Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Chiefs' debate

Mark Beckner is the Boulder, Colorado chief of police. We are not only in neighboring states and in cities with large universities, we also have rather similar careers. He's been a Boulder police officer since 1978--four years after I joined the Lincoln Police Department. He's been Boulder's chief since 1998--four years after Mike Johanns appointed me Lincoln's police chief.

Chief Beckner has sent a series of emails to his officers and to fellow police chiefs advocating a national discussion on lowering the legal drinking age. I received a forwarded copy from one of my sergeants early yesterday morning, and another directly from Chief Beckner yesterday afternoon. These messages appear to be in the wake of a soon-to-be-broadcast 60 Minutes episode, for which he was interviewed. While 60 Minutes has not come looking for my view, 48 Hours did, back in 2002.

A quick Google search on my name will reveal that I've been something of the police poster child for the idea that binge drinking by young people really can be reduced by relatively straightforward collaborative practices involving law enforcement agencies and other community stakeholders. Enforcement is part, but not the only (nor by any means the most important) part of the effort. I've been on the circuit to such places as Atlanta, Dallas, London, The University of Delaware, the Problem-Oriented Policing Conference in Madison, Louisiana State University, Virginia Tech, and several other places on this topic. I've had to turn down many other invitations, because I have a job to do here that takes precedence.

I'm not absolutely convinced I am right. Chief Beckner's opinion is held by many. Sometimes, I am lured by it. Maybe, the argument goes, the taboo on alcohol until age 21 actually makes people under the age of 21 more likely to binge drink, not less. Although I am skeptical, I'm willing to consider the possibility. I'm also quite bothered by the fact that soldiers who have served in combat can not legally drink in their own hometown. But Chief Beckner, I believe, is mistaken in his conclusion that reasonable efforts to reduce underage and high-risk drinking are futile. We stand as the outstanding, well-researched, and well-documented example that things really can change, and that it doesn't necessarily have to end in the annual riot on the Hill. Lincoln has experienced something quite different.

Chief Beckner and I are both members of a small group of chiefs that exchange information and meet annually. He is hosting the Benchmark City Chiefs meeting this year, and yesterday he proposed adding this issue to the agenda. I think it's a great idea. The more people discuss this, the better. Information and debate on this topic is valuable.

The consequences of error are potentially great. Regardless of how Mark or I feel about the drinking age, it is indisputable that alcohol-related traffic fatalities among young people have fallen like a rock since the drinking age was raised to 21 nationwide. Mark could be right--this decline might be unrelated to the higher legal drinking age. On the other hand, he could be wrong. Alcohol-related fatalities have fallen more for those under 21 during the past 20 years than for those over 21.

I've always been one for testing the hypothesis, as readers of The Chief's Corner are well aware. Changing a nationwide policy that correlates with a huge decline in alcohol-related fatalities among young people is not something we should enter into based on any one's opinion, but rather upon solid evidence. Let's put it to the test: Colorado vs. Nebraska. The Buffs can go to a drinking age of 18 in Boulder, the Huskers can stay at 21 in Lincoln, and we can see what the difference in alcohol-related fatalities is after a few years. It's not a perfect experiment, but it's a pretty good naturally-occurring quasi-experiment: a time series with similar control and experimental groups.

Getting it right is incredibly important. Lives are at stake.


Anonymous said...

Not to go off topic but I have a quick question. Is there any correlation between reduced alcohol related fatalities amoung young people and the advancement of safety features in vehicles? Was there immediate drop off? What happened to alcohol related accidents as a whole?

Anonymous said...

I think it does come down to the car crash factor. The drinking age in Europe is lower but you don't even need a car in most cities because the public transportation system gets you anywhere at anytime night or day.

But now that I'm thinking about it - there's also the immaturity/"I'm invincible" factor. Good thing the topic will be debated. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

When I was stationed at Camp Pendleton in the mid-late 1980s, the drinking age at the clubs on base was 18 - but only for beer. The sound rationale for this was that if they couldn't drink on base, too many Marines (and Sailors) in the 18-20 age bracket would drive down to Tijuana and drink there, then bounce off curbs back through San Diego, to Pendleton, and past all points in between.

Short of declaring Mexico off-limits for overnight and weekend liberty, it was the best way to keep our drunk driving deaths down to a minimum, and we still had far too many of those (drunken driving accidents are a significant cause of serious injury and death among peacetime troops across all service branches, generally exceeding training casualties and fatalities).

This is a special situation that exists when a military base is near another country with a lower (or no) drinking age. It's as if Lincoln was a base and Council Bluffs had 18 for a drinking age. Lincoln, however, isn't a military base, and in any case, it's nowhere near anywhere with a lower drinking age.

If the legislature wants to pass a law that currently serving, active-duty military personnel could drink at the age of 18 in this state, if they have an active duty ID card, and there was with no local pre-emption allowed, then I'd consider it.

Even if such a law were enacted, it still shouldn't apply to the civilian population in the 18-20 age bracket. The civvies can wait until they're 21, or step up to the plate and raise their right hand.

Anonymous said...

One additional detail, the base reg allowing those 18-20 to drink beer at base clubs applied only to active-duty troops, not to any civilians, including dependent wives and children, dates, significant others of any kind, etc etc etc.

Anonymous said...

Whoa, strike that last short comment; now that I think about it, perhaps the reg did allow dependent spouses, because otherwise age 21+ service members might take their 18-20 year old spouses to TJ, drink there (and drive back drunk). It's been a few years, so it's hazy.

Anonymous said...

To compare Lincoln to Boulder is a bit of a stretch. Yes, they are both college towns, but it has been well documented the kinds of problems Colorado students can cause, mostly because of the ultra liberal attitude that persists in Colorado. While UNL students drink their fair share, there still seems to be some general sense of responsibility that goes back to the fact that they weren't told from day one how special they are.

Tom Casady said...

Anonymous 9:10-

Yes, traffic fatalities per mile driven have fallen precipitously across all age groups. This is attributable to better automotive safety engineering--most prominently seat belts and air bags--and to much better DWI enforcement and prevention activities.

The decrease, however, has been greatest for those age brackets impacted by the 21 year drinking age. The links in paragraph six of my post summarize the research.

Proponents of re-lowering the legal drinking age generally argue that the 21+ advocates overestimate the impact of 21+ on reducing traffic fatalities, and that 21+ has the unintended side-effect of increasing high-risk binge drinking because of the existence of a legal "taboo" which makes heavy drinking somehow more attractive to those just under and just over the line.

They also argue that age 21 splits a cohort of college-aged young people that naturally socialize together, and that 18 would be a better age at which to split the legal drinkers and nondrinkers.

Personally, I tend to think that to the extent binge drinking is related to the legal taboo, you'd simply push the same phenomenon down three years. I fail to see how splitting the Senior class would be much better.

Anonymous 10:22-

You're last two paragraphs are where I'm at, at first blush. This is so eerily similar to what was going on 35 years ago. At the height of Vietnam, Nebraska went from 21 to 20 (1969), then to 19 (1972), then back up to 20 (1980), then to 21 (1985).

Anonymous said...

The amount of maturity and judgment gained by the average person in that 3 year period is considerable.

To those that discount this, I'd ask if they also agree that the age for handgun purchase also be dropped to 18, or if it might not make more sense to leave handguns and drinking at 21, and also move the voting age back to 21 - but make an exception on all three (handgun purchase, drinking, and voting) for active-duty military personnel and honorably-discharged veterans.

That's what they should have done during Viet Nam, because there was a draft. Lower the voting age to 18, but only for the active-duty military and honorably-discharged vets, not for civilians with no record of honorable military service.

Anonymous said...

Ok, so if I have this straight, Chief Beckner's argument is that the drinking age should be lowered because it would become less "taboo" and therefore less attractive to drink underage. Ok... but where do we draw the line? If the drinking age is lowered to 18, then wouldn't those that are under 18 want to drink, since it's "taboo"? And if that's the case, why doesn't he take steps to legalize marijuana, too, because I'm sure that the only reason that people are getting high is because it's "taboo".
I think it has nothing to do with that. I think that most young people have this attitude that the goal of drinking alcohol is to drink as much as possible, as fast as possible and get "hammered". I've noticed if you listen to a scanner on the weekends, almost regardless of the weather, you can hear the dispatcher say "Detox is closed" once or twice a night. I wonder what the average age is of the individuals being booked into Detox. I would be willing to bet it's a 20-25age bracket. I know that when I was in college, it was pretty certain that I would be at a party playing "quarters" or some other ridiculous drinking game. That has changed drastically since I've gotten older and more mature. Plus, now that I have a child and I work full time, I don't have the time or energy to go out and get blitzed every weekend. Maybe Detox should permanently close and all the idiots that decide to go out and drink themselves stupid could spend a few hours behind bars. Maybe then they would be less inclined to do it again. Just an opinion. :)

Anonymous said...

What's better after a hard night of drinking than a soft cot, bologna sandwich and a cup of tang at detox.

Anonymous said...

I've taken quite a few to detox and lots of them have told me they would rather go to jail than to detox. The Tang is watered down, the 'soft cot' is a 3 inch mattress which is only 3 feet wide and is on a concrete floor and the bologna, well it's bologna. Detox is no picnic.

Anonymous said...

That he did though in it mustard and onions, such the light and on every talk and that is the rear of it?

About as much here as is in this blog today.

Anonymous said...

Not surprising...just look at the Lancaster Co corrections dept and the past that they have with abuse. I hope they pay A TON on this poor mans abuse.

Just an observer said...

to 4:57 Anonymous....

Not sure when you were last at detox... but you have a mat on the ground in detox, with water-downed lemonade and pressed boiled ham sandwiches down at detox.... And please don't forget the local residents(who come daily to detox) who shared those pretty socks they loan out to you the previous night... There is nothing "glam" about detox...

Every teenager should spend some time down there and realize WHY it is they shouldn't drink and drive... let alone binge drink and turn into a nightly visitor who must drink a bottle of mouthwash everyday to get the same buzz they did when they were 18.

I wish people 14-25 had a clue as to what alcohol does to someone after they have been drinking it since they could drive a car. Take a walk down O street and talk to the man with 7 fingers who spits in the Officers face when they try and take him to detox. Lowering the drinking age or even making it higher isn't going to do any good. People are still going to get the alcohol no matter what. One of the better things I have seen in this county was the revised DUI law for aggravated offenses. No one "Needs" alcohol to live. I like to have a drink every now and then, but who needs to get so silly drunk they get a ticket from our friendly downtown Bike Patrol for Urinating on O street? What about having our breathalysers at the local bars and to get your next drink you have to be below a 0.080? What about having an affordable taxi service in the town for the bar break?

Anyhow... Sorry Chief didn't mean to go on but unless some people have experienced a few years of night shift at bar break, or detox... No one would go for a lower drinking age... I know you have paid your dues on 3rd shift.. Maybe we should just change the driving age, drinking age, and voting age all be 18/19... that way when the kids ask to be treated like an adult... they can have all the adult responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

The FACE video linked on your blog was a great video. You should share that more often. (Maybe put it on channel 5?!?)

Anonymous said...

How about lowering the drinking age to 14 and raising the driving age to 18. That way people have 4 years to adjust to alcohol before they have the ability to drive.