MANKATO — Matt Westermayer has a few sobering facts for anyone who hoped a decade of community conversations about alcohol abuse and a high-risk drinking summit brought major changes to citywide concerns about over indulgence.
Mankato police officers brought 28 people to detoxification centers during the past month, the Department of Public Safety deputy director said.
Eleven of those people, or about 40 percent, were college students. All of them were unable to care for themselves and had blood-alcohol concentrations of .20 or higher, well over twice the legal limit of .08 for driving a vehicle.
During their downtown patrols, officers still regularly deal with people who have BACs above .30. Occasionally they run across people who break the .40 mark, a level that was unheard of when Westermayer started patroling the streets 26 years ago.
Here’s another fact he offers to show why heavy drinking isn’t only a problem in Mankato: During the Labor Day weekend, every detoxification center in Minnesota was filled to capacity.
The sharp increase in local detox trips has become a challenge for the Department of Public Safety, Westermayer said. The closest detoxification center to Mankato is in New Ulm. If that center is full, which isn’t uncommon, police staff have to transport people to facilities in Willmar, Hastings and Albert Lea.
“It’s an issue we deal with every year,” he said. “We’re to the point where we can’t do it anymore. We don’t have the staff. We don’t have the resources. We can’t do this by ourselves.”
Director of Public Safety Todd Miller is putting out a call for other “stakeholders” in the city to find a solution to the problem. Bar and liquor store owners, area colleges, social service providers and the medical community were included on the list of possible stakeholders.
“The problems we’re experiencing are similar to what almost all other communities with significant student populations see at the start of every school year,” Miller said in a news release about drinking issues. “Since alcoholism is a public issue, everyone has a stake in solving this problem. Public Safety personnel are not in a position to resolve this by ourselves.”
Miller’s department already has assigned two officers to focus on the downtown area as their beat. They will be patrolling the entertainment district and neighborhoods around it.
During the past three weekends, other officers have been working overtime in the area. Part-time officers, reserve officers and community service officers have been assisting. In the future, the department hopes to organize a group of volunteers to help patrol downtown neighborhoods.
The intention is to have police focus on criminal activity, which also often involves alcohol. They also will deal with other problems in the downtown area, such as students walking to and from downtown bars late at night, vandalism and other disruptive behavior.
People who drink too much to care for themselves but don’t break any laws shouldn’t be considered a police problem, Westermayer said. He said police end up dealing with those people, who often pass out downtown or in somebody’s yard, because they are working around the clock.
It’s no coincidence Miller and Westermayer made the department’s concerns known just days before MSU’s homecoming, traditionally one of the busiest weekends of the year for the downtown entertainment district. The department also makes it clear that it and other city employees are prepared.
“We will have almost every member of our staff working this weekend for homecoming, with assistance from other law enforcement agencies,” Westermayer said in the news release. “This weekend there will be an extra late night express bus operating and there are several taxis. Be smart and be part of the solution.”
Dan Benson, MSU director of media relations, said the university is willing to work the the Department of Public Safety and anyone else to provide alcohol education.
“If there are any things we can do in the area of alcohol, we will work with them and do whatever we can to educate students,” Benson said. “We are definitely concerned about making sure our students are safe and provide them any education possible.”
City Councilman Charlie Hurd said he isn’t sure students, as well as the friends they invite to Mankato for the weekend, are ready to be part of the solution. One reason for his concern can be found in this week’s MSU Reporter, the university’s student newspaper.
Thousands of dollars have been spent to give students several sober options on campus this weekend. The editor, Megan Kadlec, wrote a column saying there is little student interest in non-alcoholic events on campus. She also said the the students she knows use the weekend as an excuse to get drunk and would rather go to the bars or house parties instead of “some lame party on campus.”
A column by another writer in the same edition tells readers: “The goal is to drink as much as possible, laugh at people making asses of themselves and try not to throw up on yourself.”
There are other stories in the student newspaper that made reference to the 2003 campus area riot that started the alcohol abuse discussions in Mankato. But there was no mention of the deadly incidents that made alcohol more than a public safety issue, such as the intoxicated man who died after he fell off an apartment balcony during homecoming weekend, the college student who drank herself to death at a downtown bar, and the high school student who died from alcohol poisoning while drinking in a city park.
Kadlec said Wednesday she wasn’t aware of any of those incidents or the community forums that followed. She also said she disagreed with an email from Hurd saying the Reporter columns were promoting irresponsible drinking.
“It’s not promotional, it’s reflective of what college students are doing,” Kadlec said. “It’s what we’ve been told by everyone, including every media outlet.”
Hurd said he can understand why the Reporter writers don’t consider the consequences that can come with high-risk drinking. Both he and Westermayer pointed out that bars and liquor stores are full of sweet fruit-flavored liquors that cater to young people. Alcohol is heavily marketed on television, the Internet and in print advertising.
“This is a reflection of a culture that glorifies binge drinking,” Hurd said. “These students are merely reflecting what they’re seeing their parents and others doing.
“There’s no easy solutions for this problem and that’s why Matt is calling for a community solution for it. I’m happy the Public Safety Department is being proactive about this and admitting they can’t do everything. They need help.”