Policy targets underage drinking

Police instructed to hold all suspects

Email|Print| Text size + By John Dyer
Globe Correspondent / December 9, 2007

Southborough police are clamping down on underage drinking with a new policy that could result in more apprehended teenagers and more parents marching up to the station to fetch them.

Police Chief William Webber said the new policy is a response to a perceived increase in drinking incidents among teenagers, ending a quieter period in the wake of the deaths of Shauna Murphy, 17, and her sister, Meghan, 15, in a car crash two years ago. "There's been an uptick this year," Webber said. "Last year wasn't as bad."

Under the policy, which the Board of Selectmen endorsed last month, police officers who encounter underage drinkers will be required to round them up, test them with breathalyzers, and be certain none escapes to drive a car. It states that intoxicated teenagers should be placed in protective custody if they are caught somewhere other than at their homes. Those under 18 can be released only to their parents or guardians, the policy states.

"We're not looking to ruin their lives; we're not looking to give them a record," Webber said. "We're looking to get them home alive."

The policy lays out punishments that police may dole out to youths who are caught drinking, including $50 fines, citations that require a District Court appearance, and arrests. It also states that evidence of an adult furnishing alcohol to underage drinkers must be investigated to determine whether the adult should be arrested.

Webber presented a similar policy to the selectmen last year, but they asked him to remove a clause that directed police to contact the state Department of Social Services if parents were discovered supplying alcohol to their children. The board's chairwoman, Bonnie Phaneuf, said the selectmen believed the clause was unnecessary because police already have the power to contact the state agency if they believe a child is in danger.

The chief said the policy does not stem from new state or local laws. Rather, he said, he wanted to make clear the options his officers have when they answer calls involving youths drinking.

Often, for example, teenagers' house parties gain the attention of police through neighbors complaining about noise, Webber said. Officers previously might have gone to the house and told the youths to quiet down. Now, if there is any reason to believe teenagers are drinking, he said, police must investigate fully.

"We were doing a service to the people who were calling and a disserve to people who could have potentially harmed themselves," Webber said of the old system.

The Murphy sisters' car accident, which witnesses said occurred after Shauna had been drinking, initially telegraphed the hazards of alcohol abuse to local high school students, Webber said. But since the beginning of the school year, Southborough police have responded to at least five incidents of groups of teenagers drinking, Webber said. On two other occasions, ambulances transported intoxicated youths to local hospitals, said Fire Chief John Mauro.

"We were hoping as public safety officials that the recent loss of life would certainly have a major impact and effect on teens' alcohol use," Mauro said. "I really don't think it did."

Ann Taggart, chairwoman of the Home Safety Network, a group of 82 parents from Northborough, Southborough and Westborough who have signed a pledge to keep their children's parties alcohol-free, hailed the new policy for spelling out how officers should deal with underage drinking.

"There is some judgment made by the officer seeing whatever it is that's going on," she said. "It's nice to know the Southborough policy is now more structured. I think that's wonderful."

The policy also could help curb a laissez-faire attitude among some parents toward underage drinking, Taggart said.

"It's surprising to me how many people not only look the other way but decide it's safer to have kids drinking in the house," she said. "It isn't safer. Drinking puts kids at risk for all sort of problems, not just car accidents."

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