Tempe Reforms Underage Drinking Crackdown Amid "Police State" Complaints

In the neighborhoods surrounding Arizona State University, the first three weekends of school mean big parties, loud music, and streets full of drunken coeds celebrating new-found freedom from parental control. For the past two years, these weekends also have meant an influx of police as part of the anti-underage-drinking program Safe & Sober.

This year, though, the crackdown is canceled, prompting celebrations by some longtime downtown residents who criticized the program as hard-fisted and racist. 

The Tempe Police Department used $87,000 in grant money from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety to fund 1,275.25 hours of overtime for Safe & Sober in 2014, according to city data. Over the three weekends, Tempe brought in extra cops from 16 other police agencies, including the Phoenix, Mesa, and Scottsdale police departments and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. Police issued 3,571 alcohol-related violations. More than 4,500 additional people were stopped, questioned, and, in some cases, issued verbal warnings. 

Key parts of the program will remain in play, including education and prevention programs, squads targeting drunk drivers, and party patrols, said Lieutenant Michael Poole, the Tempe Police Department’s public information officer. But instead of an intense nine-day operation, the agency plans to spread out its resources over the school year.

“We’re still going to be out there the first few weekends of school because we know that’s when crime goes up,” Poole said. “But it’s not going to be like it was. You’re not going to see command posts with five different agencies going to parties, bringing kids in, and lining them up to get processed for DUIs and underage drinking.”

Tempe City Councilwoman Robin Arrendondo-Savage, a onetime proponent of Safe & Sober, said the program has “served its purpose.”

The city launched Safe & Sober after several high-profile, alcohol-related deaths, hoping to scare ASU students away from heavy partying. Fraternity pledge Jack Culolias, 19, drowned in the Salt River after a night of drinking in 2012. The same year, Naomi McClendon, 19, fell to her death from a 10th-floor balcony after a party. 

The number of complaints about loud parties declined 27 percent between 2009 and 2014. Last year, after two years of Safe & Sober, Tempe police reported issuing fewer and more geographically dispersed “unlawful gathering and nuisance fines.” During the program’s August run, street robberies and aggravated assaults also declined.

“I’ve always been one for making sure you’re evaluating what you are doing and holding yourself accountable,” she said. “We looked at the data from the program, we listened to the community, and we set out to improve it.”

Arrendondo-Savage remains committed to "keeping the community safe and upholding a high quality of life" as ASU students head back to school August 20.

"I would love to see the city of Tempe create the new norm that underage drinking is just not acceptable," she said. "It's illegal, it's unsafe, and it shouldn't be happening."

While most residents agreed that student partying downtown can get out of control, some took issue with Tempe's approach.

The neighborhood alliance Maple – Ash – Farmer – Wilson, named for four parallel streets at the heart of downtown Tempe, lobbied hard against Safe & Sober, saying it made the community feel like a “police state.” Group members circulated memes roasting Tempe police online, and more than a dozen people marched to a City Council meeting with signs printed with such slogans as "Tempe has a fraternity problem, not a drinking problem."

After USA Today published an analysis of Tempe arrest rates that suggested police brought in 405.4 blacks per 1,000 residents, compared to 120 whites, the tight-knit community started comparing the program to New York City's controversial, racially charged Stop & Frisk program. (The city has not published arrest rates by race for Safe & Sober.) 

“It feels great to know that we were successful defeating a massively racist program,” said Josh Smusz, a 34-year-old marketing professional who lives on Farmer Avenue.

Residents of Maple – Ash – Farmer – Wilson describe their corner of town as artsy, funky, and countercultural.

“We like to stay out at night,” Smusz said. “We like to have fun.” 

But Safe & Sober made some feel they couldn’t leave their homes.

“I’m old, and so are my friends,” resident Sandy Faddis told New Times. “We get together for drinks and appetizers. Nobody gets drunk. We all live in Tempe, but [we] are afraid to get together in Tempe anymore. Anywhere in Tempe, not just around Mill or ASU. Now [Tempe's] Chandler or Ahwatukee.”

Jacquelyn Martin, who works at a bar near Mill Avenue, said the place was nearly empty during Safe & Sober. On her nights off, she stayed in, too.

“People just chose not to leave the house — not even walk down the street to a bar for fear of being stopped and questioned or detained,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “When I’d get off work and walk home at 2:30 a.m.-ish, the neighborhood would be all lit up with red and blue lights and siren sounds. It was a really oppressive feeling.”

Other community members, however, appreciated the extra force.

The Tempe PD teamed up with ASU and city officials to walk door to door this week to pass out goody bags, remind residents about party ordinances, and let them know law enforcement was available to help. Residents generally were surprised, but friendly, commiserating with officers about rowdy college students and the dangers of binge drinking.

“It makes it seem like a safer neighborhood,” said Luke Ayala, an ASU industrial design student. “I guess it would only really bother people who have something to fear.”

Marilyn Dowhie, a nurse who has lived near ASU for 47 years, pointed out three “party houses” on her street. On weekends, she said, there’s a stream of drunk students parading past. Last spring, she said, she caught several people urinating in her yard. Another time, she found a woman lying face down and called 911.

“I didn’t know if she was having a seizure or on drugs,” she said. “It’s dangerous. You can’t control what goes on at the parties. It’s not just drinking.”

Dowhie said she wished police could be more responsive. When she calls to make a complaint about a loud party, she said, police rarely visit unless there is a "certain number" of cars.

“We literally try to take care of our own issues because the police department can only do so much,” she said. “On a scale of 1 to 10, as far as priorities go, we gotta be sitting at number 10 on Fridays.”

She thanked the team of officials who stopped by her door Tuesday.

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Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart