Booze blues

By William Kenny
Times Staff Writer

It may not be their legal right, but there’s little doubt that young people in Northeast Philly still consider drinking in the woods their birthright.
Their determination to keep up a generations-old local custom is evident in the perpetual cat-and-mouse game they instigate with police, civic leaders and individuals unfortunate enough to live nearby the kids’ favorite stomping grounds. Much like the old cartoon Tom and Jerry, the cat rarely wins.
On any given weekend night throughout the year, and very often on weeknights during their summer vacation, dozens if not hundreds of kids and young adults can be found lurking in Pennypack Park, say police and civilian witnesses.
While some folks would just as soon let them continue, rather than see all of the rowdies congregate in more-populated areas like residential corners and commercial parking lots, park advocates and police warn that the behavior poses a greater threat to the community than many realize.
"It’s no big secret. They’re all in the park. We chase them away and they keep coming back," said Jim Ryan, vice president of the Friends of Pennypack Park. "A lot of times, we get neighbors who call us, so I go over there and, being on the (local civilian police advisory council), I just notify the police."
Technically, not even those of legal drinking age — 21 in Pennsylvania — are allowed to imbibe in the park at night without a city permit for a special event.
Officially, the park closes at dusk, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the throngs of revelers who routinely rove the 8,900-acre urban oasis mostly at-will late into the night. They know that park rangers don’t enforce the curfew with any consistency, while city patrol officers spend most of their time running down 911 calls in the neighborhoods, rather than canvassing the vast Pennypack underbrush.
Similarly, drinking is prohibited in the park. But the piles and piles of empty beer, liquor and malt beverage containers found littering various enclaves many mornings belie what seems yet another barely enforceable ordinance.
The youths meet in obscure but easily accessible spots like a ballfield off of Holme Avenue behind Nazareth Hospital; some clearings off of Winchester Avenue north and south of Holme; and other hangouts behind Austin Meehan Middle School and St. Dominic Cemetery.
"Friday night is the big drinking night. If you see cars parked on Holme Avenue (outside the ballfield), they’re back there," said Ryan, whose non-profit park advocacy group has two "Gator" patrols that collect 20 to 30 garbage bags of debris each week from inside the park.
The patrols use all-terrain utility vehicles to navigate the paved and unpaved trails. Ryan personally spends countless hours in the park, too, as a police liaison for the friends group.
"And right at the corner of the Lincoln (High School) ballfield, you’ll find a couple of rusty cars in there. That’s where the kids party," he said.
Park volunteers have pulled everything from beer kegs to couches out of the woods, Ryan added. Locals have plenty of reasons to complain.
"It’s the noise," said Ryan. "And they steal chairs from in front of people’s houses. They take their lawn furniture. There are fights and trash all over the place. It’s always in the same places."
Ironically, litter — that most common and readily visible proof — is one of the least undesirable outcomes of the illegal behavior. Citing anecdotal and statistical evidence, police note the prevalence of underage drinkers who subsequently get behind the wheel of a car, placing not only themselves and their passengers at risk, but potentially every member of the community, as well.
Also, police say, many related ills generally accompany underage drinking, like vandalism, fighting and sexual assault.
"Everybody knows somebody who’s been killed due to underage drinking or who has been affected by (underage) abuse of alcohol," said Officer Todd Merlina of the State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement (LCE).
According to the most recent Pennsylvania Youth Survey, underage drinking in the state is on the rise while drinking and driving among youths is occurring at an alarming rate.
Every two years, the state’s Commission on Crime and Delinquency sponsors a survey of middle school and high school students across Pennsylvania. In 2005, 85 percent of high school seniors said they had drank "more than a few sips" of an alcoholic beverage in their lifetime, while 54 percent said they had done it within the previous 30 days. Both rates were all-time highs.
Further, 34 percent admitted to "binge drinking" within the previous two weeks of being surveyed. Binge drinking was defined as consuming five or more drinks in succession.
Of those 34 percent, about two in five said they had done so four or more times in the previous two weeks, meaning that, "a fairly substantial number of twelfth graders are essentially drinking at dangerous levels every weekend," a survey report concluded. Meanwhile, 30 percent of high school seniors said they had driven a motor vehicle while drinking or shortly after drinking during the previous year.
The trend wasn’t limited to high school seniors. Almost 20 percent of 10th grade students said they engaged in binge drinking at least once in the previous two weeks.
For a combined sample of students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades, 59 percent had drank alcohol at least once in their lifetime, while more than 26 percent had done so within the previous 30 days.
Few seem to doubt that kids in Northeast Philly are doing their part to boost those statewide numbers. Stats aside, underage drinking here is often compared to a cultural tradition.
Parents, neighbors and even police often find themselves in the surreal position of having to condemn a behavior in which they once gleefully engaged and as a result of which they’ve incurred no real personal harm.
The common experience is widespread, as portions of Pennypack Park lie in three of the four police districts that comprise the Northeast.
Like many, Inspector John Heath, commander of the Philadelphia police department’s Northeast Division, did it as a kid.
"Of course. Everybody did," Heath said. "The problem is, with kids, they don’t see the danger in it."
Sgt. Steven Davis, of the state police’s liquor enforcement bureau, agrees.
"Just because it’s one of the rituals of youth that everyone has done, it doesn’t make it right," Davis said. "I think everybody has short memories."
Davis maintains that drinking has always been a dangerous activity for minors, despite the fond memories that older generations may have of their school-age exploits.
Heath theorizes that societal factors, particularly the changing family structure, have contributed to the prevalence of underage drinking and added to the risk.
"Growing up years ago, you had a one-income household and you always had someone around the house minding the kids and raising the kids," Heath said. "And they knew when you’d be home."
Today, there are more families with two working parents or just one parent, Heath noted. That leaves teens with less supervision.
"Unfortunately, kids get more input from the street," the inspector said.
While kids are more street-wise, attitudes among parents have changed, too, and often stand in the way of efforts by police to make a real dent in underage drinking, Heath explained.
"When cops grab (their) kid, it’s ‘Why did you grab my kid?’ Not, ‘What did my kid do wrong?’" he said.
Kids "dummy up" too, when local police press them for information, Heath said, particularly when it involves revealing the source of the booze. While underage drinking is a summary citation, comparable to a traffic ticket, furnishing alcohol to minors is a third-degree misdemeanor.
The summary offense usually carries a fine and mandatory participation in an alcohol education program. First-time offenders often get into alternative programs where they can have their arrests erased from their records.
"The intimidation factor of the police (toward kids) and the support of parents for police has changed," Heath said.
Davis, the LCE sergeant, expressed similar frustrations.
"We try to find where minors procured the alcohol from, but a lot of times, they won’t tell you," he said.
Nonetheless, authorities refuse to allow young people free rein over the park. Two recent undercover investigations by officers of the LCE shone a bright, albeit limited, spotlight on the local problem.
On Aug. 15 and again on Sept. 5, LCE officers rounded up a combined 33 minors for drinking or possessing alcoholic beverages during Pennypack Park Music Festival concerts at the band shell near the park’s Welsh Road and Rowland Avenue entrance.
According to the law enforcement agency, the Fairmount Park Commission asked the state officers to patrol the concerts. Park officials claim that community complaints about drinking at the events prompted the commission to seek LCE help.
The LCE focuses most of its underage drinking resources on attacking the problem in bars and other state-licensed establishments, as well as on college campuses, at sporting events and at other large public gatherings.
Also, the LCE tries to undercut the problem by cracking down on businesses that sell alcohol to minors. According to Officer Merlina, the bureau’s age compliance program routinely catches merchants red-handed.
In the program, the state agency hires kids aged 18 to 20, who go out and try to buy alcoholic beverages. If a merchant asks for proof of age, the young man or woman is instructed to show his or her real ID card.
Since the program began in late 2005, Merlina said, the LCE has conducted more than 2,430 compliance checks. Of those, 1,084 or about 45 percent were adjudged "non-compliant." In 364 cases, the young adults showed ID cards and still got served.
The usual loosely organized drinking parties in the park are mostly a job for local police to contain, Heath said. Captains in each police district attack the problem in their own way. This year, however, enforcement is on the rise. From January through August this year, police made 309 underage drinking arrests in the Northeast, compared to 195 for all of 2006. Citywide, the partial 2007 tally of 502 compared to 486 for all of last year.
While the districts rely on 911 calls, local property owners and Town Watch groups and other community leaders to report problem spots, cops have a not-so-secret weapon.
With funding from local community groups, the 7th and 8th districts have purchased and operated off-road motorcycles for more than a decade. The vehicles go places that police cars or SUVs can’t and are quiet, so they give police the added advantage of stealth.
"The only thing that bothers these kids is the motorbikes," said Ryan, whose organization helped fund the vehicles. "(Kids) can’t hear them and can’t see them. They go in there and get them." ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or bkenny@phillynews.com