EDITOR'S NOTE: The number of on-campus violations has been corrected.
Local law enforcement agencies will be working to spoil the party if those imbibing are underage. They also will be stepping up their presence at area bars to try to spot those under the age of 21 who used fake identifications to have an alcoholic drink illegally.
The Cape Girardeau Police Department announced Thursday that four agencies will be working together to increase enforcement of alcohol-related offenses as it relates to offenders who are still too young to drink.
The department will have its officers conducting so-called saturation patrols and walk-throughs of bars, said acting police chief Roger Fields. The department will also continue conducting its alcohol compliance checks, in which officers visit businesses to ensure employees are not selling alcohol to those below Missouri's legal drinking age.
Assisting agencies include the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and Southeast Missouri State University's Department of Public Safety.
"I think we have an implied obligation as law enforcement officers to reduce these issues," Fields said Thursday afternoon. "It's really nothing new. We've enforced alcohol laws all along. We're just putting extra effort into it and working to raise awareness. Our goal is to reduce alcohol-related issues in young people's lives before they create real problems later on."
The Cape Girardeau department, quoting data provided by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, notes that the age limit for alcohol consumption is based on research that shows that younger people react differently to alcohol. Teens, for example, get intoxicated twice as fast as adults and have more trouble knowing when to say when.
Those who begin drinking in their teens are not only at a greater risk for developing alcoholism later on, they are also at greater risk for health problems.
While those in high school are certainly not impervious to the temptations of drink, most studies show that more serious attempts start on college campuses. Doug Richards, the director of Southeast's university police department, said that in 2011 there was a slight uptick of liquor law violations reported. He could not provide data for last year, but police flagged 15 violations in 2010 -- nine on campus and six in the dormitories.
Students are prohibited from consuming alcoholic beverages on university premises or at university-sponsored events, Richards said.
The university department will be providing manpower to do the walk-throughs at local bars and to pay unexpected visits to private parties to make sure the law is being followed, he said.
While underage drinking can lead to legal trouble, those in the medical field say that drinking can affect one's health as well. Emily Scheper, a 20-year registered nurse who works in Southeast Hospital's emergency room, said that, on a regular basis, they treat underage patients who are suffering from symptoms of having too much. While Scheper isn't sure that the numbers have grown, she said that it happens too often considering the danger.
"It is difficult to see," she said. "It kind of breaks your heart."
The compliance checks are being paid for by the Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition from a recent $125,000 grant the agency received. Shelly Wood, the agency's project coordinator, said that drug abuse of all types is a problem among those under 21.
"It's important to catch at an early age because, if it isn't, it can lead to long-term and even permanent consequences," Wood said.
The U.S. Surgeon General reports that about 5,000 of those under the legal drinking age die as a result -- from crashes, homicides and suicides. Teens that drink are also at risk for a long list of other injuries and potential lifelong alcohol abuse. Reducing underage drinking can reduce that risk, Wood said.
"We're really glad to see that the police are working on this issue," she said. "It retains one of the greatest problems in our community. It's good to know they consider it a priority."
Wood said it is important to mention, however, that studies show a majority of those below drinking age do abstain.
"While it's important to address the problem of underage drinking, it's also good to focus on the positive," Wood said.
40 S. Sprigg St., Cape Girardeau, MO