Mesa police Sgt. Rob Scantlebury and his squad spend most of their time in plain clothes, quietly working cases involving street drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves.
Many times the community doesn’t see them, and isn’t aware of the work they’re doing behind the scenes. But on certain nights each year, they shift their attention to a more visible problem disrupting neighborhoods in Mesa — parties.
As co-chair of the Mesa Prevention Alliance, a nonprofit group which aims to combat underage drinking, Scantlebury and a group of five or six officers take to the streets on specific nights about eight times each year for a special enforcement initiative, called “Party Patrols.”
The goal of the patrols is to find and stop parties, ensure kids return home safely, cite youth and adults for committing crimes and provide education, said Karen Frias-Long, executive director of the Mesa Prevention Alliance. The Party Patrols are funded by grants from the Office of National Drug Control Policy and Magellan Health Services.
Frias-Long often rides with police during Party Patrols and has seen everything from teens passed out from alcohol poisoning to youth with guns at parties. During one party, she saw 200 kids crammed inside one house.
“Underage drinking is hard on the youth and it hurts our resources, like our hospitals and our police departments, and it has a domino effect for all of us,” Frias-Long said.
On a recent Friday night Party Patrol, Frias-Long said police issued nine citations in connection with a party hosted jointly by a father and his teen daughter. In the backyard, police found teens and young adults drinking alcohol, ingesting Jell-O prepared with hard liquor, and even an 18-year-old with Viagra and condoms in his pocket. “This kind of behavior is a recipe for disaster,” Frias-Long said.
But what also worries police and alliance members is that — in this case — the parent was the person who provided the alcohol to the teens. And incidents like this have become more common, experts say.
Mesa Prevention Alliance members who track data have learned that about 20 percent of high school seniors in Mesa acquire alcohol from a parent or responsible adult. Because of this trend, the alliance has placed an increasing focus on educating adults and holding offenders responsible.
“At the party, one neighbor over in the yard said, ‘I’m just a neighbor, can I leave?’” Scantlebury said. “I told him, ‘It’s your job as a neighbor to be responsible. You as adults are responsible for the youth in your neighborhood.’”
Scantlebury said that in some cases, it can take officers up to four hours to return a teen safely to his or her parents, which can be draining on regular police resources. It’s also time-consuming for police officers to administer portable Breathalyzer tests, identify and search youth, issue citations and provide education and resources. The Party Patrols allow officers to focus solely on all of these tasks, rather than responding to other calls for service.
“It frees other officers up to do their regular work,” Scantlebury said.
Since the start of the fiscal year in July, the Mesa Prevention Alliance has had three Party Patrols that have resulted in 31 citations. Two of these were given to adults suspected of providing alcohol to youth or allowing them to consume alcohol, and the rest were related to underage drinking, Frias-Long said.
In the city of Mesa, police handed out 164 citations for suspected underage drinking from the start of this year through the end of September, according to public records. In 2012, police cited 256 youth in connection with underage drinking.
But beyond the numbers, Scantlebury really wants the community to understand that adults who purchase alcohol for youth can ruin their careers and hurt their children, and youth who consume alcohol can ruin their lives.
“We’ve had to take seven kids to the hospital,” Scantlebury said.
Gilbert father Barry Adkins knows firsthand the dangers that underage drinking and parties pose to youth. He lost his son, Kevin, in 2005, after the 18-year-old accidentally drank himself to death at a party where a 28-year-old man lived and allowed teens to drink.
“It all starts with prevention at home,” Adkins said. “And if it can’t happen at home, then the schools really need to step up and do it.”
Adkins, who wrote the book, “Kevin’s Last Walk,” about his experience walking from Arizona to Montana with his son’s ashes in his backpack, speaks to parents and youth across the country about his loss in hopes of helping other families.
“The issue is that there’s this perception in society that we’ve got to go out and drink, but not only are we going to drink ... we’re going to get hammered,” Adkins said.
The most important message Adkins said he gives parents is that their children will make a lot of important decisions during their teen years — such as decisions about college, employment and managing money — but the two most important ones are about drugs and alcohol.
“You make a bad decision about one of those, and lives with a lot of opportunity can be down the drain in a hurry,” Adkins said. “All other decisions your child is going to make pale in comparison to this one.”
The next Party Patrols enforcement in Mesa is scheduled for December. For more information, visit www.mesapreventionalliance.org.