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Phoenix suburb tries different angle to combat underage drinking

PHOENIX — Tempe is taking a new approach to combating underage drinking during the school year by doing away with a widely publicized police operation.

In March 2012, the last fraternity on Arizona State University’s frat row Alpha Drive left campus and moved into the city. A spike in underage drinking, loud parties and other crimes followed, which led to the creation of Operation Safe and Sober.

The goal of the operation was to bolster law enforcement’s effort to crack down on partying and crime at the beginning of the school year.

“Consequently our police chief got support from the state to fund additional police officers to come in,” Tempe City Councilmember Kolby Granville said.

Operation Safe and Sober became a success. Within two years the police department had fewer loud party calls for service, aggravated assaults declined at the start of the school year among other crimes.

Some residents, however, began voicing their concerns about Operation Safe and Sober in September 2014 at city council meetings. They complained about the frequency of traffic stops and the highly visible police presence.

So despite the drop in crime, city leaders went back to the drawing board. An underage drinking task force was created and Operation Safe and Sober was discontinued for the 2015-2016 school year.

“I think in this next coming year you will see significant changes,” Tempe Assistant Chief of Police John Rush said. “A lot of it was based on feedback we got from the community.”

While Tempe police will still be enforcing underage drinking laws, they are taking a softer approach to their community outreach programs.

For instance, officers will no longer wear uniforms during the back-to-school neighborhood walks, where residents in areas with high student populations are greeted by representatives from the police department.

“But the enforcement will still be very noticeable, we will have a lot of officers still in uniform out enforcing DUIs and all of those things,” Rush said. “The effort will have two components, education and enforcement, both of them we need together.”

Other city departments are developing strategies to encourage students not to partake in underage drinking and other risky behaviors.

“The education piece of that is for (students) to understand the consequences (of underage drinking) and not just the legal consequences but the health consequences,” Tempe Human Services Department Director Naomi Farrell said.

City leaders also are broadening their emphasis to all year rather than the start of school.

Despite the optimism of some, Granville wonders if the changes will lead to another spike in crime.

“So does that mean we are simply not going to police as much anymore or we are going to police in a different way or in a different frequency or spread out over a longer period of time?” Granville asked.

“I’m happy to listen to all of that as long as the thing that we don’t compromise on is safety, support and education of people that live in our community.”

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