‘Operation Party Patrol’

By Beacon Staff

Operation Party Patrol made its debut this past weekend in Missoula. Despite its name, it’s not a reality TV show or college frat-boy antics. Quite the opposite actually. For the next six weeks, Missoula police will boost patrols for raucous parties, underage drinking, drunken drivers and alcohol-related violence as part of their “Comprehensive Strategic Response Plan.” This won’t make me popular with many of my college buddies still in Missoula, but “good.”

Among other tactics, the patrol will put plainclothesmen in bars to monitor bartenders and patrons, conduct compliance checks at local businesses, party patrols in the campus area, outreach seminars at local high schools, and increased foot beat patrols downtown and in residential neighborhoods. On Saturday, police handed out 54 citations to minors in possession of alcohol – at a single party.

In the past, the police department has dealt with different aspects of the problem aggressively – a weeklong hit on the bars, a week of beefed up DUI patrols, etc. – but never all at once. And students, not as dumb as they look, just shifted the party to a new venue for the week.

“Hopefully this will allow us to start chipping away at this culture of going out, getting drunk, and passing out in somebody’s yard and puking,” Lt. Shawn Paul said. “Because that’s what goes on every weekend.”

After recently completing four years as a student at the university, I’d feel safe saying that Paul isn’t exaggerating. As a dorm supervisor, I sent about a dozen students with alcohol poisoning to get their stomachs pumped. There were MIPs and drunken fistfights. And there were sexual assaults and DUIs. I picked up friends from jail and drove others to the hospital. I don’t have a problem with drinking; I have a problem with how many of my peers go about it, and what they do while they’re out-of-their-minds wasted.

What’s interesting about Missoula’s approach is that its in the wake of a movement by a coalition of presidents from more than 100 colleges and universities who have called on authorities to consider lowering the legal drinking age. They say “twenty-one is not working” and argue that the current drinking age has led to a “culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking” on college campuses.

I agree with the coalition’s argument that singling out alcohol to make it off-limits is odd, since 18-year-olds may legally join the military, vote, buy cigarettes, and watch porn. But the group’s assertion that lowering the legal drinking age would promote more responsible alcohol use seems laughable. This Slate column makes a strong argument against the change.

It’s nice to think that simply lowering the drinking age would make college students behave better (it would certainly make them happy), but age isn’t the main factor in college binging – the root of most of Missoula’s unsafe behavior. Missoula’s approach of education and enforcement seems more likely to create positive change.