Police chief sees same kids over and over

In the Boston suburb of Wellesley, Mass., perhaps no one feels a greater weight of public responsibility for handling the hot issue of underage drinking than Police Chief Terrence Cunningham.

It's his duty, after all, to see that the law requiring a person to be 21 or older to possess or imbibe alcohol is enforced.

On the other hand, people looking for leniency sometimes have said to Chief Cunningham, "I bet you drank when you were in high school."

That's true, he acknowledges, while pointing out that the legal drinking age was 18 then and that the way society views drinking has changed dramatically.

"Look at the tragedies we've had from drinking," he says. "Drinking and driving 20 years ago wasn't that big an issue. And I never saw binge drinking. That's the new fad. Kids will drink half a quart of vodka before they go to a dance or party."

Such drinking resulted in ambulances being called to the December 1999 Cotillion, a townwide dance. Underage drinking and police policies, which had been discussed some before then, have been important issues in the town ever since.

Under a former enforcement strategy, if police found even one beer at a large party, everyone present was considered in possession. Realizing the need to make some accommodation for youthful misjudgments, Cunningham authored a new policy.

"One of the first issues that was raised," he says, "was whether or not [teens] would have [criminal] records, and how it would work in court."

One parent in this affluent community framed the issue in practical terms: "If my son is going to Harvard, and he's got a possession of alcohol on his record, and the kid from [neighboring] Weston [Mass.] doesn't, then the kid from Weston is probably going to get the slot and not my son."

"Zero tolerance" - a tag that Cunningham doesn't like - sounds harsh, but the policy won acceptance. First-time offenders are entitled to one "bite of the apple," he says, before they get into serious trouble.

"If I've got you in possession of alcohol," he explains, "we're going to take your name down and [issue you a] summons into court. Barring other issues, such as a fake name or some sort of other problems, all I'm doing is taking them to a court magistrate's hearing." A complaint is issued, but there is no criminal record. Instead, an offender performs community service.

"It gets them to see that what they're doing is serious, and that they need to accept responsibility for their actions," Cunningham says.

The old policy was cumbersome and logistically taxing, he says. "If there were 50 or 60 people at a party, and you've got to take down everyone's name and contact all the parents and summon everyone to court, it was almost overwhelming."

The new policy has its own challenges, namely differentiating drinkers from the nondrinkers. When called to a party, most often by neighbors, an officer may find beer cans everywhere.

"At that point it's up to the officer to make some determination," Cunningham says. "If a guy's standing with a beer in front of him, and alcohol's on his breath and his eyes are a little glassy, I'd say that person is in possession. In another room you've got 10 kids playing a Sega [computer] game, and they say they haven't had anything to drink. While they're talking, [if] the officer doesn't smell any alcohol, it doesn't appear that they've been drinking. As far as I'm concerned, they haven't been. These are judgment calls."

The objective is to identify repeat and flagrant violators and those who help to supply alcohol to minors.

"We find that 10 to 20 percent of the kids are the ones we keep seeing over and over again," Cunningham says.

Some parents are supportive, while others call their attorneys and put up a fight. Some teens accuse the police of unmerited searches and "profiling." Respect for the police, Cunningham believes, is generally down, and teen-police relations in Wellesley, are strained.

A series of townwide study-circle discussions (see main story) have helped air some of the differences, but Cunningham knows relations need improvement.

Part of the challenge is bridging a blue-collar/white-collar divide that has grown more pronounced with the "mansionization" of Wellesley. When Cunningham joined the force in 1983, 80 percent of the officers lived in this town of 27,000. Now only a handful of the 46 officers do, mostly because of the high cost of housing. This makes it harder for officers to be accepted as neighbors.

Still, the police have reached out to bridge the gap, assisting students with sports events. Two officers even coach at the high school. That, says Cunningham, is the essence of community policing.

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