Alcohol-related police charges have decreased in several categories since people younger than 21 were banned from Iowa City bars at night in 2010, a Gazette review of six years’ worth of police data shows.
For example, public intoxication arrests by Iowa City and University of Iowa police decreased 11 percent in the first three years of the law compared with the three years immediately before it took effect in June 2010. (See chart.)
Also dropping were citations of underage people for possession of alcohol (down by 33 percent), the misuse of identification cards like driver’s licenses (11 percent) and arrests for driving under the influence (1.8 percent).
In the run-up to a Nov. 5 election on whether to repeal Iowa City’s so-called 21-only law, which prevents people younger than 21 from being in bars after 10 p.m., supporters say these statistics show the ordinance is working.
“I wouldn’t have guessed in 2010 that in 2013 that we would be looking at numbers like this,” said Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek, co-chairman of the 21 Makes Sense campaign committee. “I thought they would be positive. I didn’t know they would be this positive.”
The question is whether the majority of voters agree the law is a positive. If 50 percent vote for repeal, 19- and 20-year-olds again would be allowed in Iowa City bars at night.
The City Council adopted the 21-only law in spring 2010 after years of trying to get a handle on what many people considered out-of-control drinking among young people, particularly at downtown bars.
An attempt to overturn the law was rejected by voters in November 2010, with 52 percent supporting it. The public also voted on 21-only in 2007 and elected to keep the bar-entry age at 19.
This past spring, two representatives of downtown bars collected enough signatures to get the issue back before voters.
The Gazette combined Iowa City and UI police statistics from June 2007 through May 2010 and June 2010 through May 2013. The numbers are citywide, but downtown remains the most popular spot for drinking in Iowa City.
Not every alcohol category was down. With the bar-entry age raised, the number of arrests for being in a bar underage increased 492 percent in the three years post-21-only.
A category kept only by Iowa City police that includes open containers in public and in a vehicle, selling and providing alcohol to a minor, selling or consuming alcohol in an establishment after hours and bootlegging went up nearly 33 percent.
And disorderly house citations increased 83 percent. In 2010, opponents of 21-only predicted drinking would shift from downtown bars to house parties.
The large increases in underage bar goers and disorderly houses meant that in the seven categories The Gazette tracked, total charges were only down 0.2 percent in the 21-only law’s first three years versus the three years before it started.
Supporters of the law, however, said it’s to be expected that more underage people would be caught in a bar because it’s now illegal for 19- and 20-year-olds to be in drinking establishments after 10 p.m.
Also, in the past three years Iowa City police stepped up “party patrols” to try to limit the effect of house parties, and police Chief Sam Hargadine said the increase in disorderly house charges stems from that.
Representatives from neighborhood associations near downtown said parties have not been a major problem and spoke in favor of keeping 21-only.
“The neighborhoods are quieter,” said Pam Michaud, who rents rooms out of her home on College Street just east of downtown.
Michael Kessler, a 19-year-old UI student who is chairman of Young Adults for Equality and Safety, the campaign committee pushing for a repeal of the law, said underage people continue to drink. But now they start imbibing at their homes early in the evening, go to the bars until 10 p.m. and then go house parties, he said.
This leads to longer periods of drinking occurring away from trained bar staff, he said.
“At these off-campus parties, there’s no one sober to take care of them,” Kessler said.
The UI was named the nation’s top “party school” in August by the Princeton Review.
But statistics compiled by the city of Iowa City show decreases in calls for service in the area around downtown and the UI campus for assaults, fights in progress, criminal mischief, sexual assaults, emergency medical responses by the fire department and more.
A survey of UI students last spring found the prevalence, frequency and intensity of high-risk drinking had decreased since 2009.
Tom Rocklin, UI vice president for student life and another 21 Makes Sense campaign co-chairman, said it’s not just data that make him believe 21-only has changed the drinking behavior of UI students. He said he could not find any students in 2010 in favor of the law.
Now, he said, “I talk to lots of students who think it’s a good idea.”
Katherine Valde, president of UI Student Government and a 21 Makes Sense co-chairwoman, believes 21-only has made students safer. She also doubts the ability of opponents of the law to generate significant interest among students given that so many are new to the community in the past three years.
“I think it’s hard to make their argument that you want to go back to something you haven’t seen,” said Valde, who is 21.
Sarah Purcell, a 21-year-old UI student, said underage students still find ways to drink. She also said bars are places for people socialize, eat and watch sports – not just to drink.
She believes the law treats college students as if they are not adults. As someone who works two jobs and pays her own way for school, that offends her.
“They give you all the responsibilities and then act like you’re not responsible enough to be in a bar downtown after 10,” Purcell said.
Yet 21-only opponents have been much quieter than in 2010. Kessler was the only leader of the repeal effort’s leadership who would be interviewed for this story.
The UI’s Rocklin believes that is a campaign tactic meant to reduce off-campus interest in the issue. Nov. 5 is a city election only, with no state and federal races to spur voter turnout.
“Honestly, they have nothing to say in a debate,” Rocklin said. “There are no facts that support their position.”