Cruising for teen boozing

Jenna's not the only one under scrutiny. One city puts cops on the party circuit to stop underage drinking.

Published June 13, 2001 7:47PM (EDT)

It's 9:30 on a Friday night and the narrow road heading down Pleasanton's Knothill Knolls is filling up with cars. Parked haphazardly in front of Dr. Neil Proctor's Tudor-style house with a curving driveway is a Jeep Cherokee, a Nissan truck, a low black sports car and at least two other late-model SUVs. Teenagers parked farther down the street have climbed the hill and are milling about, boys on one side of street, girls on the other.

"It could be entirely innocent; they could just be planning their evenings," says police officer Scott Rohovit while surveying the crowd. But he and his partner, Alex Koumiss, get out of the Taurus anyway -- it's one of those unmarked police cars that fool nobody -- and head down the hill to the Proctor residence.

The kids see the cops coming, and immediately there's a rustling on the margins, as five heads duck down and scurry sideways behind the thick bushes that surround the Proctor house. Matt Proctor and his friends appear to be tossing beer bottles into the hedges.

According to the Pleasanton Police Department, this city 30 miles east of San Francisco has experienced a recent "growing trend in alcohol use and abuse by persons under 21." For the most part, this means that kids here are smoking pot and drinking alcohol, and having parties when their parents are out of town. According to a plan by the Police Department to address this problem: "Teens are purchasing or fabricating false identification, stealing, or relying on adult sources to illegally secure alcoholic beverages for consumption." In other words, they're doing what teenagers tend to do -- whatever they can to get the things they aren't allowed to have.

This is the kind of low-grade teen rebellion that can be found in the more placid communities of the country, a somewhat predictable spate of misbehavior that is a nuisance in an otherwise picture-perfect community. Under the circumstances, it would be easy to suggest that a plan to stop teenagers from doing what they tend to do is futile, even wasteful. But police in Pleasanton -- unlike those in nearby Oakland, for instance -- have the time and resources to take on such risk-taking behavior by teens. The city has the financial wherewithal, says officer Rohovit, to "stop them before they make this huge mistake."

And so, two decades after their own tamely errant adolescence, officers Rohovit and Koumiss are back on the party circuit, this time as cops on the Teen Alcohol Party Suppression Unit, or TAPS. Each Friday and Saturday night from 8 until 2, they, or the two other officers assigned to TAPS, canvas the town's teen party spots -- the water tower, Perry's liquor store, the In-N-Out Burger, Safeway -- looking for drunken and/or stoned teenagers. It's equal parts social work, police duty and parenting by proxy. Sometimes the TAPS officers issue a teen a notice to appear for alcohol possession; most of the time they leave the punishment up to the parents. Koumiss says that's usually penalty enough. "They're all tough with you; then you tell them you're going to call their parents and they start crying."

Officer Koumiss says that TAPS isn't about catching more kids, it's about finding new ways to deal with them. "We used to just dump them along," he says, meaning that they poured out the alcohol they found on the teens, told the kids to go home and then went back to their regular beats. The new program "gives us time to really address the problem," says Koumiss.

Laws against teen drinking -- like laws against jaywalking, pot smoking and riding a bike without a helmet -- belong to the class of laws meant to protect kids from their most reckless impulses, but frequently incur the wrath or indignity of kids -- and sometimes their parents -- when they're actually enforced. And in places where hard crime is an issue, questions are raised about cops pursuing low-grade partying: Don't the police have better things to do than dump beer and confiscate small amounts of pot?

This schizophrenic sentiment took the national stage when Jenna Bush and her twin sister were caught attempting to buy drinks at a Mexican restaurant -- after Jenna's arrest a month earlier for possession of alcohol. Many people insisted that the president's daughter had broken the law and should, therefore, be punished to the full extent of it. But others wondered if maybe it was the law, not Jenna, that was out of whack. Why punish her for something everyone does? And even if her drinking strikes some as more reckless than most, is jail time going to help?

The Pleasanton TAPS program is an experiment that mostly sidesteps the big questions about whether these laws and their enforcement are appropriate or constructive. There was enough of a consensus here about the need to collar misbehaving teens to spend $20,000 to get the TAPS program off the ground, and, for the moment, there is no strong objection (other than from the kids) to keeping it.

There are three high schools in Pleasanton and a spruced-up main street where couples eat steaks or pizza and then stroll down the street for ice cream while older teenagers cluster around benches, smoking cigarettes. TAPS officers say that though teenagers in Pleasanton drink a lot, they aren't exactly hellions. Gangs are nonexistent here; pot and alcohol are about as illicit as the illicit substances get; and every music concert is referred to, rather quaintly, as a "rave." A typical dispatcher call to a TAPS officer might go something like: "Five juveniles in front of Safeway appear to be intoxicated."

It is possible that Pleasanton is also the kind of place where two officers in an unmarked car can actually make a dent in teen partying. Indeed, Koumiss and Rohovit both say they've noticed a decrease in the number of drunken teenagers they see each weekend. "When we go to these parties, kids know exactly who we are," says Rohovit. "Word has gotten out and I think it's definitely having an impact."

Even if teens are simply finding places to drink the officers haven't discovered yet, the increased police presence means that they have to keep their gatherings small and quiet. If loud music or pot smoke is coming from next door, neighbors in Pleasanton know to call the TAPS officers.

And the teenagers in Pleasanton, like those anywhere, lie often and badly. Tonight, the TAPS patrol takes Koumiss and Rohovit past a water tower in the hills, one of those scenic, vaguely industrial spots that exude irresistible teen attraction. Here, three older teenage boys sit at an empty picnic table. Rohovit points to a tissue box under the picnic bench.

"What's in the box?"

"What box?" says the kid.

Rohovit presses: "The one right here."

"Oh, I think that was here when we got here," the kid says. When Rohovit digs around in the box and finds a glass pipe and a bag of pot, no one's surprised.

Koumiss and Rohovit let two of the kids go home to their parents, who are roused from sleep to pick them up. The third, Scott, an 18-year-old who scored a .11 on the breathalyzer test (a little over the legal limit at age 21), is handcuffed, despite his protestations: "I know my rights," he says. "I watched 'West Wing' in A.P. government!"

The TAPS officers put Scott in the back of the car. He's not the one with the pot -- one of his friends has already claimed responsibility for that -- but he's visibly intoxicated, stumbling, his speech garbled. (He actually addresses Rohovit as "Ossifer.") Plus, it's his car the teens have been driving, and Koumiss and Rohovit intend to leave an impression on him. Scott isn't a minor, so Koumiss and Rohovit take him to the Santa Rita jail, where he'll spend about six hours in the tank.

Koumiss confesses later that, as a teen, he drank beer at parties that got too loud and were broken up by police. In his view, having been an underage drinker makes him a better policeman of underage drinkers. He doesn't think he was in need of police intervention when he was a teenager, but he wishes that the police who came to break up the parties he went to had spent a little more time with the other kids.

"There's a lot of things now I realize that I wish maybe were done earlier, that would have saved people from getting in trouble, getting in accidents," he says.

Indeed, if there's an argument to be made for the TAPS program, it has to do with the grim statistics for teenage drunken-driving accidents. Asking parents to come pick up their inebriated offspring keeps the kids out of cars and off the streets -- and probably saves lives.

But the reverse may also be true. In Pleasanton, the cat-and-mouse game between TAPS and teenagers is played out in the streets, which means that for every drunken kid Rohovit and Koumiss catch, there's a carful of others who scramble away from the party just in time, and head through Pleasanton's dark, winding roads to the next place to drink. If the TAPS patrol is about keeping drinking kids out of their cars, it's possible they achieve the opposite goal as well.

But the TAPS officers say that the good they do by returning a dozen intoxicated teenagers to their parents offsets the small possibility that one of the kids they miss will drive home, or to the next party, drunk. In fact, this is the rationale behind the TAPS program: If there's something hypocritical about issuing citations to teens or calling their parents for the same misdemeanors many adults routinely committed as teenagers, then it's outweighed by the real possibility that one of the teenagers may actually be in need of some guidance.

Around midnight, Koumiss and Rohovit turn the unmarked Taurus into the driveway of a small, shingled apartment complex across the street from the Accurate Tax Service, where an empty red truck is parked, the passenger door left open. "I've seen that one before," says Koumiss, gesturing toward the truck as they hop out of the Taurus.

Immediately there's a sound of metal bending behind the house -- a fence out back is being jumped. Koumiss calls in our location to the dispatcher and sprints down the driveway and around the building to see whom he can catch.

Legally, Rohovit can't enter the apartment without a search warrant unless he sees minors with alcohol from where he stands by the door, or smells marijuana smoke. In this case, neither is evident, so Rohovit asks the young teenager who answers the door if he can take a look around. The teenager, who may or may not know that it's within his rights to say no, gives consent.

Inside the kids have been having a party. It's not a big one; the apartment is small and the main attraction seems to be a TV in the living room where snowboarding video game "Untracked" goes noisily unplayed. There are bottles of Colt 45 malt liquor on the dining room table and on a table beside the couch. Also on the dining room table is a plastic bag filled with about half an ounce of pot.

Jeff is 15, slightly built and wearing baggy nylon pants and a black T-shirt. His mother and stepfather are out of town. On top of the TV, Jeff grins in a school photograph, but here, he's so sullen and slow moving and uncooperative that his eyes barely leave the floor; and his monosyllabic responses to the officers' questions force Rohovit to abandon the interrogation altogether. Instead, he searches the house. The only time Jeff becomes animated is when Koumiss instructs him to empty his beer bottles; Jeff lingers in the hallway, stalling, as if entertaining the distant hope that Koumiss might change his mind.

Rohovit tracks down Jeff's mother and arranges for him to spend the rest of the night with a friend's family. He issues a citation for the pot, which means that Jeff will have to go to court, and tells his mother that Jeff is too young to be left alone in the apartment. Soon, the friend arrives to take Jeff home and, almost two hours after they first entered the apartment, Koumiss and Rohovit head back to the station.

Here the Jenna Bush issue returns: Jeff was at home while drinking beer and smoking pot, and though both were illegal, some might consider it drastic to storm the apartment. Does Jeff, though admittedly on the young side for drinking and getting stoned, deserve lenience in this case for indulging in activities that some deem fairly innocuous? Does the punishment fit the crime?

As is often the case, there's another story, one that we wouldn't know if the TAPS officers hadn't already done some research. A week ago, Jeff was expelled from school for flipping off his teacher. He has a history of being caught with alcohol and light drugs and some of the officers think he's been scrawling the initials CMF on walls around town. What's more, some officers suspect that Jeff is gravitating toward local white supremacist groups. Maybe it's a phase, maybe it isn't.

So if Koumiss and Rohovit are arresting Jeff for something they once did too, they could also be helping him. On the other hand, maybe they're branding him as a troublemaker for good; he's only 15 and in a small town like Pleasanton, it's tough to throw off a label that comes to fit. Will a brush with the criminal justice system give Jeff -- or Jenna Bush, for that matter -- the turnaround he needs, or will it actually make matters worse?

Meanwhile, teenager Scott has had a change of heart in the sober atmosphere of the police car and is apologizing for "the danger to society" his late-night drinking and pot smoking have surely caused. "I totally understand. If I were you guys, I'd do the same thing." But as the car passes through the checkpoint at the Santa Rita County Jail, he grows quiet. "Is it true what they say about what happens to guys in jail?"

Inside the jail is cold and lit by depressing fluorescent lights. The guard asks Scott to take off his shoelaces and belt. The only other noncop here is a benign-looking drunk in his 60s who smiles sleepily at the officers he clearly knows well. Scott is sober now, and the expression on his face as he watches the guard put his cellphone and wallet in a labeled plastic bag looks like homesickness.

Eventually, an officer leads Scott into a concrete passageway, separated from the holding cell by a set of double doors. There's graffiti on the wall and a metal bench on which Scott is instructed to sit. For the first time that night, he looks scared.

Scott is released from jail early the next morning, after officers Koumiss and Rohovit enter his name in their log of the night's activities -- and, by extension, the informal network of Pleasanton teen gossip that they and the other TAPS officers share. The TAPS officers won't actively monitor Scott, but if they see him, they'll know about the night in the drunk tank. At best that's what the TAPS program offers: small-town-style police work based on discretion rather than the letter of the law. Some rules, after all, are meant to be broken sometimes

By Amy Standen

Amy Standen is a writer living in Oakland, Calif.

MORE FROM Amy Standen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------