West Valley Police Chief Dennis Nordfelt said those in law enforcement learned long ago that teenage drinking leads to juvenile crime.
"We also learned a long time ago that we don't have the resources to fight it alone," Nordfelt said.But if a program that partners police with local retailers is successful, police won't be the only ones battling this growing problem.
Dubbed "Cops in Shops," the program, which was unveiled earlier this week, was conceived by the Century Council, a non-profit corporation formed five years ago by 17 members of the Alcohol Beverage Industry.
Earlier this week, local officials got together to offer a collective "buyer beware" warning to underage drinkers.
It's funded through state grant money and pays off-duty officers to work undercover in participating stores.
These plainclothes officers pose as store employees and watch for young-looking people attempting to buy liquor. The Century Council also provides participating retailers with signs that let people know a cop may be working in the store.
"Our objective here is not to make arrests," said Nordfelt. "It's to prevent (teens) from even attempting to buy alcohol."
Nordfelt said he's convinced the program, already being hailed in other states, will work in Utah.
"I'm absolutely convinced will save some lives this summer," he said.
Liquor law violations in Salt Lake County have increased by almost 2,000 offenses in the past three years. One of the most dangerous aspects of teenage drinkers is that the tend to "binge" drink, which is defined as having more than five drinks in a row.
Shelley Thomas, vice-president of Smith's Food and Drug Center's public relations, said the firm was approached by several local police agencies and asked to participate in the program."We said, `heck yes!' " Thomas said. "This does not take the pressure off the retailer (to ask for identification), but what it does is add a preventative component."
Despite rigorous training and strict rules, Thomas said the store clerks need more help enforcing liquor laws. One problem is that young people have become increasingly sophisticated in creating fake identification, she said.
Another problem is teens asking adults to buy liquor for them and then waiting in the parking lot. The undercover officers will also be looking for handoffs in the parking lot, she said.
Salt Lake Police Chief Ruben Ortega said his department relishes the chance to work in tandem with private companies. He points to statistical evidence that many juvenile problems are linked to drinking.
"It's the beginning of even more serious problems. . . . (It's) the gateway," he said. "There's not enough we can do to minimize or stop this problem."