Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of underage drinking. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy. You will likely find that effective responses to combat underage drinking will also result in reductions in alcohol-related crime such as drunken driving, assault, property damage, and noise violations.

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular underage drinking problem, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on. Because police may not know how much underage drinking occurs in a community, you should use multiple information sources, including police records, juvenile police officers or school resource officers, state and local alcohol beverage control (ABC) records, school faculty, parents and parent advocate groups, underage drinkers, underage nondrinkers, and observations of youth, alcohol outlets, and areas where underage people drink.

Further, it may be helpful for police to link with local colleges, universities, or researchers to design, test, and administer surveys for high school students, college students, and underage nonstudents.

† Using survey questions similar to those in the most widely used instruments, such as the College Alcohol Survey or the Monitoring the Future study, will allow you to compare your jurisdiction’s trends with national trends. [Full text]

Offenders

  • What proportion of high school students drink alcohol?
  • What proportion of local college/university students are underage? What percentage of them drink? How often? How much?
  • What reasons do they give for drinking?
  • What are underage drinkers’ characteristics (e.g., age, occupation, gender, group affiliations)? What are underage nondrinkers’ characteristics? Are there any differences in their characteristics that suggest opportunities for intervention?
  • Which alcoholic beverages do high school students prefer? Which do college students prefer? Which do underage nonstudents prefer?
  • Do underage people know what proportion of their peers drink, and how much?
  • Do underage people believe they can obtain and drink alcohol without being denied or apprehended?
  • What negative consequences of drinking do underage people fear (e.g., embarrassment from being refused alcohol in stores, hindrance to work or schooling, illness, injury, arrest)?

Incidents

  • In what proportion of crimes and police service calls is underage drinking a significant contributing factor? (Note: Many police report forms do not capture this information in a way that permits computerized tabulation, so you may need to read a sample of reports to estimate this figure.) What, specifically, is the nature of the crimes and service calls? How, specifically, do you believe underage drinking has contributed to the incident?
  • How many alcohol-related deaths occur among those under 21 (e.g., car crash fatalities, drownings, suicides)?
  • How many underage drinking-related incidents result in an arrest?
  • How many citations, detentions, arrests, or other official interventions do police make for underage drinking? What proportion of all incidences of underage drinking do you estimate result in some official intervention?

Environment

  • What types of alcohol advertising are present in the community? Newspaper ads? Billboards? Radio commercials? Do major alcohol manufacturers or distributors sponsor any community events or athletic events? How much of this advertising and promotion do you believe particularly targets underage people?
  • Which local retailers, bars, and restaurants advertise large-volume price discounts, drink specials, or other promotions? Where are these advertisements placed?
  • What types of alcohol-free opportunities to socialize are available to high school students? To 18- to 20-year-olds? How are the events publicized? How many people attend? Which events are most popular? What reasons do young people give for not going?

Alcohol Sources

† The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation has produced a monograph on conducting alcohol purchase surveys. It is available on the Internet at www.udetc.org/documents/purchase.pdf [PDF].

  • Do underage youth obtain alcohol through parents, older siblings, or other relatives?
  • Do underage youth ask strangers to buy alcohol for them? Where do these transactions occur? Is a fee provided? What are the characteristics of the strangers who agree to make the purchase? Of those who refuse?
  • Which fraternity and sorority houses and private residences have reputations as “party houses?”
  • Which licensed establishments have a reputation for not checking ID, or for accepting fake IDs? Are individual clerks, door staff, or managers part of the problem?
  • Are there relationships between the staff and the customers (e.g., they know each other from campus) that make service denial difficult?
  • Is it more likely for underage people to obtain alcohol because they showed a fake ID, or because the vendor did not ask for ID?
  • How many fake ID cards get confiscated? Who confiscates them (e.g., police, licensed- establishment employees, school officials)? How have the IDs been altered or falsified? Where and how do the drinkers obtain them ?

Times/Locations

  • How often do underage drinkers drink? How much do they drink?
  • When do underage drinkers typically drink (e.g., time of day, day of week)?
  • Where does underage drinking occur (e.g., private parties, licensed establishments, parks, remote areas)?
  • How many underage parties at private residences come to police attention? How do the police find out about them?
  • How many youth attend the parties? How do they learn about them? Do they have to pay a fee to get in? Are adults of legal age responsible for the parties?
  • Are particular neighborhoods or residences known for underage parties? Are there outdoor venues (e.g., parks, beaches, fields) popular among underage drinkers?
  • What type of alcohol is typically served at parties? Is food served? Are nonalcoholic beverages available?
  • What are local college and university policies regarding alcohol sales and consumption on campus? How involved are the Greek organizations in the drinking environment? What are their policies and practices regarding the availability of alcohol at their parties?
  • How many retail outlets and bars are there in the community? Do certain areas have high concentrations of retail outlets or bars?

Special Events

  • At which community events does alcohol play a role in advertising or in event participation? Athletic events? What deterrents to underage drinking are in place at these events? How do underage drinkers circumvent these controls to get access?
  • Is your community a popular spring break destination? What are the typical spring break activities for students there? What types of problems do you encounter during that time?
  • Do underage drinkers participate in drinking games? If so, which games are popular? What types of problems occur at parties or events where people play drinking games?

Current Responses

  • What is your jurisdiction currently doing to address underage drinking? Is there evidence that any activities are particularly effective? What is not working, and why?
  • Which agencies are involved with this issue? Are there other agencies, organizations, groups, or individuals who need to play a role?
  • What legal sanctions are there for underage drinking? What sanctions are actually imposed?
  • Are there other administrative sanctions that apply to certain groups of underage drinkers (e.g., suspensions or demerits for students)? What sanctions are typically applied?
  • Are there any informal social sanctions applied to certain groups of underage drinkers (e.g., being grounded by parents, being benched by athletic coaches, being fired by employers)?

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of underage drinking before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. All measures should be taken in both the target area and the surrounding area. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to underage drinking:

  • reductions in the proportion of underage high school and college students who report drinking;
  • reductions in the number of citations given to minors for possession, underage purchase, etc. (assuming a constant enforcement level);
  • reductions in the number of retailers cited for selling alcohol to minors (assuming a constant enforcement level);
  • reductions in the number of citations given for third-party alcohol purchases (assuming a constant enforcement level);
  • reductions in the number of underage drinking parties requiring police response;
  • reductions in the number of complaints received about underage drinking parties;
  • reductions in the number of students who report having to tolerate secondhand effects of their peers’ drinking;
  • reductions in alcohol-related crime statistics committed by minors (e.g., assault, property damage, sexual assault); and
  • reductions in the number of alcohol-related injuries and deaths occurring to, or caused by, minors (e.g., suicides, traffic injuries and fatalities).