Checking Your Card
Two Harvard students are under arrest for trying to buy alcohol from undercover cops," an anchor for Boston's WHDH-TV read at the top of the 11 p.m. newscast the Saturday before Thanksgiving last year.
The arrests of the two first years was the top news that night, and for good reason.
Underage students and alcohol have proven a deadly mix in the past several years, and that has led a mix of campus, municipal and even federal agencies to implement innovative new programs aimed at squelching underage drinking.
The most public of those--Cops in Shops--will soon celebrate its one-year anniversary in Cambridge. Although police, campus and city officials tout the program's success, its impact is unclear.
In last year's incident, the two students--who both asked that their names not be used in this article--were charged under a 1993 law that made it illegal for minors to possess alcohol.
Just before 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 21, one of the male students used the identification card of a 25-year-old friend to buy beer from the L'il Peach convenience store at 1105 Mass. Ave.
His roommate waited anxiously outside.
After the purchase was made, the two walked out the door and down the sidewalk where they found three men in uniform blocking their path. At that point the first two Cops in Shops arrests were made.
"In the end, I guess it wasn't that horrible of a thing," says one of the students. "But it was a tough time."
"It was one of the first times that I'd ever gotten into any serious trouble with anything. We were ad-boarded afterward," he says.
The student refuses to discuss the disposition of his case, but says that the matter has passed and that he's trying to move on with his life.
The Standard Sting
After nearly a year of stings, the Cops in Shops motus operandi has become fairly routine, according to both students and municipal officials.
Officers work in pairs, sporting college-type clothes--usually jumpsuits that hide the traditional blunt-edged law enforcement equipment. One cop walks the isles of the store, while the other strolls around the outside of the building.
If a clerk notices a suspicious identification card--or sees a group of gawking teenagers waiting outside for booze, he or she will quietly give a sign to the partner.
Having made his purchase, the alleged violator--almost always a male according to city officials--will exit the store and find one of Cambridge's finest waiting for him. Once a purchase has been made, officers have the right to ask the buyer for ID.
If there's a fake ID in hand, citations are given out, and sometimes arrests are made.
And eager teens waiting for their overage buddy to buy them booze are warned to beware.
"[The police officer is] watching--and if the buyer hands it to the kids for a couple bucks...both will be arrested," says Frank D. Pasquarello, a Cambridge police department spokesperson.
On Cops in Shops's first weekend seven violators were nabbed, including 51-year-old Wilbert McCoy of Dorchester.
Authorities said McCoy bought liquor for two 15-year-old Cantabrigians.
He faced a judge the next morning, but most first-time offenders just face a fine of $200 or $300 and community service. Repeat offenders are jailed.
Surprise in Store
There are 39 stores city-wide that sell alcohol. Of them, 20 are exclusively purveyors of liquor and spirits--and thus face much tighter scrutiny from state and local officials, Pasquerello said.
"The majority of owners do not need any problems with liquor licensing," he said.
The other 19 stores--many of them in and around Harvard and Central Squares-are prime targets for prospective underage drinkers--and over the past year, for undercover cops.
That these stores have been helpful doesn't surprise Richard V. Scali, the executive director of the Cambridge's Licensing Commission.
"They've been very cooperative," he says. "We haven't had anybody whose been uncooperative. They've even been coming to our [Cambridge Licensing Board] meetings," he says.
But workers and managers at several of the stores, particularly in the area around Harvard Square, said their rapprochement with the city is reluctant.
"I won't sell cigarettes to a minor or anything like that," says Kerry Quikstrom, a manager of the Square's Store 24. "But I think it's ridiculous."
"Prohibition doesn't work," he continues.
Quikstrom says enterprising teenagers will pay homeless men and women on the street to buy them beer.
"We can't even [stop this] no matter what anyone does. Kids will still get alcohol," he says.
Managers at Christy's, a favored Square destination, refused requests for comment.
Perhaps they have reason to gauge their words carefully.
The Commonwealth's alcohol policies are as tough as any in the nation.
Five years ago, the state legislature made it a crime for students under 21 to possess alcohol, and toughened penalties on stores who sell to underage drinkers.
That change led Harvard to revamp its policies for students, shortening the time between the first alcohol offense and a hearing before the administrative board.
Still, University officials, including then Dean of the College Fred E. Jewitt '57 expressed discomfort about having to police the private lives of their students.
But then--as now--they had little choice.
Harvard faces a loss of federal funding if it doesn't enforce the alcohol policies, a penalty strengthened by recent reauthorization of Higher Education Act reauthorization.
The Krueger Factor
The furor over the alcohol-related death of MIT first-year Scott Krueger was not the catalyst for Cops in Shops, Cambridge officials say, but they admit Krueger's death was always in the back of their minds.
After consulting with officials at Harvard, MIT, other Cambridge schools and even stores that sell beer and wine, the licensing commission and the CPD made Cambridge one of the dozens of Massachusetts municipalities to try the program.
Coordinated nationally by the non-profit Century Council, Cops in Shops is now in 38 states.
Cops began appearing in shops in 1993, when a dozen states tightened their liquor laws to try to cut down on underage drinking.
Federal money accounts for most of the program's funding.
In Austin, Texas, for example, the government chipped in more than $300,000, while the state was responsible for a third of that total.
But Cambridge, for a host of reasons, foots the majority of its own bill.
"A lot of it is coming out of our own budget here in the police department," Pasquerello says.
That disturbs Cantabrigians, like Store 24's Quikstrom, who say taxpayer money would be better spent protecting his family.
"To worry about some kid buying cigarettes and not about a bunch of crack dealers on the street..." he says, a bit bemused.
But as Cambridge's crime rates continue to decline, quality of life issues like underage drinking become more important, Pasquarello said.
The most recent sweep, which took place in early June, netted several citations and at least one arrest.
"The actual person who was trying to buy was under 21," Scali said. "He's a 20-year-old Cantabrigian; he failed to appear [in court] on September 11th and a warrant was issued for his arrest," he said.
"A lot of times, judges don't take these things too seriously," Scali says. Scali, along with clerk magistrates at the Middlesex Country District Attorney's office, labored to come up with innovative ways of reforming the mostly first-time violators.
In addition to a fine, many wind up with several dozen hours of community service.
"It's been very successful," Scali said. "We have not come in with hoards of people, but it's been successful."
According to Cambridge Police Department records, liquor law violations have remained relatively steady, seeing a slight increase from 1996 to 1997. Police reported 16 offenses in the first half of this year, up one from the same period last year.
Central Square, a hot spot for teenage Cantabrigians, is a particular problem area, police officials said.
And You Also Can't Buy...
Although nationwide attention is focused on alcohol abuse, age restrictions are in place for a wide variety of goods easily accessible in the square: cigarettes, pipes, even porn.
But in some cases, the regulations don't seem to have restricted access.
Late one night last week, a young man with a large baseball cap pulled down over his scraggly hair to his nose, bought a pack of cigarettes from Store 24.
Although he appeared to be in middle-to-late teens, he was not queried by store staff about his age or asked for identification.
That wasn't the case at Nini's newsstand, purveyor of newspapers, naughty magazines and wide selection of cigarettes.
On a recent Saturday night, a young-looking woman picked her favorite puffs from the wall behind the cashier.
"Can I see some I.D.?" a proprietor behind the counter asked apologetically "I'm used to it," the woman smiled.
"Sorry to have to do this, but they'll hit us pretty hard if we don't," the cashier replied.
Still, Store 24 and all other Square stores surveyed have signs posted that warn prospective purchasers of cigarettes under the age of 27 to have their official identification ready.
But are the rules--particularly those governing alcohol sales--enforced?
Several students who asked that their names not be used say that buying booze in the Square is next to impossible, so they rely on upperclass friends to purchase it for them.
That's not surprising to Harvard administrators, police officers and store owners, who admit that there's little they can do about it.
Asked the number of times per year students are caught with alcohol, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis wrote in an e-mai message "[W]e don't attempt to catch students with alcohol. Most often alcohol-related incidents come to our attention either because of a related disciplinary matter...or a medical emergency.
"The number of students who are caught violating Harvard's alcohol policies varies, according to Lewis.
"It would be hard to estimate numbers, since this is such a mixture of categories; if a loud party has to be broken up, there could be dozens of students present, but we might go weeks without a medical emergency," he writes.
So was the first-year students' arrests last year effective in deterring them-and others-from making illegal purchases again?
"I think if they're gonna have the law that you can't buy, it does make sense for them to enforce it," one of the busted buyers says. "I don't have any anger or any bitterness." He says the police treated him no differently than other citizens. "They were pretty normal. We were breaking the law." And the former first year says his ordeal affected his community of friends. "Definitely, I noticed a difference. Usually, people who were willing to take the risk [didn't.]" But the student says the problem is not as widespread as it seems. "A liquor store--a serious liquor store, will always ask for I.D." Asked to name specific stores in the Square that have a reputation for selling alcohol to underage kids, the student said only "convenience stores were usually easier." Store 24's Quikstrom insists he doesn't ever sell to underage kids, but understands the lure. "They feel it's a form of rebellion," he says. "Take away the rebellion and then there isn't a problem.
"I don't have any anger or any bitterness."
He says the police treated him no differently than other citizens.
"They were pretty normal. We were breaking the law."
And the former first year says his ordeal affected his community of friends.
"Definitely, I noticed a difference. Usually, people who were willing to take the risk [didn't.]"
But the student says the problem is not as widespread as it seems.
"A liquor store--a serious liquor store, will always ask for I.D."
Asked to name specific stores in the Square that have a reputation for selling alcohol to underage kids, the student said only "convenience stores were usually easier."
Store 24's Quikstrom insists he doesn't ever sell to underage kids, but understands the lure.
"They feel it's a form of rebellion," he says. "Take away the rebellion and then there isn't a problem.