Chalk up another tradition being affected by social media: large underage drinking parties.
Young people take to Facebook, Twitter and texting to spread the word when they decide to spend a lazy summer night drinking, especially in remote rural areas.
Local police agencies recently have broken up such parties attended by up to 200 young people, many of them underage.
But social media, which makes it easy to spread word of such gatherings, has become a double-edged sword: The more people who know about such a party, the greater the chance that someone will tip off the police.
As one local police investigator put it, “Who are the people reporting it? Often it’s the ones who got kicked out or weren’t invited.”
It’s now a lot easier to report such parties anonymously anywhere in Western New York, through an Underage Drinking Hotline number that’s easy to remember for any student of American history: (800) 851-1932, with the last four digits representing the last full year of Prohibition before it was repealed.
That number covers all eight counties of Western New York, plus Monroe County and four counties to the east.
The person answering the hotline calls the appropriate county sheriff’s office to report the party. And if the caller refuses to be transferred, the dispatcher takes down the necessary information. Where it’s appropriate, the sheriff’s office passes on the information to the proper municipal police agency in the county.
“It’s a collaborative effort, across the county and across Western New York,” said Erie County Sheriff’s Patrol Chief Scott M. Joslyn.
When Erie County sheriff’s officials call the local city or town police agency, they accompany that agency to the party scene, to increase the manpower.
Summer months, with their dangerous mix of hot weather and idle time for young people, provide the obviously busy season for these large drinking parties.
“All these kids have immediate contact with each other,” Genesee County Sheriff Gary T. Maha said. “They use Facebook, Twitter and other social media, and they can get a party together on the spur of the moment.”
In the last few months, Erie County sheriff’s deputies have responded to 13 such tip line calls. That response often leads the young drinkers to disperse, but the sheriff’s office has logged arrests in two of those incidents this summer, according to Michael J. Licata, who coordinates substance-abuse prevention for the office. Wyoming County sheriff’s deputies, with the help of their Genesee County neighbors and state police at Warsaw, have broken up about five such parties in the last few weeks.
Authorities learned about two of those parties from the tip line, two more from other phone calls and one from deputies on patrol.
“The tip line is one of our tools,” Wyoming County Acting Sheriff Gregory J. Rudolph said this week, emphasizing that it’s not the only one. “It’s an investigative tool to tell us where the party is.”
While the drinking-party season starts around June graduation time, it still seems to be going strong in August, the last summer month for students to blow off steam before school starts again.
Since last Thursday, according to police and media reports, authorities in Wyoming and Orleans counties have broken up four such parties, with more than 300 total participants. More than 130 people were ticketed for underage drinking, while deputies, troopers and officers arrested five people accused of hosting those parties or supplying the alcohol.
“I think it’s the season for it,” Rudolph said. “To have this many in this short a time is uncharacteristic, but I also believe the deputies and the assisting agencies are doing a better job of dispersing these parties and corralling that many people.”
Police agencies realize they walk a tightrope in breaking up such parties. On the one hand, they have to be stealthy. But if only one or two deputies arrive at the scene, most of the partygoers may flee into the woods or nearby creeks or get in their vehicles to race from the scene. Those escapes can be dangerous when alcohol is involved.
That’s why law enforcement officials try to send more personnel to break up the parties.
Early Monday, after an anonymous tip to the Underage Drinking Hotline alerted authorities to a 200-person drinking party in the Town of Covington in Wyoming County, state troopers and deputies from both Wyoming and Genesee counties descended on the remote scene.
While many of the young drinkers fled, officers apprehended 91 of them, including 73 under age 21 and 11 under 17, according to police reports. The deputies and troopers destroyed the remaining alcohol at the scene and made sure all the apprehended people had a safe ride home.
“We’re getting more help from other agencies to break up the party in a safe manner,” Rudolph said.
Deputies, troopers and police officers also realize they have to use discretion in breaking up these parties. One veteran officer who has investigated such gatherings noted that he dimmed his lights, parked as far away as possible and even turned off his flashlight in approaching the drinkers.
As he said of one incident, “I’ve walked up and sat on a log next to the fire before they knew I was there.”