Earlier this year, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office conducted sting operations at 51 liquor stores and bars. Cadets under age 21 with either fake IDs or no IDs were able to buy liquor at 28 of the 51 establishments. That 55-percent failure rate was not acceptable to Capt. Daniel Gard and other sheriff's office staff.
"It was pretty appalling," Gard said. He said the liquor board, a group that decides penalties for liquor license owners who violate liquor laws, was upset. So were the establishments that were penalized, many of which were forced to close for three days over a holiday weekend, a huge hit to sales.
In one case, a South Jeffco liquor store lost its liquor license after an underage boy bought alcohol with a fake ID and was later involved in a fatal accident.
"It was painful for them, and painful for us," Gard said.
Gard, Capt. Pat Woodin of the South Precinct and others wanted to find a way to boost adherence to liquor laws.
"We've both got the same problem," Gard said of the sheriff's office and the liquor establishments.
Gard said he, Woodin and other senior sheriff's staff came up with the idea to reach out to everyone who holds a liquor license in the county and establish a more proactive relationship to address underage drinking and adults who drink too much. The sheriff's office also wants to offer tips on how to spot the latest in fake-ID technology and on trends among underage drinkers.
"We need to do more to communicate to liquor licensees the problems we're having," Gard said.
The goal is to explain to licensees how many problems the sheriff’s department has with underage drinkers and how many calls for help are related to alcohol. Working with the owners of those establishments, the sheriff's office believes it can reduce alcohol-related problems.
As of Dec. 3, there were 233 liquor licenses in Jefferson County, and all of the licensees were contacted about the new efforts. The captains running the sheriff's north, west and south precincts had deputies hand-deliver letters asking the licensees to attend a meeting.
Woodin said there are 108 liquor licensees in South Jeffco. Of those, 40 attended a meeting in October.
Gard and Woodin said that 40 out of 108 is "pretty good" but leaves room for improvement.
"It's not a trap," Gard said, noting that some licensees are reluctant to work closely with law enforcement. Woodin said the traditional relationship between bar and liquor store owners and the police is "adversarial," and he hopes this effort will change that.
"I believe it's a real good thing," said Carleen Lang, manager at Werner's West Peakview Liquors in South Jeffco. "It's a good thing they're wanting to work with retailers instead of waiting till something happens."
Lang said the meetings and increased communication with the sheriff's office are "making us more alert on what to look for."
The sheriff's office was reluctant to share the names of the establishments that either didn't attend the initial meeting or haven't been responsive to the sheriff's efforts.
"We don't want to burn any bridges," said Jacki Kelley, the sheriff's spokeswoman. "If we're trying to partner with them, we have to show good faith."
Gard stressed that the new efforts don't preclude deputies from enforcing liquor laws. "We'll continue with enforcement, but we're going to do targeted enforcement."
"It's like being a parent," Woodin said. "You encourage them to do well but hold them accountable when they don't."
Gard said it will take at least six months to see if the program has any measurable results. The sheriff's office will track liquor law infractions and put them in a database.
Woodin has already had a couple of calls from bars and liquor stores that have led to "positive outcomes."
Gard said it will become clear the program is working when fewer tickets are written for underage consumption/possession, public intoxication and DUI.
"You don't measure success by how many summonses you write," Gard said. "It's how many you don't."