‘Operation Last Call’ Lacks Cooperation
or read it below:
The common conception of underage drinking rarely involves a 40-year-old man, however, one bar in downtown St. Augustine, Fla., reports being handed a citation for serving an older man two beers, which he allegedly gave to a minor working with the St. Augustine Police Department.
A police sting aimed at curbing underage drinking, known as “Operation Last Call,” occurred over the span of six weeks this summer, resulting in 25 citations of employees at 11 local establishments. These efforts were funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Florida Department of Transportation and were carried out by officers of the St. Augustine Police Department and the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Department. The NHTSA states that underage drinking is a leading public health problem in the United States. According to a study by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, underage drinking results in around 5,000 deaths per year.
“We need to do these programs to one, bring the violators to the forefront, and two, try to educate some of our younger folks on how bad it can be,” Mark Samson, public information officer for the St. Augustine Police Department, said in reference to “Operation Last Call”. Employees from five of the establishments involved in the sting willing to comment acknowledged the problems associated with underage drinking but stated that the operation could have been handled better.
“They should have worked with us,” Josh Parks, owner of Local Heroes, said. “Instead of coming after me and the bartenders here who work for a living, they should have come to me and my manager first.”
Parks, along with other establishment owners affected, affirmed the problem of underage drinking will not be solved by giving tickets to bartenders who make mistakes. He suggested the tactic of making an example of underage individuals caught with alcohol by having officers take them out of the bar with handcuffs to show their peers that consequences are serious. Parks stated that he has called the police in the past with efforts to work together to stop drug deals and underage people sneaking drinks, however, the police department declined. The St. Augustine Police Department, however, stated that the reverse was true.
“Rarely do any of the businesses come to the police department and ask for help, you know, ‘what do you have in mind?’, or ‘ how can you help us maintain a legal business here?’” Mark Samson said. According to the NHTSA, the legal drinking age being 21 saves 700 to 1,000 lives per year, therefore its enforcement is considered crucial. Underage drinking is a problem that will not be solved quickly or easily and compliance between law enforcement and those who serve alcohol is necessary for a functional solution.
Although the St. Augustine Police Department said the scenario used to catch violators of the Florida Beverage Statutes that serve underage individuals is the same for each establishment, several managers, owners and bartenders have relayed accounts that differ. The police reports for the citations list the beverage purchased and its price, the individual that bought it and the bartender that served it. The scenario before the transactions are not reported.
Josh Parks stated that the police report handed to him implied that bouncer at Local Heroes was bribed by an investigative aide in order to obtain a wristband used to verify patrons that are 21 or older, which they used to get a drink from a bartender. Cases like this show that giving wristbands at the door to those of legal age to drink can be problematic as bartenders are required to check identification when serving alcoholic beverages, and often do not when they see the paper on customer’s wrists.
“Obviously they did break the law. They served an underage person on a very busy night and I don’t condone that,” Parks said. “I just wish the police would have told me before they made my employees look like criminals for making a mistake.”
Meg McCusker, a bartender at Stogies, experienced a different situation with an underage girl working with the St. Augustine police. The girl came into the bar on a hectic Friday night with an empty beer bottle and asked McCusker’s coworker for another, implying that she had been served there earlier. The bartender gave the minor another bottle and the employee was later given a citation for serving an underage individual alcohol.
“Every bartender that I know that got a ticket [during “Operation Last Call”] are diligent at what they do take a lot of time to look at IDs,” McCusker said. “My end-all, be-all thought is all of that money and energy that went into that sting, didn’t solve the problem.”
McCusker was not the only individual who expressed the suspicion of money being the driving force behind “Operation Last Call,” named for the law enforcement’s hope that the citations given during it will be the last offense by specific individuals. John Norrison, a bar manager at Scarlett O’Hara’s who was given a citation as a result of the sting, stated that he plans to hire an attorney for his upcoming court date.
“Most people just pay the $300 ticket and are done with it, but that’s what they want,” Norisson said. “I’m willing to pay the extra money for a lawyer because I believe it wasn’t done fairly and it’s a ploy for the county to make money.”
The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Department and St. Augustine Police Department state that although the citations require payment from the violators, the main goal of “Operation Last Call” is a lower number of vehicular accidents, especially those resulting in fatalities, and DUI charges.
The issue of underage drinking is especially potent in a college town like St. Augustine. Law enforcement and alcohol vendors are the main parties responsible for restricting the consumption of alcohol by individuals under the age of 21. “Operation Last Call” exemplified the need for cooperation between the two in order to move forward with efforts to end the problem.