Sometimes in police work, striking out is a home run.
On the evening of Thursday, Jan. 11, members of the Anaheim PD’s Vice Unit spent a few hours visiting liquor stores and other retail establishments to see if clerks would sell alcohol to a minor.
Not one of the nine establishments they visited allowed an 18-year-old male who was part of the undercover police operation to buy a six-pack of bottled Bud Light.
And that’s great news, said Sgt. Mike Lynch, who runs the Vice Unit for the APD.
“We view that as a success,” Lynch said.
A second operation, Jan. 18, netted one violation out of eight establishments visited.
That only one of 17 liquor stores violated the law, resulting in a misdemeanor citation from the APD and subjecting them to administrative penalties by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, comes in stark contrast to when so-called “Minor Decoy” operations began in the late 1980s.
Back then, the violation rate was as high as 40 to 50 percent statewide, according to the APD. It since has dropped to as low as 10 percent in some cities.
In Minor Decoy operations, minors ages 19 or 18 walk into stores with California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control licenses and try to buy alcohol. The minors show the clerks their driver’s license or California identification cards, and if asked tell the clerks their age.
In similar “Shoulder Tap” operations, minors 18-20 approach adults before they walk into liquor stores and ask them if they would be willing to buy alcohol for them. The minors give willing adults the money to buy the beer, wine or hard liquor.
Both operations are funded by grants from the California Office of Traffic Safety through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The point is to curb underage drinking, which continues to be a huge problem in the U.S.
Alcohol, in fact, is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the country, with people aged 12 to 20 years drinking 11 percent of all alcohol consumed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were about 189,000 emergency room visits nationwide by persons under age 21 for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol, according to the CDC.
The general public might think a sting operation to catch potential violators of the law and ABC regulations pales in comparison to other types of police work, but the APD officers agree such operations are vital at a time when addiction, such as the current opioid crisis, is claiming thousands of lives.
“Underage drinking leads to crashes, DUIs and injuries and deaths, and this is a project we employ to try to curb such things,” said an APD officer who participated in both recent stings. “People who are in charge of selling alcohol to the public need to follow the law.”
The APD Vice Unit officers who participated in the Jan. 11 operation — none wanted their names used or pictures taken because of their undercover status — said most establishments that sell alcohol comply with the law.
Those establishments that do violate are split about 50/50 between mom-and-pop stores and ones operated by big chains such as 7-Eleven or gas stations like ampm, the officers said.
The citation issued Jan. 18 occurred at a busy ampm at State College Boulevard and Katella Avenue.
The decoy, another 18-year-old male, was asked for his ID and showed it to the clerk.
“Hey, you’re good, man,” the clerk told the teenager, who walked out with a six-pack of Bud Light.
APD officers waiting outside in a handful of undercover vehicles then entered the store to issue the citation and interview the clerk while three co-workers looked on.
“You can’t be cutting corners,” an officer admonished the clerk.
On Jan. 11, an 18-year-old male, the son of an APD officer, served as the decoy.
At one store, some customers laughed at him when he walked up to the counter with beer (he looked younger than 18).
One clerk wished him a happy birthday, since he recently celebrated his 18th.
Decoys are not allowed to wear gang attire or have a stature or appearance that could be considered intimidating or threatening, the APD officers said. That’s because if a clerk sells the decoy alcohol, the clerk then could use that as a defense, claiming the only reason he or she sold the beer was because he or she believed the store was going to be held up.
Female decoys also are to appear as “plain wrapped” as possible, wearing no jewelry or make-up, the APD officers said.
When clerks get popped for selling alcohol to a minor, their typical excuse is they were very busy and rushed through the transaction.
Typically, clerks will swipe a person’s driver’s license through a device that will flag the would-be beer purchaser as underage. One APD officer said that one store that apparently didn’t care who it sold alcohol to would use an adult’s driver’s license to swipe so transactions could go through.
There’s no rhyme or reason to clerks who violate, the APD officers said. Some have been relatively old, and others have been young.
Most clerks, however, clean up their act when they get caught. However, some clerks are repeat violators, the APD officers said.
The APD’s Vice Unit, which has been holding Minor Decoy/Shoulder Tap operations for the last year-and-a-half, plans to conduct three more Minor Decoy operations and two Shoulder Tap operations this year, Lynch said.