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Task force reaches a milestone

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GREENFIELD — In the past seven months, the Hancock County Underage Drinking Task Force has raided 14 parties and arrested more than 100 alleged underage drinkers, according to data released by the newly formed team.

With the one-year anniversary of the task force approaching at the end of the month, officials say they believe their efforts are making a difference in the community.

Parties, police say, are getting smaller as young people begin to fear a greater chance of being caught, and members of the public are calling in tips more frequently as they see results.

Of the 103 people arrested since the first party was raided in November, 71 have been 18 or older, and 32 have been juveniles.

The task force is comprised of more than 30 officers representing every law enforcement agency in the county. Those officers, as well as a staff of jail officers who drive a jail van to parties to pick up offenders, are on call on a rotating basis. There are also officers who perform random party patrols.

Law enforcement officers work together to put extra manpower on the street, and they also coordinate with school officials to share information about parties that are rumored to be occurring.

The task force got off the ground with the help of a $37,000 grant from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. That funding covered start-up costs including officer equipment and educational materials distributed to students in all the county’s public and private schools.

Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse granted $12,900 to the cause when it kicked off last year and will provide $19,000 this year.

Ultimately, NASA should be able to sustain the effort without outside grant help, said NASA executive director Tim Retherford.

NASA’s funding derives from offender fees paid to the court by those already convicted of drug- or alcohol-related offenses.

In other words, the task force operations are making communities safer without costing taxpayers a dime, Retherford said.

“I think it is having a distinct impact in the community,” he said.

NASA bases its efforts to combat underage drinking on statistics gathered directly from Hancock County teens. In 2013, about 9 percent of Hancock County freshmen reported having engaged in binge drinking in the month before they were surveyed. For students in their senior year, that number jumped to 19 percent.

Those numbers fall below state and national averages, but that doesn’t change the fact local youths are putting themselves and others at risk, said Sheriff’s Maj. Brad Burkhart, a member of the task force.

Some parents have criticized the task force, taking a “kids will be kids” approach, but that fails to take into account other crimes that are committed under the influence of alcohol, Burkhart said.

“We’ve seen it in the past where the next day after these big parties, these kids come in, and they don’t remember. They woke up de-clothed or whatever,” Burkhart said. “Now, we have to investigate a sex crime as a result of this party. That’s a major complication.”

Greenfield police Officer Ross Yoder has been part of the task force party patrols, which add additional officers to the street to respond to calls.

If a party is found, task force officers already on patrol respond, making the process of rounding up underage drinkers more efficient. Officers who are on regular duty also don’t have to spend as much time tied up at the location of the party.

Yoder said it’s not unusual for task force members to speak with parents in advance if they learn a party is going to be held at the person’s home. Yoder said he’d rather prevent parties than raid them.

“It’s a show of force, a show of presence,” he said. “Most likely, they’ll move to a different location, but it won’t be as big as it was.”

NASA board member Christine Rapp, who is also a sheriff’s sergeant, said it will take time to get the message through to area youths.

“They still think that they’re smarter; they’re invincible,” she said. “That’s just their thought at this age.”

But as their peers continue to find themselves in handcuffs, word of the zero-tolerance policy will spread, Retherford said.

And that will make the difference.

“As you can change the attitude and perception in your community, the behavior will change,” he said.

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