LONGMONT — Some unusual people have been hanging out in local liquor stores, without buying anything, since last August.
But the retailers don’t mind. The loiterers have been Longmont Police officers working in the Cops in Shops program to fight underage drinking.
Unlike a traditional sting operation, in which police officers target liquor stores by sending in a teenager who tries to buy alcohol, Cops in Shops targets customers who are underage or who are buying alcohol for underage friends.
“I think it works pretty good,” said Cathy Mally, who operates Sunnyvale Liquors for the owner, her father. “They stay on top of the kids that are buying for other kids.”
Before starting the program, Longmont Police Sgt. Dave Orr said he expected to find teenagers using fake identification or just hoping not to be carded.
However, most often, police have found adults purchasing alcohol for minors who wait in the car or even enter the store. Sixteen adults have been ticketed for buying alcohol for minors, while 21 minors have been ticketed in the program.
Often, more than one minor accompanies one adult. For example, one adult and two minors were cited May 7 at Sportsman’s Discount Liquor on 17th Avenue, according to a police report.
Typically, a young adult purchases alcohol for his or her friends who are younger than 21, Orr said.
In April, police ticketed Morgan Burke of Lafayette at Westview Liquors on North Main Street. Orr, who was watching the parking lot, contacted Officer Auggie Bernal when he saw a man who appeared to be a minor stay in the car while a woman entered the store.
Burke, 24, purchased bottles of schnapps, Irish cream, coconut cream liquor, wine and sparkling wine, police said. When she returned to her car, where her 20-year-old boyfriend was sitting, she put the bag of alcohol on the floor behind her seat, according to a police report.
Bernal questioned Burke, who said she was stocking up and that she did not know if her boyfriend planned to drink, according to police.
But her boyfriend, who will turn 21 in October, gave police a different story. He said Burke was going to buy champagne for the two of them to celebrate moving in together, according to the police report.
When contacted Thursday, Burke said she is considering fighting the ticket. She is scheduled to appear in court June 7.
“I told them I was buying alcohol for myself, for the weekend,” Burke said. “Obviously, there was a chance we would drink it together.”
She said she knew an undercover police officer was watching her while she shopped.
“I didn’t think I was going to get in trouble because I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,” Burke said.
The minute Bernal approached her, though, Burke said she knew she was going to get a ticket.
“He didn’t want to hear what I had to say,” Burke said. She also doubts her boyfriend told police they were going to share the champagne; he said he told police that she was stocking up for the weekend.
Even though Burke was cited for purchasing alcohol for a minor, her case shows how difficult it can be for police to determine probable cause for even issuing a ticket.
“There are a lot of cases that we suspect something’s going on,” Orr said.
As in drug investigations, police look for inconsistent statements from the suspects when they don’t have direct evidence.
Some suspects are savvy enough to avoid getting ticketed, Detective Scott Holmes said. Getting minors to be truthful about the situation was one of the biggest challenges of the operation, said Holmes, who worked the program in March and April.
Since the program started Aug. 28, officers have conducted 121 investigations and issued tickets in about 30 percent of the cases, Orr said.
The most difficult cases may have been when parents purchased alcohol for their child, according to Officer Steve Sisson. No tickets were issued in such cases, he said, even though the parents appeared to be blatantly breaking the law.
On several occasions, Sisson said, he saw parents bring children into the store and let them choose what to purchase. Yet he did not have enough evidence to make a case.
“That bothers me a lot. I guess that’s what surprised me the most,” said Sisson, who worked three Cops in Shops sessions. “Why else would parents ask what (the minor) wanted?”
The police department financed the Cops in Shops program with a U.S. Department of Justice grant that pays the officers’ salaries for the operation. The grant expires this month, and the police department and the Longmont Alcohol Awareness Coalition are searching for other funding sources.
Beyond the 37 tickets issued, officers said the program has less measurable but equally important effects.
“I’m sure that word gets around,” Sisson said, and if that stops even a few teenagers from drinking and driving, it makes the effort worthwhile.
Cops in Shops also has improved relations between police officers and liquor store owners.
Kay Armstrong, who coordinates the Longmont Alcohol Awareness Coalition for the police department, said she did not expect such enthusiasm for the program from the retailers.
“I have been surprised how cooperative the liquor retailers have been with our Cops in Shops program,” Armstrong said.
Eleven of the 21 or so liquor stores in the city have participated in Cops in Shops, Orr said.
Mally thought the program was a good idea, in part because it takes some of the burden off retailers like herself. She’d rather not see minors obtain alcohol, but what she can do from inside her store is limited, she said.
“I can’t baby-sit the parking lot,” Mally said.
Store clerks took advantage of having officers in their stores and learned more about how to spot suspicious situations, Holmes said.
And by participating in the program, liquor store owners and their employees showed their willingness to help crack down on underage drinking.
“I appreciated the clerks. For the most part, they were very cooperative and anxious to help us,” Sisson said.
Victoria Camron can be reached
at 303-684-5226, or by e-mail