By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Knowing that underage drinking “leads to other things” Mercer County law enforcement officials and counselors from the Behavioral Health Commission announced plans to crack down on partying teens, courtesy of a grant from the state Liquor Control Board.
District Attorney Robert Kochems, Jeff Hanley, a drug and alcohol counselor, and Southwest Mercer County Regional Police Chief Riley Smoot announced the kickoff of the “Protect Your Future” campaign, which educates teens, police and parents about how to handle alcohol issues in underage drinkers.
Data collected every two years from students in 8th, 10th and 12th grades shows that students in Mercer County are reporting drinking at an average considerably higher than the state average.
“This is behavior that is self-reported and done so anonymously and so we know there’s a lot of drinking going on, but when we look at our data coming through my office, we saw 6 underage DUI’s and about 35 youth charged with underage drinking,” Kochems said.
“We have a very high level of consumption and a low level of enforcement. This grant will help change that,” he said.
The $39,000 will pay for additional police training that will prepare officers on how to “handle the house” when they respond to a call of a party with a large crowd, as well as training to teach officers how to quickly recognize fake identification cards, Smoot said.
Kochems pointed out that departments that are involved in the programs are investing funds by way of “hidden” costs behind the grant.
“For those who are off being trained, the department has to pay someone else to cover that shift. So they are making a commitment in that regard,” he said.
Smoot said he’d like to be able to add two extra patrolman to the streets from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. to respond to complaints. Police chiefs said they plan to set up DUI checkpoints at areas close to homecoming and prom events.
As far as educating parents and the public, there already exists two ways for people to report underage drinking. Anonymous tips can be texted to Text-A-Tip, or 274637, and the appropriate law enforcement agency will be notified. Calls can also be made to 1-800-UNDER-21, Smoot said.
Hanley said the target population is those 16 to 20 years old.
“Studies show us that the brain is still developing into a person’s 20s. Alcohol consumption can lead to permanent brain damage, especially when there are early signs such as blackouts or memory loss.
“We want to educate parents and the community so they can help us reach these teens,” he said.