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Former UI prof's study shows drop in alcohol charges

BY BRIAN ALBERT | JULY 26, 2011 7:20 AM

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A study released Sunday suggests the frequency of underage OWI and public-intoxication bookings in Iowa City has decreased since 2010. And while some officials are attributing the shift to the 21-ordinance, others are pointing to additional factors.

The independent study, conducted by John Neff, who has worked in a volunteer capacity for the Johnson County Sheriff's Office over the past decade, uses nearly a decade of alcohol statistics taking age, day of the week, time of day, and crowd size into account. Neff notes in his study there is "moderately strong" evidence environmental changes aimed at reducing the incidence of hazardous drinking have had a profound effect on students' drinking habits since their implementation in 2010.

"Everyone sees the phrase 'environmental changes' and immediately thinks of the 21-ordinance, but there's a lot more going on," Neff said. "The university hired nine new officers, so patrols have increased downtown, and people don't want to get in trouble. That's the most important environmental change."

On average, from fiscal 2002 to fiscal 2010, more than 300 OWI bookings involved people under the age of 21. In fiscal 2011, the number dropped to a little more than 200. Public-intoxication numbers also saw a drop, with an average of 600 incidents between fiscal 2002 and 2010 and 400 in fiscal 2011.

Neff, a University of Iowa professor emeritus of physics/astronomy, said he used Johnson County Jail reports from the eight-year time period to create the record. In addition, he consulted data from Thomas Baker, the UI associate dean of students, and Charles Green, the assistant vice president for UI police.

Peter Nathan, an alcohol expert and a UI professor emeritus, said the study appeared to be have been done competently.

"The study strongly suggests that the 21-ordinance has succeeded to this point in reducing one of the most troublesome consequences of underage drinking in Iowa City — public intoxication," he said.

Kelly Bender, the coordinator of the UI Campus and Community Alcohol Harm Reduction Initiative, said increased patrolling has a profound effect not just on local safety but on forming a community stance that illegal activities will not be tolerated.

The university is looking at the statistics carefully, she said, and more must be done before there is a clear picture of Iowa City's drinking situation.

"We're just starting to collect a lot of data and see effects on a larger scale," she said. "Right now, we have a lot of anecdotal data about house parties and such, but we can't just look at one segment like that."

Not everybody is ready to accept the numbers as proof Iowa City's alcohol problem is lessening. Matt Pfaltzgraf, the former coordinator of anti-21 ordinance group Yes to Entertaining Students Safely, said he believes the numbers are "tainted."

"It seems that once the UI gets its hands on any numbers, they always seem to work out in the city's favor," he said. "It's hard for me to take anything they do seriously because they're so into their own propaganda. It wastes everybody's time."

Iowa City police Sgt. Denise Brotherton said the department's numbers correspond with Neff's research, and she noted an increase in the number of officers contributes to Neff's findings.

"When you see increased patrols on the streets, you should be less likely to be obnoxious," Brotherton said. "We're also giving out more warnings, so hopefully, people will take those and make smarter decisions."

Pfaltzgraf believes students aren't drinking less, they're just drinking at different times and in different places.

"Students are drinking earlier," he said. "People are drinking and more prone to having problems because they're at house parties, where police aren't called. The city is celebrating the non-reporting of calls. It's really disingenuous."


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