Isla Vista Drinking, Crime Targeted

Special to The Times

In this college town of 20,000 people, beer consumption is estimated at more than 9,000 kegs a year -- and that has some officials looking for ways to curb the raucous party scene that has made the area famous.

For Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Lt. Tom McKinney, who arrives each Monday morning to a stack of weekend arrest reports, it’s not just a matter of parties that get out of control. He says that so much drinking leads to physical and sexual assaults in this small town next to the UC Santa Barbara campus.

McKinney and other community leaders say that keeping track of those 9,000 barrels of beer -- the number distributors estimate they sell within Isla Vista -- may help in the fight to reduce serious crimes.


Officials hope that holding party hosts and keg buyers legally responsible for serving alcohol to minors will lead to decreases in the number of large parties and the number of minors who imbibe.

Jerry Jolly, acting director of the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, agrees. In December, the state agency awarded $50,000 each to the Sheriff’s Department and five other police agencies as part of an effort to battle binge and underage drinking near college campuses.

In Isla Vista, the money mostly is being used to assign more officers to enforce laws against drinking. The ABC also sent officials to meet local vendors who sell alcohol.

But that wasn’t enough for school, county and law enforcement leaders who have been working for years to curb what one official calls “ragers” -- huge house parties stocked with kegs of beer and flocks of under-21 revelers.

Local officials are seeking an additional $100,000 in state money to prevent the sale of alcohol to minors.

While most officials agree that there is no single answer, kegs are a “big problem,” McKinney said -- especially as the Sheriff’s Department cracks down on fake IDs and lax vendors.


“We want to send a message: What goes on out here is not acceptable,” he said. “We’re trying to hold people responsible for holding open parties and serving to minors.”

One of the problems, police say, is that registration tags used to track beer kegs are simply stickers, which people can -- and do -- tear off the minute they leave the store. If Isla Vista officials can devise a more accurate way to track the beer, they will be able to find out who is throwing the big parties.

“It’s one thing to have a Super Bowl party with 30 of your friends,” said Mark Chaconas, an assistant to the area’s county supervisor. “It’s another thing to have a rager with 300 of your ‘closest friends.’ When we do have parties that rise to the attention of law enforcement, we want to be able to go in there and find out who bought 15 kegs.”

Bryan Brown, who has lived in Isla Vista for almost seven years, said most residents are just as sick of the out-of-control parties as police are. But he cautioned that students fear that new regulations might go too far.

“It is a minority that is holding these large parties,” Brown said. “Most people here can have a get-together and not have it get out of hand.”

On a Friday last month, Jolly took a stroll through Isla Vista. The 29-year ABC veteran said he was shocked by the number of people attending house parties and milling around the streets. In most campus communities, he said, drinking is concentrated around bars and clubs, making it easier to regulate.


“What surprised me, quite frankly, was that it didn’t get out of hand,” he said. “I’m amazed that the sheriff’s office does as well as they do with the resources they have -- and we want to offer more resources.... For students this is a tradition. But what I think we can do is put in some more checks and balances.”

As part of the new campaign, the Sheriff’s Department also hopes to drive home the point that parties should be in apartments and houses, not in the middle of public streets. And McKinney wants UC Santa Barbara and Isla Vista to send the message that they’re trying to change.

“College kids drink, but we want them to do it responsibly so I don’t have to come in on Monday morning and see how many people were beat up or sexually assaulted over the weekend,” McKinney said.