AUGUSTA — You’re outside a convenience store, topping off your car’s gas tank or crossing the parking lot to buy a cup of coffee. You notice a car inching toward you. Inside sit two young men. They fix their eyes on you. The car stops in front of you.

“Hey,” the passenger says. “I’m going back to college next week and I’d like to have a few drinks with my friends, but I’m not 21. Would you buy me a 12-pack?”

“No thanks,” you say.

“I have money. And I’m almost 21,” the man pleads. “Can you help me out?”

Other than being underage, the young man is not what he seems. He is working undercover with police, one of whom is driving the car, which is rigged with a wire. Two other uniformed officers sit in a nearby cruiser, listening to every word. Refuse the young man’s request and you will never know they were there.

But if you take his money and head into the store, an officer will greet you outside with a summons charging you with furnishing alcohol to a minor.

Augusta police have conducted a number of these underage drinking details, called shoulder taps, and, until last week, had always charged at least one person who was willing to break one law to help a complete stranger break another.

“There’s nothing in for you to do it, so why would you do it?” wonders Augusta Police Lt. Christopher Massey.

Local and regional police have stepped up enforcement of underage drinking laws since budget cuts forced the state to curb its effort a number of years ago. County and municipal task forces have been created to find underage drinkers and those who supply them.

“The overall goal is to stop these things from happening. It’s not to go out and say, ‘Hey, we caught 30 kids,'” said Oakland Police Sgt. Tracey Frost, supervisor for the Northern Kennebec Underage Drinking Task Force. “We’ve had way too many instances of young kids getting killed because they were driving under the influence or having to go to the hospital because they’ve overdosed.”

The shoulder tap is just one method used by police. Frost said the county task forces, made up of local and county police from a number of agencies, gathers information about planned drinking parties and monitor spots where those parties occur repeatedly. Police also check cars for illegal transportation and organize undercover counter details to see if stores will sell to underage patrons.

“When we first started doing that in 2008, if we hit 20 stores, 16 of those stores would sell,” Frost said. “Now, if we hit 20 stores, maybe one will sell. That has improved significantly.”

Augusta police, which lends officers to the Southern Kennebec County Underage Drinking Task Force, has formed its own force to work within the city. Massey, who heads up that task force, agreed word is spreading.

“Because we’ve done these details it’s gotten a lot more difficult to find stores that will sell without an ID,” Massey said.

Augusta Deputy Chief Jared Mills said he hopes the fact that everyone targeted in last week’s detail was unwilling to buy is a sign that the public is getting the message as well.

“I look at this as a successful operation,” Mills said. “I hope that the public is getting the message that we are out there enforcing these laws and there are consequences.”

How it works

Last week’s detail began several days in advance with finding a buyer to work with police. The person must be 18 to 20 years old and must have undergone a background check. Massey said police have used interns in the past, but he and Frost said most of the undercover buyers work as corrections officers at the Kennebec County jail.

The 20-year-old who worked this detail — his name was withheld — is a corrections officer who could easily pass for 16. The undercover buyer has worked with police on a counter detail, but never a shoulder tap. Massey gave the undercover buyer and Officer Todd Nyberg, who will drive, a rundown of the operation at the police station.

The men, riding in a slightly beat up unmarked Buick, are to drive slowly through store parking lots and look for someone who seems the most likely to buy. Typically, that is a man in his 30s or younger wearing jeans or casual clothes. Massey said they have yet to find a woman who will agree to buy.

Nyberg, who is 25, picks the person to confront at each store, but the officer cannot address the potential buyer, Massey said.

Massey warns the men not to let anyone in the car. If the buyer wants to meet at a secluded location for the hand-off, Nyberg is to pick the spot.

“I’m not 21,” Massey said to the undercover buyer. “You have to say that. If they say yes, give them the money.”

Massey told the undercover buyer to ask for the change back.

“There can be no monetary gain for them,” he says.

Once the beer is bought and returned to the undercover buyer, uniformed police will confront the person who made purchase, Massey said.

“Once they give you beer it’s a done deal,” he told the undercover buyer.

Nyberg remained in radio contact with Massey and Sgt. Christian Behr, who was driving the marked cruiser. Massey instructed the officer on which stores to target.

“We know which ones are successful,” Massey said.

The Buick pulled into a dozen stores across the city, including Mount Vernon, Eastern, North Belfast and Western avenues; Capitol and Bangor streets; and Riverside and Civic Center drives. In several instances, the men found nobody to target, but even when they did they were met with rejection.

“All set, man,” one man responded.

“No. Have a good day,” said another.

After stopping at several stores, Massey was pleasantly surprised they had yet to write a summons.

“This is the fourth or fifth time we’ve done this and it’s been the first one every time,” he said. “It’s encouraging.”

One woman lectured the undercover buyer and urged him to be careful. Moments later she flagged down Massey and Behr in the marked cruiser to report what happened. She pointed out the Buick, which was waiting at a nearby traffic light.

“It’s OK,” Massey said. “They’re working with us.”

The young woman, who said she will soon begin a college criminal justice program, seemed excited to have passed the test.

“You did a good job,” Massey said. “Otherwise you would have gotten pinched.”

Stats show downward trend

Police depend on grants to fund the underage drinking details. Last week’s effort was paid for by a Sober Truth on Preventing Underage Drinking Act, known as STOP Act, grant through the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Healthy Communities of the Capital Area administers the grant locally, said Neill Miner, the agency’s substance abuse prevention coordinator.

“Over time, what’s critical about these enforcement details, is that over time they deliver the message to the community that there are indeed consequences for underage drinking,” Miner said.

Surveys sent to all of the state’s middle and high school students make Miner optimistic that the message is beginning to get out. The surveys, conducted by the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, indicate that from 2009 to 2011 the number of middle school students who said they’ve used alcohol in their lifetime dropped from 28 to 26 percent. The number who said they’d consumed alcohol within the last 30 days fell from 12 to 7 percent.

The percentage of high school students who said they had consumed alcohol in their lifetime fell from 62 percent in 2009 to 57 percent in 2011. The number of high school students who consumed alcohol within the previous 30 days fell from 31 percent to 26 percent during that same time period.

But the risk factors are still high, Miner said. For example, the majority of high school students, 55 percent, still have little fear of being caught by their parents. A whopping 83 percent have no fear of being caught by police, though that figure fell from 86 percent in 2009.

Miner said parents and of-age friends continue to be the most common source of alcohol to underage drinkers. Approaching a stranger on the street is much less common, Miner said.

“But I think the kids that are doing it are probably further down the road and more highly motivated,” Miner said. “It may be numerically number three, but it’s an important focus.”

Surveys provide information, but they fail to answer Massey’s question. Why would someone break the law just to buy alcohol for someone they don’t know? Frost’s best shot at an explanation is that there is a perception in society that underage drinking is a rite of passage. The person being asked may recall good times in high school drinking with friends, Frost said, but they don’t understand how drinking patterns have changed. Teens now are binge drinking and looking for hard liquors that they can drink faster. The result has been a rapid increase nationally in the number of teens hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.

“It’s not just kids sitting around a camp fire,” Frost said. “People think back on their high school years, having a couple beers and having fun. That’s great, but it’s not your kid. If someone bought alcohol for your 16-year-old you’d be furious. The key to remember is, they’re not adults. They’re children.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642
ccrosby@mainetoday.com