
“When you take the certification class, they teach you different ways of detecting fake IDs, and I believe it does make a difference,” Casey said.
Snelling said it is that same type of education that the TAC hopes will make a difference in Hillsborough’s alcohol-related deaths and crime.
“Alcohol contributes to a lot of problems,” Snelling said. “Bar owners see people having fun while they themselves make money, and we just want to make sure that they see the other side of the coin.”