IT is a scenario familiar to police departments across the country: The rallying cry ``Keg party!'' travels quickly through groups of teenagers, drawing them to a private home or a wooded area. Someone provides a keg of beer. As the drinking progresses, the noise level increases, prompting neighbors to call the police. But when officers arrive, youthful partygoers scatter, leaving behind only an unclaimed keg as evidence of their illegal drinking.
That pattern is occurring less frequently in more than a dozen communities in Massachusetts, thanks to a new system of placing identification tags on beer kegs. By requiring liquor stores to record the purchaser's name, address, and date of birth, along with the serial number of the keg, authorities can trace buyers and arrest anyone found guilty of supplying kegs to teenagers.
The program began last summer in the western Massachusetts town of Greenfield. ``I was just trying to find a way to battle the illegal use of kegs by underage kids,'' says Chief of Police David McCarthy, who originated the plan. ``I thought some way of banding the kegs would be good.''
Chief McCarthy and an area business owner designed a green plastic band that costs 25 cents. McCarthy's program, which was later approved by the local Board of Selectmen, also raised the keg deposit from $10 to $50. If a keg is not returned with the ID band intact, the buyer forfeits the deposit. The store can keep $10. The remaining $40 goes to an alcohol education program in the schools, such as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) or SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving).
Only minor opposition
Most liquor retailers were cooperative. ``A few package [liquor] stores - where greed is their primary purpose in staying in business - did get a little upset,'' McCarthy recalls. ``They were afraid of the inconvenience. But they have now found that as part of their liquor license, they must comply.'' Owners who object may appeal the regulation before the state's Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, he adds.
Last fall the idea spread to the eastern part of the state. Alison Hartt, director of a traffic safety program in Marlborough called Saving Lives, invited area police chiefs to a breakfast meeting. ``We explained the program and asked for their cooperation,'' she says. ``If we instituted it here in Marlborough, it wouldn't be effective unless all the towns surrounding us cooperated. They were excited about the idea and took it back to their Boards of Selectmen, which are their liquor licensing agents.''
A few package stores registered ``minor opposition,'' Hartt says, fearing the program would be a burden. ``But once we explained to them what was involved, they realized they're doing 80 percent of that already. They already record the purchaser's name and address. We were simply asking them to keep a book with the serial numbers.''
In Marlborough, Hudson, and Sudbury, participation is mandatory. Elsewhere it remains voluntary.
Ms. Hartt concedes that the program is not foolproof. ``One package store owner said it would lead to selling more cases of beer, as opposed to kegs. But we think it's a place to start. Kegs are a cheap way for a lot of people to get drunk fast.'' A keg contains 15.5 gallons of beer, or about 165 12-ounce drinks.
Already David Guba, manager of Kappy's Liquor in Sudbury, a suburb 25 miles west of Boston, sees evidence that the blue plastic tags are proving effective. ``So far we have had no kegs returned without the bands, and the police haven't found any kids with kegs,'' Mr. Guba says. ``It would be great if this were statewide, because you can go five towns away and still buy kegs without banding.''
Another success story comes from William Colleary, chief of police in Southborough, Mass. After officers in nearby Shrewsbury raided a party and confiscated two kegs, police in both communities traced the kegs, and the man who bought the beer for minors was arrested. ``This is an important program and it does work,'' Chief Colleary says.
Inquiries about the program
Not everyone shares that enthusiasm. ``I understand there are older people who are disappointed about having to leave a $50 deposit for a keg,'' says Detective Todd Eadie of the Sudbury Police Department. ``The clerk will explain the program, but that doesn't mean much to a guy who is 30 years old.''
McCarthy has already received inquiries from interested communities in Connecticut and New Hampshire. Hartt has also received a request for information from a town in Florida.
``No one wants to see kids drinking and getting behind the wheel of a car,'' Hartt says. ``The package store owners don't want to sell liquor to them for obvious reasons, and the police don't want to see that. So if you get their cooperation in helping to prevent it, the program is likely to be a success.''
Adds McCarthy, ``When anything is new, you always face an uphill battle. But the kids are here for such a very short period. Let's save a few more lives.''