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Thursday December 8th

Chapel Hill on alcohol alert

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Even though Chapel Hill has seen a decrease in open container citations in recent years, local officials say they are still concerned about underage drinking and alcohol abuse.

The Chapel Hill Police Department has made alcohol education a priority, which officials say contributed to fewer citations this year.

“There’s not one thing that officers are looking for,” said Sgt. Josh Mecimore. spokesman for the police department.

Following a spike in open container citations in 2010 — totalling 238 — the number of citations has been on the decline.

In 2010, 39 open container citations were issued during the first two weeks of school.

This year, 19 open container citations were issued during the same period.

Cpt. Kim Woodward, Orange County Emergency Medical Services operations manager, said the majority of alcohol-related calls come from downtown Chapel Hill and UNC’s campus.

In 2011, she said EMS responded to 11 underage patients in downtown Chapel Hill and 13 on-campus.

Only five came from Carrboro and Hillsborough, she said.

The first Thursday of the fall semester is the busiest day for alcohol-related calls, she said.

“When people’s inhibitions are down, they take risks,” she said. “We often see the aftermath of that risk-taking behavior.”

Ron Bogle, media and policy specialist for the Coalition for Alcohol and Drug Free Teenagers, said the problem is concentrated on Franklin Street.

He said officers are looking harder for underage consumption, fraudulent IDs and open container violations.

“I can tell you from experience and from just being on Franklin Street on Thursday or Friday night that the levels of alcohol being consumed are often in the lethal zone,” he said.

Mecimore said the department has demonstrated a more focused effort to deal with alcohol violations since 2008 — especially during the first few weeks of school.

“We have a population that rolls over every year,” said Mecimore.

“We have to work hard every year at the beginning of the school year to educate people on all these safety issues.”

The decrease is due, in part, to the efforts of the Alcohol Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) and the Coalition for Alcohol and Drug Free Teenagers, which aim to address underage drinking.

The Coalition for Alcohol and Drug Free Teenagers helps coordinate ALERT, which comprises off-duty police officers who patrol on nights when people are more likely to be out drinking. These officers concentrate solely on regulating alcohol violations.

“Primarily, they’re looking for obvious violations, like open containers and large parties,” said Lt. Pat Burns, ALERT coordinator and law enforcement liaison to the coalition.

The officers — from Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and the UNC Department of Public Safety — receive additional training on alcohol violations.

“We wanted to find officers that were committed to working on this issue, and we wanted to do it in a multi-jurisdictional way,” Burns said.

The coalition works with neighborhood groups, law enforcement agencies and health organizations, like the Orange County EMS.

“We’re working so close together, it only makes sense to have a team.”

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