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Violent arrest at UVA: Should alcohol officers act like cops? (+video)

UVA student Martese Johnson was bloodied during an arrest by Virginia alcohol-enforcement officers. Studies suggest such officers can play a key role in reducing illegal drinking, but critics say they need better training. 

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University of Virginia student Martese Johnson was on hand as fellow students protested for him Wednesday in Charlottesville. Mr. Johnson was bloodied during an arrest Wednesday by state Alcoholic Beverage Control agents.

Andrew Shurtleff/The Daily Progress/AP

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The arrest and injury of University of Virginia student Martese Johnson sparked more of the “black lives matter” protests that have become familiar in the wake of police actions against unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and beyond. In the wake of protests that drew more than 1,000 students, Virginia's Gov. Terry McAuliffe has asked state police to launch an independent investigation into what happened outside an Irish pub during St. Patrick's Day celebrations.

But whether racial bias was at play is just one of the questions raised by the actions of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage and Control (ABC) agents who arrested Mr. Johnson outside a Charlottesville bar early Wednesday morning. 

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Another key question is: How well trained are these enforcement agents – who in Virginia and a number of other states have the power to arrest and carry firearms – particularly when it comes to interacting with young adults?

Alcohol is a fraught issue on college campuses, from alcohol poisoning to its role in sexual assault and other crimes. Studies show that enforcement is an effective tool for cutting down on such abuses, and dedicated enforcement officers are one way to ensure that alcohol-related violations are policed.

But how to enforce those laws while protecting the rights of citizens will be an important question going forward. And, given that ABC agents retain police powers, they should be receiving the mandatory cultural training that police officers do, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union say.

This is not the first time the agents have prompted complaints from college students in Virginia. Two years ago, UVA student Elizabeth Daly was approached at night in a grocery store parking lot by plainclothes ABC agents who mistook a case of water for alcohol. She and two passengers were in her sport utility vehicle and left the parking lot while they were calling 911 because they were frightened of the men, not understanding they were law-enforcement officers. She sued and won a settlement from the department.

In the wake of that case, ABC implemented a number of changes, including requiring the presence of a uniformed officer during such enforcement operations. It also said in a press release that it would, “through training and other reinforcement ... promote a reasonable, common-sense philosophy regarding the correlation between the seriousness of an offense and the agent’s response, ensuring the response is proportional to the suspected offense.”

An ABC spokesperson was not able to respond in time for publication to the Monitor’s questions regarding the type of training its enforcement agents receive.

The officers involved in Wednesday’s incident were uniformed. They have been assigned to administrative duties while state police investigate whether they used excessive force in arresting Johnson. But to some observers, it’s clear that better training is still needed – among ABC agents and more broadly across law enforcement.

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“These are not isolated overreactions on the part of rogue officers. These kinds of incidents are happening every day in America, emblematic of a growing tension over the use of militarized police to perform relatively routine tasks,” says John Whitehead, a constitutional lawyer and president of The Rutherford Institute.

In the incident with the 20-year-old Johnson, one witness told reporters that an ABC agent grabbed him by the arm when there was a question outside the bar about his ID. He was charged with public intoxication and obstruction of justice. Photos and videos from the arrest show him on the ground with a bloody face. 

An arrest related to alcohol violations “certainly doesn’t need to result in an injury,” and better community policing tactics can help prevent that, says Dana Schrad, executive director of Virginia’s Association of Chiefs of Police and Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

Once the state investigation is complete, she says, her group will reach out to ABC to help the agency examine policies and how it interacts with local law enforcement agencies.

ABC has a “unique challenge” because it does specialized regulatory work relating to alcohol sales and licensing, but also overlaps with general law enforcement, Ms. Schrad says.

ABC is also a resource for education and prevention, which is a growing priority on college campuses because of the link between alcohol and safety concerns ranging from drunk driving to sexual assault, Schrad says. “Our campuses have talked about how they need to work more closely with ABC,” she says.

Virginia is one of 18 alcohol control states, which have a monopoly over the sale of some categories of alcohol. But regardless of whether the state controls sales, many states have special agents to enforce alcohol licensing and consumption laws.

Thirty-five states had such agents at the time of a 2005 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Agents in 33 states (including Virginia) carried firearms.

But the number of agents and their resources is low for effective enforcement of alcohol laws, the NHTSA report concluded. And research has shown that alcohol violations, such as impaired driving, decline when enforcement is stepped up. In Virginia, 150 agents were responsible for monitoring 15,000 retail establishments, compared with an average of 54 agents per state for about 14,000 retailers, the report noted.

“There is a lot of concern that if you do not have a dedicated alcohol law enforcement entity, the focus on alcohol-related compliance can get diluted,” says Steve Schmidt, senior vice president of the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association in Alexandria Va., a member organization for control states. He says Idaho is trying to increase its number of agents, while there are efforts in Maine, which transitioned away from dedicated agents for alcohol enforcement, to bring them back.

The Cavalier Daily reported in 2013 that ABC stepped up enforcement efforts that year, specifically around “the Corner,” a hub of social activity near campus that includes the location of Johnson’s arrest just outside the Trinity Irish Pub. 

Alcohol enforcement, or lack thereof, can have a significant impact on college students. Each year about 1,700 college students die from alcohol poisoning or injuries, 700,000 are assaulted by classmates who were drinking, and nearly 100,000 are victims of alcohol-related rape or other sexual assault, according to a 2007 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Campus binge drinking rates were found to be 31 percent lower in states with four or more laws targeting high-volume sales of alcohol, according to a 2005 Harvard study.

But how to enforce those laws without harming students and other citizens will likely be at the center of the debate in Virginia.

At a rally supporting him Wednesday night, the Associated Press reports that Johnson told the crowd: "I beg for you guys to please respect everyone here… We really are one community."