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The Third Street nightclub district has become a popular hangout for teenagers, and city police this month began what they promise will be an ongoing effort to make the district less appealing to the younger set.

Niagara Falls police say they are not out to get downtown bars, but if those 30 drinking establishments are serving alcohol to underage drinkers, officers will be making arrests.

"Bars have to police themselves or we'll do it for them," vowed police Narcotics and Intelligence Lt. Salvatore Pino.

Pino said city officers recently wrapped up an investigation focusing on two area bars: Rum Runners, at 2109 Main St., and Club 427, 427 Third St.

Four more bars in the downtown area are currently under investigation, he said.

Teen fights that have spilled into the streets from downtown bars helped launch the new vigilance.

"The most frequent complaints came from our midnight shift," Pino said. "They said every time they would respond to a bar fight, (participants) were always underage. We could see a pattern. It wasn't just a one- or two-time thing."

Complaints also were coming from Niagara Falls High School, where officials were reporting that children were coming to school with hangovers, and from parents, who complained their teenagers were coming home drunk, the lieutenant said.

Police officers have gone about their work in a state system that allows those 16 and over to visit bars, those 18 and over to serve alcohol, but only those 21 and over to drink.

In both Rum Runners and Club 427, Pino said, police found underage drinkers inside with alcohol in their hands, and undercover officers observed bartenders serving alcohol to these minors. Two young bartenders, both under 21, were charged in the police investigation.

"These (bartenders) aren't bad kids. The girl from Rum Runners was scared and sad. She had just turned 20, but ultimately she is responsible for her actions," said Pino. "Even though (bar owners) hire young people, you would think they would have some kind of mandatory training."

Legal repercussions

The law charges most bartenders serving minors with a misdemeanor, but drinking establishments have the most to lose.

According to Kimberly Morella of the State Liquor Authority, both bars in question are under investigation and could lose their liquor licenses, at least temporarily.

"It's a very lengthy process," Morella said. "Hearings are set up. There is correspondence. It can go in a lot of different directions. This just occurred, so this is definitely pending. The ultimate (punishment) is revocation of a license and fines."

Bars under Liquor Authority investigation can receive warning letters, a license suspension ranging from 15 to 60 days; license cancellation, which includes loss of a license with a chance to refile within six months to a year; or revocation, the most severe penalty, which terminates a liquor license.

The Liquor Authority also may impose civil monetary fines of $1,000 or more for first offenses and $2,500 or more in conjunction with suspension, cancellation or revocation.

A home problem, too

Underage drinking extends well beyond bars. State Liquor Authority Chairman Edward F. Kelly warns that as bars become more stringent, underage drinkers have turned to keg parties in homes, hotel rooms, campsites and other private locations to avoid detection.

Kelly notes that organizers of these parties are generally unconcerned with the welfare of those in attendance, and tend to promote excessive drinking that can lead to sexual assaults, fights, serious injuries, even death.

The City of Niagara Falls needs only to go back a few months to witness the harm these "parties" can foster. A 19-year-old, Matthew A. Zawada of Lewiston, was struck by a car New Year's Eve after he went to rescue his younger sister from a quarrel at an underage drinking party in a local motel. A fight spilled out onto Niagara Falls Boulevard and Zawada was killed by a passing motorist.

Jacqueline Nicastro, chief operating officer for the Beacon Centers in Western New York, said their centers offer an abstinence-based program for addiction, which includes programs for young adults.

"Alcohol alters their perceptions. When they are under the influence of alcohol they are not thinking clearly. They are not thinking of the consequences," Nicastro said.

"It's not hard for kids to get alcohol these days," she said. "Drinking during school hours and field trips is not unheard of. We view addiction as a disease and don't want it to progress any further while they are in their youth. A lot of young people have the attitude, 'That's not going to happen to me.' "

A warning for parents

New York State laws are designed to punish those who make alcohol available to those under the legal drinking age, including parents.

While parents are permitted to serve a moderate amount of alcohol to their children in their own home, any adult, including a parent, may be charged with endangering the welfare of a child for knowingly providing unreasonable amounts to alcohol to a child under 17.

Parents who host parties may rationalize that they are protecting teens when allowing an underage drinking party in their home, under their supervision, but they are opening themselves to criminal and civil liability.

Under the state's "Dram Shop Law," an adult may be held liable if someone on their property, particularly a minor, is injured or dies as a result of drinking.

Responsibility for damage to other property, or in a motor vehicle accident, involving a drunken party guest also attaches to a party host.

'We're looking at you'

Pino said officers have given downtown bars a chance to address underage drinking. Rum Runners and Club 427, he said, were given a series of warnings before any arrests were considered.

"We're not in the business to ruin anybody's fun. We're not out to shut down bars," Pino said. "Before I take any action, I first send in patrol officers in marked cars to talk to the managers and bouncers, and explain the problem to them."

In the case of the two downtown bars, "after a few more days, the midnight shift sent in marked patrol cars and officers into the bars and found underage people with drinks in their hands," Pino said. "We did reports, but we did not arrest anybody."

He said they were giving them the hint, "Hey we're looking at you."

But complaints continued, Pino said, so on April Fool's Day the plan went into action with undercover police officers going to the bars, sitting and observing who was being served. Officers in the department's Roving Anti-Crime Unit were called in, and the undercover officers pointed out people they believed were underage. The underage drinkers were still holding drinks and bartenders who served them were pointed out and arrested.

Pino said the bars were flaunting the rules, with no one even attempting to check identifications.

Four other bars that have taken a lackluster approach to underage drinking also are under investigation, he said.

"My plan was very simple, and they are welcome to know what I do because if they get wise to it, maybe they'll stop," he said. "I just want them to stop serving kids. These bars are allowing anyone in. If there's a carload of kids and the driver is drunk and then there is an accident, all of sudden it is a tragedy and everyone is asking why didn't we do something."

A father of grown children, Pino said he realizes there are difficulties in raising teenagers, but added, incredulously, "Why is a 16-year-old out at 2 a.m.?"

"If schools are noticing kids coming into the school hung over, the parents should notice," the lieutenant said. "They are just too young to be out at 2 a.m."