By LINDA G. RASTELLI
If Middletown police have their way, underage drinkers won’t even think about buying beer in the township.
“We have a zero-tolerance policy,” says Sgt. Darren Schwedes, coordinator of an $8,000 state grant for the “Cops in Shops” program, which has covered the tab for an undercover operation in six liquor stores in the township that’s nabbed 12 suspects in the last four months.
The township is determined to keep people under 21 from getting their hands on alcohol, and store owners are on board, some even requesting that the police come back. A Middletown store manager who requested anonymity told redbankgreen that the program had helped his store, in particular, to crack down on young adults who were helping underage kids buy liquor, mostly beer.
“We’re very happy with the program,” he said.
Usually, two-person police teams run the operations, with one inside the store posing as a customer and the other outside. In this way, police have seen money openly changing hands in parking lots between underage would-be purchasers and older confederates. Sometimes, though, an officer will even work a store’s register, Schwedes says.
Nearly half the arrests in the last four months were of adults who were subsequently charged with offering to buy booze for minors or actually doing so.
For those who are caught, there are often multiple charges, says Schwedes, because the police are required, by the rules of the state grant, to show no mercy and pile on the charges, to the extent the law allows.
“We’re not here to give warnings,” Schwede adds. The court can smack you with a $500 fine and pull your license for six months.
The locations of the sting operation vary, but of course are secret. “We like to shake it up a little,” says Schwedes.
The program is 10 years old in the township, he says, but after a high of 49 arrests, the last two years have seen half that number of arrests. The first four months of the most recent year (which doesn’t go by calendar year) saw 12 arrests. Schwedes couldn’t say whether this was due to stepped-up enforcement or other factors.
Red Bank had a Cops in Shops program, which police spokesman Capt. Steve McCarthy says the borough would have liked to continue, but its funding dried up this year. Only four Monmouth county municipalities were funded this year, he said.
All the stores in the borough had been cooperative, he added, including the much-discussed Best Liquors, which is appealing the borough council’s decision earlier this year to revoke its liquor license for selling to underage persons, among other offenses. In the past, Best has had at least one undercover operation in its store, McCarthy said.