Effort to reduce drunken driving deaths is succeeding

Mark Mew

News that the Anchorage Police Department has been conducting a liquor enforcement detail downtown has generated a lot of public interest. Comments suggest there are some common misconceptions about the nature of such details, how and why they are conducted, and what are APD's motives. I would like to clarify some facts, and also talk about our rationale for engaging in these activities.

Title 4 of the Alaska Statutes and Title 10 of the Anchorage Municipal Code are the laws books for decades. Many people are expressing surprise to learn that it is illegal for a drunken person to knowingly remain on a licensed premise, and that it is illegal for an employee of the establishment to -- with criminal negligence --serve a drunken person.

APD has conducted periodic enforcement operations in bars and other establishments for as long as any of us at APD can remember. Typically, we do them when circumstances indicate a particular need. For example, officers may notice that a lot of OUI arrests originate at a particular bar or establishment. So, it makes sense for officers to check on that establishment and make sure they are not serving alcohol to people already badly impaired. Operations are generally of short duration. Sometimes we announce them in advance; sometimes we make surprise visits. In this last instance, we announced our intentions to the media twice.

The definition of "drunken person" we use for purposes of over service cases comes from Title 4. This is the same definition that the servers learn when they pursue their professional certification. Such a "drunken person" is nearly always significantly more intoxicated than the .08 "per se" limit for drunk driving with which most people are familiar. One should not confuse the two legal standards. They are different.

It's also worth noting that most establishments serving alcohol in Anchorage are doing a responsible job; during the recent effort, the vast majority of the downtown bars were found to be serving legally. Twenty of 26 bars checked were free from violations. The violators, however, were found to be serving alcohol to persons who were clearly inebriated, as evidenced by vomiting or falling off bar stools, for example. This is not a practice most communities want to accept or encourage by looking the other way.

It is no secret that Anchorage's rates for reported domestic violence and sexual assault are among the nation's highest. We are trying very hard at present to reverse this devastating statistic, and cracking down on establishments that promote extreme intoxication are part of that effort. Many of our sexual assaults occur downtown, or result from a meeting of victim and perpetrator downtown. A lot of alcohol is served downtown. It is true that suppressing over use of alcohol downtown won't of itself solve the DV and rape problems, but it can sure put a dent in both. Doing so is one part of our adopted strategy to combat interpersonal violence.

We recently announced our "Zero for Twelve" traffic enforcement campaign (a project different from but related to the aforementioned bar effort). Ten years ago, there were 20 alcohol-related fatal traffic collisions in Anchorage. In 2011, there were three. Our goal for 2012 is none -- zero. At a press conference in December, we mentioned the proliferation of bars downtown, and warned that downtown would get a fair amount of attention. We said then -- and I reiterate now -- that addressing over service in bars has a supporting role in the anti-drunk driving effort.

Everybody wants to enjoy Anchorage's vibrant downtown district. There are celebrations, displays and performances of the arts, shopping, fine dining, and -- yes -- great spirits. But the pursuit of happiness does not extend to the destruction of lives. When it comes to alcohol, most people understand where the line is between fun and potential tragedy.

Mark Mew has served as chief of the Anchorage Police Department since 2009.

Anchorage Police Department chief