When police set out Friday night to test the gatekeepers of Jackson’s alcohol, they didn’t expect perfection.
But officers also might not have expected a full third of liquor-selling establishments to sell to minors — and yet they did. Three out of nine servers either didn’t request an ID or didn’t check the birth date, and none asked the question “How old are you?”
“We have a problem,” Police Chief Todd Smith told the Town Council at a meeting Monday. “It’s not going to go away; it’s how you want to manage it.”
The councilors are updating the town’s liquor codes, and Friday’s compliance check failures underscored the need for a new approach to preventing underage drinking. So did the presence of hundreds of college students for the Collegiate National Championships last week.
“Every night we were arresting them for underage drinking,” Smith said, “and they’re getting their alcohol somewhere. They didn’t bring it from California.”
The 33 percent failure rate is unusually high. In the past two years it’s second only to a round of checks in July, when three of seven, or 43 percent, failed.
For the past two years the rate is 20 to 25 percent.
Smith revealed the statistic as the council considered how to improve its policies regarding alcohol, a discussion precipitated by high-profile liquor license suspensions in the past year at two businesses: Pizzeria Caldera in February 2018 and, more recently, The Virginian. Both failed three compliance checks within a year.
In the Virginian’s case elected officials were reluctant to impose a 120-day license suspension, the only penalty provided for by the current law. So, essentially, the council must now reconcile two potentially opposed goals: keeping alcohol away from minors without straining businesses, particularly bars and liquor stores, whose profits come mostly from alcohol sales.
Councilors have zeroed in on education as the most promising route. As of now the town does not require that alcohol servers be certified through the Training for Intervention Procedures program, or TIPS.
Mayor Pete Muldoon, who was a TIPS instructor for years, said he fears some establishments simply aren’t talking about underage drinking. He said mandatory training would, at the very least, prompt that discussion.
“Education around that not only helps the people on this side of the bar,” he said, “but it helps the establishment reduce their liability.”
The Jackson Police Department teaches one free TIPS course a month, Smith said. Beyond that business owners may pay to have their employees trained specifically. He said each course costs about $400 through his department. They are also available through other groups and online.
Teton County requires alcohol servers to receive TIPS training within 30 days of hire. However, the county does not have its own training program, and the town has taken on the education of, according to Smith, about 800 servers. He suggested working with the county to tackle the problem. He said the sheriff’s office plans to have someone trained to teach TIPS courses.
Smith said that, as any college professor will attest, some students gain more from a class than others. But he believes a more comprehensive education strategy could curb alcohol sales to minors.
“It’s an imperfect system,” Smith said. “But I guess I would rather have people exposed to something in hopes it impacts them in a positive way, rather than not be exposed to it at all.”
He also thinks it’s important to celebrate the people who are proactive about training and pass compliance checks.
“The majority do,” he said. “There are more people doing the right thing than doing the wrong thing.”
For cases in which a business fails three compliance checks even after TIPS training, the council is considering more flexible penalties as well.
As it stands a 120-day suspension is unavoidable. But councilors were uncomfortable depriving the Virginian of its primary source of revenue for three months, and may give themselves more discretion in meting out punishment.
For example, they could set a 120-day suspension as the maximum, rather than minimum. Such a change would allow the council to shorten the penalty period based on extenuating circumstances or to be more lenient for certain kinds of businesses, the idea being that restaurants will fare better without alcohol sales than bars.
But Councilor Jim Stanford was wary of leaving too much leeway.
“I kind of like it clear,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of, ‘Well, they’ve been in business a long time, they’re a good guy. We’ll give them a break.’”
In any case, the recent compliance rates indicate that steady law enforcement doesn’t seem to instill the widespread vigilance officials hoped for. Sgt. Michelle Weber said last week’s results surprised her, first because she has “been telling everyone” about the quarterly checks and, second, because of the prominence of the Virginian’s plight in recent months.
“It does disappoint me,” she said. “You would think that everyone would be saying, ‘All right, we need to step up our game.’”
All agree education is the preferable path to improvement. Ideally, officers would never have to fail another business and the Town Council never suspend another license.
“I, for one, am not excited when we give someone a ticket,” Smith said. “And if we educate them on the front end then maybe more people pass, we keep our kids safer and we all are living a little better life here in Jackson.”