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Plainclothes officers to pose in liquor stores as part of ‘Cops in Shops’ program

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(Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian)

(Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian)

The Amherst Police Department is implementing a “Cops in Shops” program in which plainclothes officers will pose as liquor store customers or cashiers as part of a nationwide program to prevent underage drinking and public drunkenness.

“It’s not about catching offenders, it’s about deterring the action,” Capt. Jennifer Gundersen of the APD said. “We don’t care how we accomplish that, whether we have to interact with someone and use the court or they think to not use their fake ID anymore.

“It’s also an important program to deter underage drinking and binge drinking.”

Officers will be stationed in Amherst liquor stores and will identify themselves when a customer approaches the counter with alcohol, asking the customer for his or her identification.

“They’re going to do that to everybody, no matter how old they look,” Gundersen said.

Preventing individuals over the age of 21 from buying alcohol for people underage is also an aim of the program, according to Gundersen.

“If the officer believes they would be providing alcohol (for) minors, as a result of the volume of alcohol being bought, the officer will ask, ‘Are you buying this alcohol for anyone else?’” she said.

Gundersen added that the program would also place officers who will work outside of liquor stores in plain clothes.

Although much of this initiative will seek to prevent underage drinking, Gundersen said the primary reason for its implementation is a large increase in protective custody incidents when the police encounter someone “so intoxicated that they cannot care for themselves,” and the officer is required to place them in custody.

“It’s not a criminal offense, but the law says that the person, because of alcohol, cannot care for themselves,” Gundersen said. “Those are concerning to us.

“There’s better use of our time, but it’s a medical concern. We don’t prefer protective custodies, because there’s a medical liability anytime we bring somebody to our station, but we have to.”

Ambulances are required to transport protective custodies as well, which Gundersen said was very taxing on public resources.

“When they’re transporting somebody to the hospital with alcohol issues and we have a citizen or a student that has a heart attack, we can’t respond to that because our ambulances are dealing with somebody who chose to drink too much,” she said.

The number of protective custodies has increased dramatically in recent years. According to Gundersen, the department saw 37 incidents last year, a rise from 23 in 2010.

According to amherstfirefighters.org, the amount of Emergency Medical Service responses conducted in the town of Amherst rose from 4,946 in 2006 to 5,914 in 2014. The numbers of crimes for minor in possession of alcohol recorded had, comparatively, remained fairly constant during this period.

The “Cops in Shops” initiative is in partnership with Amherst liquor stores, as their ability to remain open and sell alcohol can be endangered when they unintentionally sell alcohol to minors.

“This is also a program to support our liquor stores, so they can stay in business,” Gundersen said.

The program is funded by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety as part of a $10,000 grant to fund “many other initiatives to focus on underage drinking,” such as surveillance and party patrols.

The Amherst Police Department will cooperate with the University of Massachusetts Police Department and the University throughout the course of the program.

Stuart Foster can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Stuart_C_Foster.

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