Inside An APD/ABC ‘Shoulder Tap’ Operation
Kevin L. Hoover
ARCATA – As part of its continuing efforts to keep alcohol out of underage hands, Arcata Police ran a “shoulder tap” operation on both ends of town Friday night.
“Shoulder tap” is shorthand for teenagers hanging out in front of retail businesses that sell alcohol and asking adult patrons entering the establishment to buy booze for them. Undercover officers wait nearby on foot and in vehicles, ready to pounce when a grown-up exercises misdemeanor bad judgment. In just a few hours, six such subjects were cited and arrested, and will probably think twice about committing such a maneuver again.
Friday’s operation got underway in APD’s briefing room, where four teens – three boys and a girl, three age 17 and one 16 – were briefed on the night’s operation. The young volunteers are all part of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office “Police Explorer” program.
Sgt. Keith Altizer outlined the operation, which involved two teams consisting of two officers and two teens each. One team would work “north beat” – everything north of 14th Street, while the other focused on central Arcata.
Adding a festive note to the evening’s activities, it was “Shoulder Tap Day,” with dozens of law enforcement agencies across the state performing similar operations (see bottom of page).
The teens were instructed to make it clear to passersby that they are under 21 and looking for someone to buy alcohol for them. They might say they are going to a St. Patrick’s Day party, and can even offer assurances that they won’t be driving. But they can’t try to persuade the potential buyer.
The pitch will ring true if the youth asks for a specific brand of booze. Budweiser is said to meet the refined tastes of today’s party-time teen.
Most adults turn down the teen’s request, period. Others refuse to take the money, but go in and buy alcohol on their own and then hand it to the teen on the way out.
Still others accept the money, then go in and buy booze for themselves and try to leave. They get arrested for petty theft. It’s not uncommon for an adult to offer to sell the kids cannabis.
Altizer says that there isn’t any stereotypical booze-enabler. They come in all ages – even underaged. Teens with fake IDs will sometimes buy liquor for the shoulder tappers.
They do have one thing in common though – their response to being arrested. “Usually the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, that was stupid. I never do that,’” Altizer said. The penalty for furnishing alcohol to a minor is a minimum $1,000 fine and 24 hours of community service.
If an adult agrees to make a booze buy, the shoulder-tapping teens are to raise their hoods over their heads to signal the officers. If things get “hinky” – yes, Adam-12 fans, police really do use that term – they are to raise their hands in the air, and officers will immediately intervene.
“Cops will have eyes on you the whole time,” Altizer assures the kids. “Your safety is our priority.”
We leave in an unmarked but blatantly obvious cop car, a battered Crown Victoria with antennae and a small light bar. That everyone inside is wearing hoodies doesn’t help. On the way out of the APD parking lot, Downtown Officer Chris Wilson rolls up on his bike and remarks, “You guys look like cops trying not to look like cops.”
The first stop for the south beat team is Arcata Liquors. Two lads hang out on the H Street side, making their pitch to random adults. None appear interested; it’s late afternoon, and folks are en route to other destinations for their Friday night fun. One guy in a camouflage jacket almost bites, but walks off, advising as he leaves that “Fourth Street Market doesn’t check ID’s.”
It does. “I haven’t busted them in two years,” says Officer Richard Bergstresser. But tonight’s operation doesn’t include minor decoys trying to buy liquor from stores, just the shoulder tap to patrons. So it’s off to Fourth Street.
There, the two lads mill about by the dumpsters, but foot traffic is minimal. Meanwhile out in Valley West, the other team is having all the excitement. A man at Ray’s Food Place took the teens’ money, went in and bought alcohol, then went out the other door. He is arrested on a warrant.
Lacking law enforcement action, South Team has to amuse itself with low-level kibitzing between Altizer, a San Diego Padres fan, and Bergstresser, a San Francisco Giants loyalist.
With two dry holes so far, our team heads over to the Uniontown Shopping Center, which is bound to be buzzing with people on an early Friday evening.
Altizer waits in the car as Bergstresser takes a position by the teenagers outside CVS Pharmacy. Soon a man responds to their overtures, but directs them to another guy. This other man asks twice if they are police and twice is told no. He takes their $5 bill and slips into the variety store, emerging with a 24 oz. Budweiser.
On handing it to the teens, he demands and receives a $1 fee for his trouble and is quickly detained by Bergstresser. The man, identified as James Burke, hands the officer his ID, then sits on the sidewalk next to the Freedom Shrine and graffitied newspaper racks.
As the officer calls in Burke’s particulars, the suspect clambers to his feet, lingers for a moment and then bolts away, running. Bergstresser gives chase westbound toward F Street, dropping his cell phone and citation book. He tackles the man around the corner from the shopping center, cuffs him and marches him back to the store. Altizer comes around, and soon two marked APD units are on scene.
A search turns up a cell phone charger Burke had apparently stuffed down his pants when he bought the beer. While petty theft is a misdemeanor, possession of stolen property is a felony. As it turns out, Burke is a wanted parolee who has fled from supervised probation following a previous conviction for – that’s right – possession of stolen property.
Burke last made Arcata headlines during a bungled burglary attempt at HealthSPORT on May 11, 2012.
Back at the station, the cops do paperwork on the arrest as the boys talk over details of the incident. “I felt proud but sad at the same time,” says one boy of his role in the caper. “We’re happy that we caught someone, but we feel bad for him.”
The shiny can of Bud is photographed for evidence, and Altizer takes it and heads out the conference room door. What will become of the guzzleable but contraband King of Beers? “It gets poured down the drain,” he says. This draws a rueful “awwww” from teens and reporter alike, just because of the waste of a perfectly good, if cheap and mass-produced beverage. “In the old days, it would have been booked into evidence in an officer’s stomach,” Altizer admits.
Bergstresser sports a bright red patch of missing skin on his right elbow and another on his knee. He’s done for the night. “I’ll take a scratch to get a felon off the streets any time,” he says.
He turns over his duties to Wilson, who dons the requisite hoodie. Meanwhile, the Valley West team has made their second collar, citing another booze buyer.
With more than an hour to go, there’s time for one more shoulder tap, but the Plaza is off-limits because Wilson is so well known among the Plazarati.
So it’s back to Fourth Street. Within minutes, a man on a bike with a trailer agrees to buy the two teens alcohol, and he too charges a dollar for his trouble. He sings as he leaves the store with another Bud tall boy, and is rapidly detained outside.
As he is cited, passersby observe the scene and marvel at a reporter’s ability to photograph the scene without officer interference, unaware that the ride-along was pre-arranged. They’ve read about North Coast Journal Editor Carrie Peyton Dahlberg’s tense encounter with Eureka Police Officer Drake Goodale, a former APD officer, and have various opinions about the matter.
They have mixed feelings about the Shoulder Tap operation, too, with regard to possible entrapment. But in 1994, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that use of underage decoys is a valid tool for law enforcement to ensure that licensees are complying with the law.
But this alcohol buyer, identified as Travis Russell, gets off easy, with just a citation. He has a 215 card, so his prescription bottle of pot isn’t an issue.
In the remaining half-hour, there’s time for one more shoulder tap effort out at Murphy’s Sunny Brae Market. But to no avail. None of the college students are interested. They’re entirely focused on obtaining their weekend fare of beer and ice cream. The refusals are fine with Altizer and Wilson, who sense that publicity following recent similar operations may have helped reduce teen alcohol enabling.
By 9 p.m., it’s all over. The state ABC wants all the arrest figures sent in for its press release the next day.
• Zachariah Smithers, 33, of McKinleyville
• Jon Jimenez, 23, Cardiff
• Ludwig Dannhausen, 62, of San Diego
• Jonathan Smart, 34, of Willow Creek
• James Burke, 40, of Galt (additionally arrested on a warrant, resisting arrest and possession of stolen property)
• Travis Russell, 30, of Arcata
According to APD, statistics show that young people under the age of 21 have a higher rate of drunken driving fatalities than the general adult population.
Minor Decoy operations have been conducted by local law enforcement throughout the state since the 1980s. When the program first began, the violation rate of retail establishments selling to minors was as high as 40 to 50 percent. When conducted on a routine basis, the rate has dropped in some cities as low as 10 percent or even below.
This project is part of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s Minor Decoy/Shoulder Tap Grant Project, funded by the California Office of Traffic Safety through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
ABC Press Release
CALIFORNIA – Agents from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) and Officers from the Modesto and Ontario Police Departments joined forces with more than 100 law enforcement agencies in a record-setting Decoy Shoulder Tap Operation in California Friday, March 15. The operation was conducted statewide for the second time ever.
The task force operation resulted in 475 arrests. The arrest total shattered last year’s record operation that concluded with 435 arrests.
More than 400 individuals were cited for furnishing alcoholic beverages to minors, and at least 50 were arrested for other crimes such as illegal drugs, illegal gun possession, public drunkenness, parole violations and outstanding warrants.
ABC agents and local law enforcement conducted a program called a Decoy Shoulder Tap Operation, which can lead to the arrest of adults who purchase alcohol for people under 21 years old.
Under the program, a minor under the direct supervision of a peace officer will stand outside a liquor or convenience store and ask patrons to buy them alcohol.
The minor indicates in some way he or she is underage and cannot purchase the alcohol.
If the adults agree to purchase alcohol for the minor, officers then arrest and cite them for furnishing alcohol to the minor. The penalty for furnishing alcohol to a minor is a minimum $1,000 fine and 24 hours of community service.
The program is intended to reduce the availability of alcohol to minors. According to the American Medical Association, underage drinking can increase chances of risky sexual behavior and teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, compromise health and result in unintentional injury and death.