Pacifica PD leads regional effort to halt old problem of young drinkers

Fatal DUI-related accidents aren’t unheard of in the Bay Area city of Pacifica, a scenic town of about 40,000 situated on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. But a single-car crash fueled by alcohol and speed that claimed the lives of two teenagers in February 2005 put the issue of minors and booze in the spotlight – and sent Pacifica police scrambling to take action to reduce the chances of a similar tragedy ever happening again.

A member of the Pacifica P.D. went to work and wrote a proposal for a grant from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. In the fiscal year 2006-07, the Pacifica P.D. was awarded that grant and put the money to good use by establishing an operation targeting underage drinking through the use of minor decoy operations, “shoulder tap” operations and going after problem alcohol establishments.

Once the local program was successful, the Pacifica P.D. was awarded the $100,000 grant for 2007-08, which included other law enforcement agencies.

Today, the operation – dubbed “<21 COAST Task Force” (for, “Under 21 Consumption of Alcohol Suppression Team”) – is a statewide model of multi-agency collaboration that now involves the participation of nine law enforcement agencies in San Mateo County.

“We’re taking on an age-old problem and putting together a collaborative effort to go after it,” said Steidle, a captain in Pacifica’s Field Services Division who writes proposals for the annual grant – which, with the exception of two years since 2006-07, has been awarded to the Pacifica P.D., administrator of the grant.

Now, in addition to Pacifica, the operation includes the participation of police departments in Brisbane, Broadmoor, Burlingame, Colma, Daly City, San Bruno and South San Francisco, as well as the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department. Steidle currently is working on a grant proposal that would increase the number of participating agencies to 12 (with Redwood City, Belmont and the city of San Mateo set to come on board).

The operation is a success, according to Steidle.

“We’ve found a marked improvement at some of the repeat-violating establishments,” Steidle said. “People seem to be really trying to get into compliance. And, we frequently hear from members of the public who tell us, ‘I’ve been reading a lot about this and don’t want to get into trouble.’”

Still, as the operation continues to prove, there are plenty of people apparently not worried about getting into trouble.

Pacifica sets up the monthly operations, which can include sending a decoy into a licensed establishment who then tries to purchase an alcoholic beverage. In a so-called “shoulder tap” operation, the decoy waits outside and asks arriving customers if they will purchase alcohol for them. Problem alcohol-serving establishments also are targeted.

The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has recognized the COAST task force as a leader in multi-agency grants, Steidle said.

“We’re giving the state more bang for their buck,” he said.

He said that by May he will find out if the new grant is accepted and if the operation can be expanded to 12 San Mateo County law enforcement agencies.

Steidle said the operations have snagged everyone from soccer moms buying booze for minors to businessmen in suits to parolees.

One bust stood out.

Police were monitoring a female decoy outside a convenience store in San Bruno when two men strolled up to the parking lot.

One of the men entered the store; the other, carrying a case of Budweiser, waited in the parking lot.

The decoy had a $5 bill and asked the man entering the store if he would buy her a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor.

“Hey,” the man with the case of beer asked the decoy, “you want a beer while you’re waiting?”

He popped open a can of Bud and handed it to her.

Both men were cited, Steidle said.

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