URI anti-drinking initiative sees results


NARRAGANSETT — This year noise complaints dropped by nearly 12 percent and only five of the 85 houses slapped with a red sticker for violating the town’s nuisance ordinance had a repeat offense. Compared to last year, with 12 repeat offenders and one 3-peat offender, officials from the University of Rhode Island, Narragansett Police and local neighborhood associations believe that years of effort to reduce alcohol problems with students renters is finally starting to pay off.

“I don’t know how students are feeling at the end of the semester,” said Fran Cohen, URI’s dean of students and a principal investigator with URI’s Common Ground program. “It’s been a long year, we’re having some crummy weather - we may have some issues as the weather improves and students see the end of the hard work. But what I’m hearing anecdotally from students is an acknowledgement that the old days are over.”

With war stories circulating among Narragansett Police about massive block parties that overtook entire streets, it might have been hard to imagine this past year, when officers often lurked in the bushes with noise meters to determine if a small group of students on an outside porch smoking cigarettes was too loud.

“You’re always going to have the individual that had exceeded more than he should have to drink and is going to be a problem,” said Ptlm. Scott Vellone of Narragansett Police. “There’s always going to be a problem no matter how you handle the situation, but I think through the communication we have with the university has made more of an awareness by the students that if they host a party, they’re going to be responsible for their actions.”

Vellone sees a noticeable improvement in the response by students toward police, in both attitude and understanding. Police work has been bolstered by the support of neighborhood associations, the Narragansett/URI Coalition - a group of students, university officials and residents - and the Common Ground program, Vellone said, which reinforces the message.

Paula Santos, the Narragansett/URI Coalition’s coordinator, said part of the reason for improvement is the pairing of law enforcement with a softer, friendlier approach by the coalition and the Common Ground program.

“I think that the coalition has contributed in a lot of ways to that change in getting the word out and saying - ‘Hey, we want to work with you on a very civil basis,’ “ Santos said.

To an extent, the Common Ground program must get its message out by virtue of its existence. A five-year, $3.5 million federal grant has funded the program, which is in its third year. Because it is a demonstration grant, researchers must collect scientific data to prove the effort is with the goal of creating a model for other communities to adopt.

Surveys are being mailed to residents across town. Cohen said she hopes a media campaign and programs spearheaded by the Common Ground program have penetrated the community, such as the Responsible Beverage Service program in which bars and liquor stores pledge not to sell to minors.

Another initiative is the Rhody Rides program, which offers free rides to students who might have had too much to drink with a no-questions-asked policy. In two and a half months of operation, 167 rides were given. Common Ground has been giving breathalyzers to students who call for rides to see how many potential drunk drivers they’ve taken off the road.

But, the most effective tool might be the age-old tactic of instilling fear.

“What I’m hearing anecdotally from students is that they know that they’re not going to get served underage,” Cohen said. “They know if they have parties with underage students that attract the attention of police, they will be embarrassed and be a nuisance house. Not only do they get their names on a party list, they might not be able to rent in Narragansett in the future.”

It’s not uncommon for real estate agents and landlords to crosscheck prospective tenants with the party house list in an effort to prevent their property from being the next disorderly house.

Mark Wood, a principal investigator with the Common Ground program, said 30 percent of the students surveyed reported hearing more about DUI infractions. Similarly, 29 percent of students reported hearing about the Responsible Beverage Service program.

But the numbers also show room for improvement.

Only 6 percent of respondents saw a high likelihood of being arrested for DUI even when 30 percent heard about DUI arrests more frequently.

“We’d like to move the perception of being apprehended more,” Wood said.

Also, many students are unaware that the blood alcohol limit for underage drinkers is far below the limit for legal drinkers, at .02 percent. The legal limit for persons over 21 is .08.

Vellone said that even though only five party houses had a repeat visit, work must be done to reach tenants at those five houses who didn’t get the message.

It’s often difficult to know how to approach the issue from year to year, as the dynamics in various neighborhoods change. A street in Eastward Look, for example, might have a quiet group of students living next to each other for several years with no problems only to be replaced by a rowdy bunch.

This year, Vellone said, police observed more rental properties with problems in parts of town that historically aren’t heavily rented, such as in the center of town and on Ocean Road.

Eastward Look, in general, saw a decrease in overall complaints, although of the complaints that did occur, most were concentrated on a few streets.