For as long as underage college students have found ways to drink illegally, officials have sought new ways to enforce the law. The Rhode Island State Police Department's Oct. 5 announcement of the Underage Drinking and Nightclub Safety Task Force is the most recent example of that pattern.
The task force, composed of state and local officers along with fire marshals and various state licensing officials, is an attempt "to ensure that minors are not being served and that the facilities are in compliance with maximum occupancy limits and state liquor control laws," according to a state press release.
Spearheading the new effort is the superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police, Col. Brendan Doherty.
He said underage college students from out of state travel to Rhode Island for local clubs and bars.
"Unfortunately the city of Providence has been earmarked by students in Massachusetts and Connecticut," Doherty said. "That's just a culture that we're trying to prevent."
The Providence Police started Operation Red Cup in 2009 in response to complaints from residents about off-campus Providence College parties. The new task force is instead focused on clubs and bars, Doherty said.
"We're hoping that we can curb some of the binge drinking and some of the loud and boisterous and poor behavior coming out of these nightclubs at closing," he added. "It's not a free-for-all."
Although the task force is not yet a month old, local restaurants and bars are already feeling the effects.
On the night of Oct. 14, Theo Spiridis — the manager of Paragon, Spats and Viva — was at Paragon when he received a call from one of the bouncers at Spats. The task force had arrived.
Spiridis said Spats was serving about 58 people when four state troopers, a fire marshall and a state inspector walked into the restaurant.
"They came in like they were doing a drug bust," he said. "I was thinking something bad was happening."
After officers checked the IDs of several patrons, Spiridis watched as the force began a more thorough inspection that he said took the better part of an hour.
"They wanted to go through all the stuff — liquor license, food license — basically any kind of license that the state issues," he added.
Spiridis said the task force even went so far as to ask how often the restaurant washes the beer taps. They were checking for health regulations.
Spats did not receive any citations.
But the same night, the nearby Kartabar restaurant was also visited by the task force and was cited for a blocked rear door, according to the Providence Journal. The restaurant's owner initially agreed to an interview, but subsequently could not be reached.
Although Doherty said that cases of underage drinking would not be reported to school officials, he noted that several underage customers had already been charged as a result of task force visits.
"If we find someone who's breaking the law, it has a dual effect," he said. "The underage patron has to answer, and so does the nightclub owner."
"That's what all these kids don't understand," Spiridis said. "It's illegal. It does go on your record, and if you serve a minor, it's just not worth it."
Although Adam Molano '07 is the owner of the only liquor store located on campus, Spiritus Fermenti, he said that he is not too concerned by the task force.
"It's less about them trying to get places in trouble and more about the safety issues that go with it," he added.
The majority of underage problems at his store, Molano said, arise from the newest members of the Brown community — the freshmen.
"They probably did pretty well in high school — didn't go crazy drinking — and then they get here and there's alcohol everywhere," Molano added. "They just kind of have to learn. It's part of growing up."
"It's hilarious," Spiridis said, grinning at the mention of the underage throngs that line up outside his restaurants' doors, only to be turned away. "Let me tell you, the California and the Maine population of Brown has increased tremendously over the years."
Despite his laughter, Spiridis emphasized that fake IDs are not taken lightly at any of his restaurants. All staff members are required to register with the police and bouncers take part in a 20-hour certification class, he said.
Legacy of the Station fire
For Doherty, one of the most important reasons for the creation of the task force was the need to take a stand against overcrowding in bars and nightclubs, because of the major safety concerns that result.
"We're a state that experienced one of the worst fires in the history of America," he said.
On the night of Feb. 20, 2003, pyrotechnics set off by the band Great White ignited flammable soundproofing at the Station, a West Warwick nightclub. At the time, the club was well beyond the capacity limits mandated by town officials. As a result of the blaze, 100 died and more than 200 were seriously injured.
"There's no question that there are some bars that allow capacity well over what they're supposed to," Doherty said. "One of these nights we're going to walk into a bar and empty it out, before closing time."
Although Spiridis said he was annoyed by the interrogative manner with which the task force is performing its checks, he acknowledged that capacity is one of the most pressing issues facing bars and nightclubs.
"That's why we have a line," he said. "I'm not willing to go over a certain number of guests in the place — it's the safety reasons and you're doing it against the law."
When it comes to matters of underage drinking at Brown, "We take a harm reduction approach," Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services, said of the alcohol enforcement and education that takes place on campus. "We try to stress for students the importance of their own health and safety – our priority is to have resources available."
"We're hoping that the interagency task force would be able to respond to some well known concerns about local agencies that advertise to college students," Klawunn said.
Spiridis said he has noticed a definite change in the University's concern for alcohol safety..
"They've improved a lot from when I first came to Thayer Street 11 years ago," he added. "They didn't have the Safewalk, the safeRIDEs."
"Our concern is centered on students who frequent the local establishments and consume alcohol to the point of being impaired," Capt. Paul Shanley, deputy chief of police in the Department of Public Safety, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. "Our officers monitor the campus to deter criminal activity and to identify people who appear to be so intoxicated that they can't take care of themselves."
Although the state police did not approach the University directly regarding the task force, Shanley wrote, DPS maintains a policy of cooperation with the local and state police to ensure student safety.
"Whenever addressing an issue like alcohol, a multidisciplinary approach is critical," wrote Frances Mantak, the director of health education and a member of the Campus Life Advisory Board subcommittee on alcohol and other drugs, in an e-mail to The Herald. "Education, harm reduction and enforcement need to go hand in hand on such a complex issue."
Doherty emphasized that the major work of the task force — keeping people safe — has only just begun.
"Some of these poor decisions from a good kid can impact them for the rest of their lives," he said, adding that he has seen such cases "far too often" in his years as an officer.
"At the end of the day, we'd love to hear that we never have any fatal accidents as a result of people drinking too much in these bars," Doherty said.
ut, "we're here, and we're coming to a bar near you and we're going to continue this," he said.