Policing parties?

GREENFIELD — It was a typical Saturday night when it started, just seven months before high school graduation.

There was a house party. Friends. Laughter. Underage drinking.

And then came the knock on the front door.

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Rebekah Mohr was a senior at Greenfield-Central High School that night in November 2013 when the newly formed Hancock County Underage Drinking Task Force raided one of its first parties.

And at 18 years old, Mohr suddenly had a criminal record.

By early morning, 21 people were arrested; 14 of them were between the ages 18 and 20, and seven were juveniles as young as 14 years old.

The task force has been responsible for roughly 150 arrests since its inception in 2013, and the receipt of a $23,000 grant ensures police aren’t about to lose momentum in their quest to curb underage drinking, officials said.

But the recent announcement of that cash award, which will be used to pay officer overtime and purchase equipment, has sparked debate in the community and among local officials.

Some believe that the patrol could be putting young people’s futures at risk. Law enforcement officers counter they are simply doing their jobs.

For Mohr, the experience landed her in court on a misdemeanor charge of minor in possession of alcohol and cost her more than $500 in fines. It also taught her a valuable life lesson, she said.

She stopped attending parties and started going to tutoring instead; her grades went up, and she started making smarter decisions. Now, at 19 years old, she is going to college full time, studying to be a nurse and working on the side.

“I feel like I’m a better person after getting caught,” Mohr said. “I obviously didn’t like going through it at the time, but it opened my eyes. It was really a learning experience.”

Her father, Russell Mohr, is more critical of the group that targets underage drinkers.

While he doesn’t condone his daughter’s actions, he likened the task force’s activities to a “witch hunt,” pointing out that officers often monitor social media accounts, patrol county roads on weekend nights and run a tipline to find out about parties.

“It’s to the point where kids can’t do anything anymore without getting into trouble or being harassed,” he said.

At a recent meeting of the Hancock County Board of Commissioners, Commissioner Brad Armstrong voiced concern that the zero-tolerance policy among the program’s protocols is ruining kids’ chances of going to college and sending their future plans into disorder.

“If someone falls to peer-pressure and has one drink, they’re going to jail. That’s a pretty severe penalty,” Armstrong said. He went on to say that everyone “has a right to go to college” and that penalties to “any law or ordinance we have (are) not one-size-fits-all.”

He also raised questions about how officers learn about the parties. Since the task force’s tipline is anonymous, there is nothing stopping students from calling in just to get their peers in trouble out of spite, he said.

But law enforcement officers say that’s beside the point.

Hancock County Sheriff Mike Shepherd said in his 34 years in law enforcement, he’s had plenty of experiences with disgruntled people who want to blame officers rather than accept responsibility for their own actions.

“Kids know the law,” Shepherd said. “They know they have to be 21 before they can go out drinking. They are choosing to put themselves, their futures, their scholarships in jeopardy. We’re just doing our job.”

Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s chief deputy, said it simply wouldn’t be fair if officers went into parties and divided attendees up into groups of those who were college-bound or scholarship recipients and those who weren’t.

“We enforce the law,” he said. “After that, they have to work things out with the prosecutor.”

Commissioner Marc Huber takes issue with the legal age of drinking altogether. Were it lowered, the task force wouldn’t be making so many arrests, he reasoned.

“That needs to change,” he said. “You can go across the ocean and fight for your country, but you can’t drink beer.”

Huber also questioned the department’s decision to prioritize combating underage drinking, which typically results in little more than misdemeanor charges.

“Sometimes I worry that we’re putting too much into this task force, that it’s taking us away from other things, and those problems go unchecked,” he said.

Like it or not, the Underage Drinking Task Force isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, said Tim Retherford, director of Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse (NASA).

It was a NASA survey that prompted the creation of the task force to begin with. The survey of county residents indicated there was concern about underage drinking. To combat the problem, NASA, area school districts and eight law enforcement agencies came together to create a protocol for handling underage drinking cases.

They put more officers on the streets at peak party times, established a tipline and began making a concentrated effort to catch young partiers and hold them accountable.

Police officials said they believe they’re making a difference. The numbers of parties and the tips regarding them have been declining, and Burkhart hopes minor consumption is dropping as well, he said.

In October 2014, a survey taken by high school students nationwide showed 18.6 percent of the county’s class of 2015 reported consuming alcohol in the 30 days prior to the survey. The figure is down from 21.3 percent a year earlier.

“The goal isn’t to arrest teens but to help them make better decisions,” Retherford said. “I think parents appreciate that; most parents in the community have been supportive of what we’re doing.”

Since taking office two months ago, Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton has not seen too many underage drinking cases cross his desk. He said that the cold weather might have something to do with it, but even if things warm up soon, he said his office will handle each one on a case-by-case basis, balancing what’s best for the community with what’s best for the individual.

No matter their age or crime, what happens in the future is really up to the person, Eaton said.

“A lot of people end up (in the criminal justice system) because of bad decisions they’ve made,” he said. “Some people let it send them into a tailspin. Others can pull it together and do great things.”

Pull Quote

“I feel like I’m a better person after getting caught. I obviously didn’t like going through it at the time, but it opened my eyes,”

-Rebekah Moore, on being arrested by the county’s underage drinking task force

Pull Quote

“A lot of people end up (in the criminal justice system) because of bad decisions they’ve made. Some people let it send them into a tailspin. Others can pull it together and do great things.”

– Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton, on those charged in underage drinking cases

Pull Quote

“The goal isn’t to arrest teens but to help them make better decisions. I think parents appreciate that; most parents in the community have been supportive of what we’re doing.”

– Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse director Tim Retherford, on supporting the underage drinking task force

Pull Quote

“Kids know the law. They know they have to be 21 before they can go out drinking. They are choosing to put themselves, their futures, their scholarships in jeopardy.”

– Hancock County Sheriff Mike Shepherd

Pull Quote

“If someone falls to peer pressure and has one drink, they’re going to jail. That’s a pretty severe penalty.”

– Commissioner Brad Armstrong, on potential pitfalls of a zero-tolerance policy for underage drinking.

Survey Results

28.5 percent of the Class of 2014, as juniors, admitted to binge drinking 30 days before a nationwide survey on teen alcohol use was conducted in spring 2013.

22.3 percent of the Class of 2014, as seniors, admitted to binge drinking 30 days before a nationwide survey on teen alcohol use was conducted in spring 2014.

21.3 percent of the Class of 2015 as sophomores, admitted to binge drinking 30 days before a nationwide survey on teen alcohol use was conducted in spring 2013.

18.6 percent of the Class of 2015, as juniors, admitted to binge drinking 30 days before a nationwide survey on teen alcohol use was conducted in spring 2014.

Source: Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse

By the numbers

June 2013 to June 2014:

222 people found at underage drinking parties

122 people arrested

39 juveniles taken into custody

July 2014 to now:

34 people arrested

About the task force

The Underage Drinking Task Force started in June 2013 with the goal of combating minor consumption in Hancock County.

It comprises eight area law enforcement agencies including two that aren’t based locally but patrol here – the Indiana State Police and the Indiana Excise Police.

Prior to the program being enacted, there were inconsistencies among how law enforcement department in Hancock County handled underage drinking calls. Now, each department involved follows the same protocols. Schools have become involved as well, making clearer rules for how students will be disciplined if they are caught with alcohol at a party.

Author photo
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.