HINGHAM - Officer Heather Mendes knows that some teenagers in this town hold drinking parties and cart around illegally purchased alcohol. She is onto them. Catching them in the act, however, is another matter.
These are savvy young people in an affluent suburb, and like their counterparts in nearby Milton or Norwood or Westwood, they are adept at skirting the law. When a
teenager in Hingham’s Conservatory Park neighborhood throws a house party, guests scatter their cars among the subdivision’s four cul-de-sac streets, deflecting attention from the residence. When a clique meets deep in Wompatuck State Park for a drunken bonfire, teens hide their cars, sneak in by closed entrances, exit in pairs, and if spotted by police, warn friends by texting.
“We know that many teenagers are consuming alcohol in their own homes as well as the outdoors,’’ wrote Mendes in a grant application filed this month with the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, requesting $5,000 to fund law enforcement stings and party surveillance patrols beginning this March through September 2013.
Underage drinking in the suburbs south of Boston is an ongoing issue - recently making headlines after teenagers in Milton gathered for a New Year’s Eve party in a home on Robbins Street, a normally quiet neighborhood of half-million-dollar properties.
The party went unnoticed by local police until a few minutes past midnight - when a party bus from South Boston, packed with 30 young people, rolled up. Turned away, the bus occupants became violent. One of the party crashers, Michael J. Capuzzo, 18, now in jail, allegedly stabbed five teenagers. Three of them - two residents of Milton and one from South Boston - were taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening stab wounds to the upper torso. Two others suffered minor hand wounds.
“What we know is that a house party involving many individuals, mostly from Milton, was held at this residence,’’ Milton police said that day, describing the scene as chaotic. Officers conducted dozens of interviews and established, among other things, that there was a connection between someone on the bus and people inside the home.
Suburban police are stretched thin with shift officers working to manage service calls, say local law enforcement officials, without the time to aggressively unravel high school subculture and keep tabs on known party homes or stop events before they happen. In fact, officers in Hingham, Norwood, and Westwood said, it’s rare to bust an underage house party, since police typically rely on noise complaints to tip them off - and, once on the scene, officers don’t have jurisdiction to enter a home unless they see an underage person holding alcohol or arrive in response to a 911 call.
Police try to be present and seek out the parties, but with a large number of teens and limited resources, it isn’t possible to dedicate a lot of time to sending officers to house parties, said Detective Paul Toland in Westwood. “Keeping the young adults safe is our priority, and however that is accomplished is going to run the gamut,’’ he said, noting the large variety of service calls tasked to local police during a shift.
“There’s always this type of socialization among young adults - whether it comes to the attention of law enforcement is the issue - maybe we find out through a noise disturbance or a concerned parent,’’ Toland said.
“I can’t tell you the last time we had a house party,’’ said Officer Kevin Grasso in Norwood, referring to the rare service call that results in police arriving to find an underage drinking party in an unsupervised home.
In Norwood, a town with one of the few remaining area police departments with a resource officer assigned two days a week to the middle and high schools, the police aim to proactively get the inside scoop on such parties - to stop the event well before it spirals out of control, said Grasso.
One of the best ways to keep track of what’s happening with teenage drinking is to spend time in the schools, develop trust with students, demonstrate the perils of underage drinking with interactive displays - such as goggles that simulate degrees of impairment - and speak directly to parents at school forums on the issue, said police Lieutenant Paul Murphy, the part-time resource officer in Norwood High School. He said it would be best if all departments could afford to place an officer in the schools full time, but tight budgets don’t allow it.
“It’s important to send a message to kids and parents,’’ Murphy said, adding there’s a host of risks created by underage drinking, including driving while impaired.
‘Many teenagers are consuming alcohol in their own homes as well as the outdoors.’
“These are some good kids but make some bad decisions - and some of those decisions can change your life,’’ he said. Too many parents allow such drinking as a rite of passage without a full understanding of its consequences, said Murphy.
Young people sneaking alcohol has been an issue for years, but the increasingly permissive parental attitudes toward this activity is surprising, said Hingham Police Chief Michael J. Peraino.
“Part of the issue now is the social attitudes. There are many parents out there who condone it and provide the alcohol,’’ he said.
In fact, well over a quarter of Hingham High School students in grades 9 and 11 said they had “attended at least one party in the last three months with adults present where alcohol was served with their knowledge,’’ according to results from the 2010 Hingham Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Similar results were found in a number of western suburbs: When schools in Acton, Boxborough, Concord, Groton, Littleton, Maynard, and Westford asked the same question of their students, 27 percent said they’d attended parties where parents allowed teens to drink.
“We have zero tolerance for underage drinking in Hingham. If officers are called to a house party, and they see alcohol when walking around the house, they can run the plates, call parents, tell them to come pick up their kids,’’ said Peraino. “Or they can arrest them. And even if they’re not arrested, we notify the schools, so there’s an impact on their athletics or club activities.’’
It might be about to get even tougher for underage drinkers in Hingham.
Mendes says she’s trying to stop teen drinking by securing funding that will allow police to shut down parties in the woods, in homes, and crack down on shops selling to minors. It’s currently difficult for police to monitor underage drinking, she argued, without “appropriate backup and manning of shifts.’’
Already, Hingham police are demonstrating a renewed resolve; in 2010, officers arrested 23 people under 21 for transporting alcohol. That number rose to 43 in 2011.
“We want to keep youth in the community safe, and safe from other people’s bad decisions,’’ she said. “We’re already taking more action against underage drinking.’’
Hingham police, if funded, would also make a special effort to “identify and correct permissive parents,’’ Mendes said, and pursue “aggressive follow-up with homeowners who leave their children unsupervised to host parties.’’
On a recent weekend night, Mendes was making the rounds. She checked out Hingham Shipyard, a waterfront collection of shops, a hangout where “kids tend to plot what they’re doing for the night.’’ Nothing was going on there.
On to Crow Point, the entrance to Hingham Harbor, where teens like to park. Deserted. Next, she drove to Bear Cove Park. She pointed a spotlight into a wooded section, but didn’t see a thing. Over the previous two nights, gassing up her cruiser nearby, Mendes had noticed vehicles exiting Bear Cove Park late at night and wondered what was going on. But when she was free, they were gone.
The weekend before, a fellow officer surprised a handful of teenagers emerging from Wompatuck State Park, after noticing five vehicles parked at the end of Leavitt Street, near a closed park entrance. The gates had been neatly reopened with wire cutters. The officer heard yelling and screaming, and came across 11 young people exiting the park in intervals. Some admitted to drinking, and parents were notified to come collect them. Others passed a field sobriety test; they were allowed to go. In the end, all that remained was a great deal of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, an alcoholic cocktail, abandoned by the bonfire, cast aside by fleeing teens.
“I’m sure as soon as the officer walked in, someone was texting: “They’re coming! Cops are here!’’ said Mendes. “I want to get some plainclothes officers in those woods. Then they’ll never see us coming.’’Meg Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.