Dangerous drinking progress without 21-ordinance


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Lincoln, Neb. — Good news, students.

University and community members have reduced the binge-drinking rate by about 20 percent, according to the ombudsman’s office.

Neighborhoods are safer and quieter; police now receive 800 fewer wild-party calls than they did at their 2005 peak.

There haven’t been any recent alcohol-related deaths, and the number of rapes, assaults, drunk-driving incidents, unwanted sexual advances, and the need to “baby-sit” drunk friends have all dropped.

And they’ve done it all without mandating that bars be 21-only. In fact, city officials say 16 is old enough to enter the local watering holes — including the roughly 115 that fall closer than a mile from campus.

Sounds too good to be true? It’s not.

That is, as long as you’re in Lincoln, Neb.

( Daily Iowan multimedia feature )

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Uniquely successful

Lincoln’s downtown scene — a two-block stretch along O Street on the edge of the city — is a lot like Iowa City’s Pedestrian Mall. Bars with such names as the Main St. Cafe & Bar, O’Rourke’s Tavern, and the Watering Hole bank the sidewalk, enticing potential imbibers with cheap drinks.

Duffy’s Tavern claims to be “Home to the fish bowl.” Iguana’s reels in customers with something called “frog sperm,” a $1 test tube filled with a green alcoholic substance. Its contents? The bartender working on April 2 said she didn’t even know. And, of course, there’s a Brother’s Bar & Grill on the corner. Except this one proclaims on a window sign: “Must be 21 to enter” — a self-imposed ordinance (see sidebar).

Such steps to regulate consumption and underage drinking on the part of bar owners and community members alike make up small elements that together have allowed Lincoln to achieve what officials in Iowa City have yet to accomplish: a change in the drinking culture.

Since the 1990s, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and community have gnawed away at risky student drinking more successfully than almost any other university. NU Directions, a community partnership of 30-plus members tasked with combating high-risk drinking, has been the primary driving force.

Since it was founded in 1998, the group never took issue with 21. Instead, officials say they’ve always targeted dangerous drinking and safety — priorities local officials adopted a year ago with the creation of the Partnership for Alcohol Safety.

Next month, some of those Nebraska officials will meet with the Iowa City Partnership to help figure out how to approach reducing excessive boozing.

But the task might prove more tricky. Recent drinking measures in the home of the University of Iowa have split the community, centering on a divisive bar-entry age ordinance that will likely pass the City Council’s third and final vote Tuesday.

Lincoln’s decade-plus battle (launched at the same time as the UI’s failed anti-drinking program Stepping Up) has been marked by gradual change built on strong relationships among the university, police, bar owners, and the community.

“The primary reason for the cultural change was the emergence of a communitywide coalition,” said Lincoln Police Chief Tom Casady, also a cochairman of the coalition. “I think because of that, the political winds started to shift a bit. I was no longer out on a limb with other people holding the saw, so some of the things that needed to be done, we could do.”

How’d Nebraska do it?

Linda Major, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s vice chancellor and NU Directions project director, said it started with one idea: “Everyone is held accountable equally.”

First, NU Directions brought the community — students, landlords, police, campus administrators, and bar owners — to the table. They all agreed that high-risk drinking was the issue, and they collected data to measure success.

From there, they pinpointed risky drinking through increased education, policy, and enforcement.

For example, in neighborhoods near campus — known for their house parties — the committee explored tagging chronically problematic houses with red flags before abandoning the idea. Law enforcement started citing landlords. The cost of a disorderly house fine increased. Campus and city sanctions, including possible jail time for repeat offenders, were added. All the while, the university ran campaigns urging students to improve the quality of life in area neighborhoods.

As a result, in part, officers responded to 1,060 complaints about unruly drinking parties in 2009, down from 1,862 in 2005.

“It is just huge,” Casady said, noting the officer power that responding to house parties requires. “God knows how many fights, resisting arrests, trips to internal affairs, trips to the emergency room, court appearances, sexual assaults — that’s big — would have emerged from 802 parties that got unruly enough that the police were called. A lot. Just the workload of responding to those would have been big, but when you consider the collateral splatter, it’s huge.”

Police have upped “tavern checks” downtown, working to build stronger relationships with the bars, educate bar employees on how to prevent over-service and underage drinking, and be a presence among the crowds.

Sgt. Jason Goodwin was an example of that on the evening of April 2. The officer of nearly nine years with a tightly cropped haircut has walked the beat long enough to develop the thick skin required to listen to drunk peoples’ “jaw-jacking,” as he calls it. Goodwin seemed to know just about every bar owner and bouncer in the district, as well as a good deal of the patrons he passed on the street.

“We’re not hear to ruin anyone’s night out — we just want them to do it safely,” he said, greeting a man a few moments later with a friendly, “Hey, Mitch.”

Bars, in turn, have also voluntarily agreed to increase pricing of drink specials by roughly 50 cents per drink, City Council Vice Chairman John Spatz said.

“It seems like a step in the right direction at the very least,” he said.

Iguana’s bartender Alex Johannes agreed: “The city of Lincoln respects the bar owners because the bar owners respect the city of Lincoln. It’s kind of a synergistic feeling.”

And although city and university officials have the numbers to support their success in reducing dangerous drinking, they remain tempered.

“The key is, the businesses are making money; young adults are still partying, whether it’s in the neighborhoods or in the bars. Nobody’s had to stop. It’s just, bring it down a notch,” she said. “That’s all we asked — just bring it down a notch.”

No ordinance, but still 21

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