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Ramping up safe-drinking strategies

Summer Nights
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  July 7, 2010

It'll come as no surprise to anyone who was out and about during the long, hot, holiday weekend that Portland's drinking and nightlife scenes get a little bit more . . . intense during the summer months. That's why local police, bar owners, and organizations aimed at promoting responsible drinking have ramped up their initiatives for summer 2010. With two months left before the temperatures fall — and knowing, of course, that rowdy boozing and underage parties happen regardless of the season — they're testing new programs that they hope will stave off drinking-related tragedies (not to mention tooldom).

The most visible of these programs, one that utilizes mass text-messaging to share information among bar employees and police officers, got attention last month after the Monument Square death of 24-year-old Eric Benson, who was killed after just one punch, thrown by an Old Port partier, caused him to fall and hit his head on the brick pavement. If a patron becomes unruly or belligerent, starts a fight or gets booted from a bar, bouncers and bartenders are encouraged to send out a mass text to keep police and other bars on the alert. The texts include a person's name (if it's known), a physical description, and other relevant information, but the notification does not get entered into the official police log. While it runs the risk of arbitrariness — what one person considers text-worthy, another could perceive as merely sloppy drunk — publicity around the program is "acting as a deterrent," assistant police chief Mike Sauschuck told us. About 50 texts have been sent so far, and both sides think it's "going outstanding," he says. The Maine Civil Liberties Union has expressed some concerns about the police-texting initiative, which they say creates precarious linkages between "untrained bouncers" and police officers. MCLU executive director Shenna Bellows wonders, "Do bars really need a government program to identify people who are too drunk to go into a bar?"

Perhaps text tips will be incorporated into the seller-server training that 21 Reasons — a Portland-based organization that works to combat underage and unhealthy drinking — will offer at the end of the summer. The training, which costs $5, will help establishments comply with a new Portland ordinance allowing the city council to consider whether a bar has certified, trained staff when deciding whether to grant or renew a liquor license. In addition to helping staffers spot fake IDs, the training, led by a former police officer, teaches waitstaff "how to defuse situations," says Jen Hodson, project coordinator at 21 Reasons.

That organization, with the Cumberland County Underage Drinking Enforcement Task Force, is also behind the "Party Patrol Kits" that will be in the patrol cars of every law-enforcement agency in Cumberland County. These kits — which might have come in handy during the Fourth of July party bust in Portsmouth, at which one teen was found unconscious on the lawn, 20 people were arrested, and a bunch of kids were found hiding on a rooftop — contain breathalyzers, cameras, whiteboards, and markers (on which the perpetrator's name and blood-alcohol content can be written), flashlights, and binoculars. "They help build a case against furnishing alcohol to minors," says Jo Morrissey, 21 Reasons project director and chair of the CCUDETF (perhaps saying the acronym could be a new field-sobriety test?).

The Party Patrol Kits were the result of collaboration with police and identification of their (and prosecutors') unmet needs when dealing with underage drinking. Next up for 21 Reasons is a landlord survey to gather information on this question: What tools are needed to reduce irresponsible alcohol use in Portland's rental properties?

  Topics: This Just In , Nightlife, drinking, Maine Civil Liberties Union,  More more >
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