Statesboro police and City Hall officials acknowledge that officers have done more compliance checks targeting sales of alcohol to people under age 21 since the Aug. 28 death of Michael Gatto, 18, after a violent encounter at the now closed Rude Rudy's bar.
The added compliance checks, said Statesboro Public Safety Director Wendell Turner, are an effort to measure the extent of the community's problem with underage drinking.
"Is there a legitimate underage drinking problem? I mean, that's our question," Turner said. "The community says, ‘Obviously, there is.'"
Turner and Lt. Robert Bryan, commander of the Statesboro Police Department's Investigations Bureau, talked about the compliance checks and related issues in a Sept. 19 interview at the Statesboro Herald. Mayor Jan Moore, by phone, joined in a portion of the conversation.
This week, the Police Department supplied a summary, backed by a list of incident reports, showing the number of underage alcohol citations and incidents for 2011-2014.
From Jan. 1, 2013, through Sept. 9, 2014, city police issued 383 citations for possession of alcohol by people under age 21, as well as 40 citations for selling alcohol to underage people. Most of the citations for selling were issued in 2013.
This proves a point Turner and Bryan made in the interview — that police have been doing compliance checks all along.
Putting a plan together
But police do not deny that Gatto's death has focused new attention on underage drinking. Gatto, from Cumming, was a Georgia Southern University freshman, two weeks into his college experience, when he died as a result of his injuries. Police charged James Grant Spencer, 20, identified as a Rude Rudy's bouncer, with aggravated battery and felony murder.
Wednesday, what was to have been an alcohol license hearing before City Council ended with a settlement in which Rude Rudy's owner Jonathan Earl Starkey surrendered his license and agreed never to apply for another in Statesboro.
Meanwhile, after hearing from Georgia Southern students, some of whom knew Gatto and were motivated to come forward, Turner said, police are taking broader look at drinking age compliance.
"What we've done over the last two weeks, three weeks, since Michael's death is, we've put a plan together to determine whether there is a legitimate problem of underage drinking, specifically," Turner said.
In the process, all 86 alcoholic beverage licensees in the city limits are subject to random checks by police, including in some cases, undercover 20-year-old officers, Turner and Bryan said. Those 86 businesses include places such as supermarkets and convenience stores, as well as restaurants with pouring licenses.
"Are we going to check every licensee, all 86, all the different ones? Probably not. ...We're going to try to do a good, random sample so that we can report back to council on where's the baseline," Turner said.
Another question to be answered, he said, is where the problem is located, whether it is more pronounced around the university or extends to traditional restaurants across town.
Turner plans to deliver a comprehensive report to the mayor and council, sizing up the problem and proposing a response.
"That's going to be a proposal as well, how are we going to monitor this problem with the resources that we have," he said.
With all the attention after Gatto's death, crowds have reportedly been smaller at drinking establishments near campus. Police have noticed it and say they are concerned about underage alcohol consumption shifting elsewhere, such as fraternity and sorority houses and private parties.
"We have been teaming up with the University Police Department since the 28th (of August) ... and we're looking at all avenues of being able to check any places," Bryan said. "Where we keep seeing that there's a less number of folks at licensed establishments, well, are they going somewhere else? What is our response going to be to those?"
However, Bryan and Turner acknowledged that police generally cannot drop in and perform age checks at house parties. But complaints about noise or disturbances give them the opportunity. "Anytime there has been a complaint of noise, et cetera, officers always respond, and a lot of the underage possession citations that you see historically come from things such as that," Bryan said.
Citations vs. arrests
A large majority of the underage drinking citations are just that — citations, similar to speeding tickets, handed to individuals under age 21 for possessing alcoholic beverages. Most of those charged are not arrested in the sense of being taken to jail.
"We don't have enough jail space to throw drunk college kids in it," Mayor Moore commented.
Underage drinkers are, however, usually advised to walk or get a ride home and sometimes, if noticeably very intoxicated, escorted there, the police officials said. Officers sometimes have young drinkers call their parents to come get them. Trips to the jail, Bryan said, are usually limited to cases where officers believe the young people would pose a danger to themselves or others.
Police less frequently cite individuals for furnishing, or in the case of employees of licensed establishments, selling, alcohol to persons under age 21.
The charge against the person selling the alcohol is harder to make, Turner said, because the underage drinkers often say a friend gave them the drink. So police sometimes use young undercover officers or informants.
In neither instance is the criminal charge against the business, but charges against individuals can be circumstantial evidence when license holders are summoned before City Council for administrative hearings, Turner said. Penalties there range from warnings to license revocation.
Hearings weren't happening
Six restaurants face administrative hearings on the status of their alcoholic beverage licenses during the City Council meeting at 9 a.m. Oct. 7 over allegations resulting from compliance checks on Sept. 4 and Sept. 11.
Turner and some City Council members have noted that the council held only one alcohol license hearing in the previous three to four years. So, if police have been doing the checks and issuing citations, a lack of follow-up apparently occurred elsewhere.
Moore, who took office in January, said she is looking into that.
"With the death of Michael Gatto, through the investigation of his death, violations came forward and we looked at, based on our ordinance, what should be the proper response, and the proper response was to call an administrative hearing," Moore said. "Well, at that point, these compliance checks were happening, and it became quite evident that we should be calling administrative hearings."
Statesboro Herald Staff Writer Holli Deal Saxon obtained the police reports cited in this story. Editor Jason Wermers and Operations Manager Jim Healy participated in the interview with city officials.