A police crackdown on open container ordinance violations has resulted in a six-fold citation increase, indicating a shift from last year’s focus on underage consumption and possession.
From Aug. 24 to Oct. 11, open container citations issued in Chapel Hill totaled 126, up from 20 during the same period last year, according to Chapel Hill Police Department data.
“Twenty to 126 in one year’s time is pretty substantial,” said Chapel Hill police spokesman Lt. Kevin Gunter. “That would indicate a complete shift in focus from one area to another.”
Gunter said the change comes in response to complaints from downtown merchants who noticed an increased presence of alcohol on streets and sidewalks.
“We decided to change our efforts and target that particular offense because it is something that occurs in the public’s eye,” he said. “It is so blatant when you’re carrying around cans of alcohol or cups of alcohol in public.”
The Alcohol Law Enforcement Response Team, also known as ALERT, is a police task force of officers from the Chapel Hill and Carrboro police departments and the UNC Department of Public Safety.
ALERT officers specifically target alcohol law violations occurring in the area. The team was formed in February by Chapel Hill police and the Coalition for Alcohol and Drug Free Teenagers of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
Meanwhile, the number of citations for underage consumption and possession have dropped significantly. Gunter said the exact causes of the decreases aren’t clear, but citation numbers indicate officers are handling complaints differently.
“The numbers may also indicate that maybe there are less of those types of situations that we’re getting called to, and there may be less people that are actually openly possessing alcohol at those times,” Gunter said.
Dorothy Bernholz , director of UNC Student Legal Services, said the shift in the ALERT team’s focus could also be the result of recent successful litigation against unconstitutional arrests made by Chapel Hill police officers while breaking up private parties.
“In any law enforcement, there are mistakes made,” she said. “This is a very, very complicated area of the law. The decisions that are coming down are constantly changing.”
Bernholz said her office has seen a surge in open container citations and anyone drinking on public property will eventually be caught.
“You don’t have to be drunk,” she said. “I could be standing there with a beer on Franklin Street, and I would be cited.
“That’s their job, and they do it very well.”
Lt. Pat Burns, a retired police officer, who liaisons between the coalition and police department, said home football games often attract tailgates, and with them, illegal public drinking.
“It’s students; it’s alumni; it’s people coming from other places,” Burns said. “We want people to have a good time, but we want them to be safe, and we want them to observe the law.”
Burns said the number of citations will likely decrease as football season draws to a close, but officers and the coalition are taking steps to reduce violations before then.
“We want to get some signage in place adjacent to sidewalks and do a little bit more media,” he said.
Burns said the coalition will meet with Chapel Hill police today to discuss other initiatives they can take to decrease open container violations.
“I don’t really understand why you would automatically assume it would be OK,” he said. “It should be common sense.”
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