Police aren’t the only ones in Lincoln battling underage drinking, out-of-control parties

Greek community, student body, landlords all play a role

University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior Matt Pederson looks over a map of the university's 32 Greek living units on campus with Linda Schwartzkopf, the university's director of Greek affairs. All fraternities and sororities at UNL have agreed to follow the university's no alcohol rules, which they say has resulted in cleaner and safer living conditions.

Despite cheap drink prices in Lincoln, bar owners say they do their part to prohibit college students from over-indulging.

Wild party complaints

Lincoln police say the number of party disturbances they’ve responded to the last several years has gradually decreased. They say it’s a direct result of the Lincoln community’s proactive approach to combating high-risk drinking among college students.

  • 2005 – 1,862
  • 2006 – 1,813
  • 2007 – 1,479
  • 2008 – 1,238
  • 2009 – 1,061

Information from Lincoln Police Department

? As Matt Pederson stood inside the main area of his well-kept campus fraternity, he gasped when he learned two Kansas University students died last year in alcohol-related incidents.

“That would never happen here,” he said, raising his eyebrows.

It’s unusual to hear about such alarming problems with alcohol at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. That’s because in the last 10 to 12 years the community and university have taken a broad-based approach to combating at-risk drinking among college-age residents. In fact, student leaders here boast about never having lost a student to alcohol on their campus.

“We’re very proud that we’ve never had an alcohol-related death and we’re doing everything we can, from every angle we can, to prevent that from ever happening and to maintain our good record around here,” said Megan Collins, UNL student body president.

University and community leaders say their track record has come as a result of a lot of work from this town of 250,000 people, where there are rules and strict consequences for everything.

The message that dangerous alcohol consumption won’t be tolerated is clear and has become commonplace for the people and students of Lincoln.

“We found overwhelming support from the citizens of Nebraska for taking on this problem vigorously,” said Linda Major, assistant to UNL’s vice chancellor.

Major has been one of the leading forces behind the community’s efforts, which began more than a decade ago. Those efforts have reduced crime, self-reported binge drinking rates among students, and neighborhood complaints.

University leaders aren’t alone in trying to tackle the problems of binge drinking among UNL students. Though their ideas met with resistance early on, the university now is assisted by landlords, bar owners, police, student leaders and city officials, who realize their combined efforts are paying off and saving lives.

Taking control

Tyler Mohr sat on top of his Lincoln bar, his feet propped up on a booth beneath a huge sign displaying his drink specials for that Friday night, including 50 cent Natty pints; $1 shots; $2 Crown, Goldshlager and Jack drinks; and $2 32-ounce draws.

Despite his cheap drink prices, Mohr said he and other bar owners do their part to control high-risk drinking problems in Lincoln.

“We make sure that our employees know that they can’t over-serve and we kick people out if they’re getting rowdy,” said Mohr, of Main Street Cafe on O Street.

Bar owners know the risks of being ticketed for serving someone who is already intoxicated or underage, both which are illegal in Nebraska. And because law enforcement can walk inside their bar at anytime – something the cops in Lincoln do at least twice a week – bar owners know they must control the atmosphere in their establishments and ensure their workers aren’t serving people illegally.

But it goes a step further.

The owners also have a monthly meeting with Lincoln police to identify and address problems they’re seeing among their crowds, before they get out of hand.

Beware the party patrol

When the bars close at 1 a.m. in Lincoln, some college students like to continue the party. But they must do so carefully.

They’ve learned to fear the Wild Party Patrol. It keeps them on their toes, because they never know when it might be out and about.

Lincoln Police Chief Tom Casady says the patrol is one of the biggest successes stemming from the decade-long plan aimed at curbing high-risk drinking among college-age students.

Several officers load up in a van and travel around to off-campus student neighborhoods. Unannounced, they bust underage parties.

They don’t just send a few officers in to make the kids scatter. Instead, a large group of officers keeps the students at bay, writing tickets to minors in possession of alcohol and arresting tenants for maintaining a disorderly house. If they’re throwing a beer keg party, tenants also are cited for selling liquor without a license.

Police then turn the information over to the media, which publishes and broadcasts the names of the violators, providing a bit of embarrassment for those involved.

Tenants held accountable

Some of Lincoln’s landlords have also gotten tough against those who throw house parties, by holding tenants involved in the activity accountable.

John Bussey makes it clear to his tenants — and includes in their leases — that they’ll be fined $500 if they’re caught having a party or violating occupancy requirements.

“When we’re actually showing the place, we mention this fine, we mention the occupancy requirements, and the people that were looking for a party house realize they’re better served going elsewhere, which makes everybody happy,” said Bussey, of Capital Rentals.

He said it’s rare he gets a call from police in the middle of the night about a party at one of his 200 properties and he doesn’t hesitate to take action against tenants.

The police chief says the efforts from officers and landlords has had a major impact for the community, reducing party complaints 43 percent during the last five years, from 1,862 complaints in 2005 to 1,061 complaints in 2009. He said it’s also resulted in cleaner neighborhoods and less secondary crime, such as fights, vandalism, sexual assaults, robberies and even murders.

“If you can reduce those parties as significantly as we have, or at least the out-of-control parties that come to the attention of police, you’ve had quite the impact,” said Casady.