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La Crosse struggles to stop drinking and drowning

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Fence
Riverside Park is La Crosse's gateway to the Mississippi River and the city's downtown.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

It's midnight and zero degrees. Rachael Collins and another volunteer are trudging up and down Riverside Park. You can't hear the river or the downtown, just three blocks away. 

Collins is a volunteer with the student organization River Watch, run by the city's three colleges. She is looking for drunk people. River Watch formed last fall after a drunk student fell off the park's levee and drowned in the Mississippi.     Collins points to the river. It's black and almost indistinguishable from asphalt. There's no fence. She imagines a kid leaving downtown -- drunk and disoriented. 

"You can see that in their mind they're thinking, 'Oh, I'm gonna go try to find my way home on a street.' And they'll follow it down and end up in the water thinking it's a road," Collins says. 

Collins and others patrol the park between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. But it covers just half a mile of La Crosse's seven-mile riverfront.

After a 2004 drowning, the city created the Alcohol Task Force, which proposed an extensive plan to deal with binge drinking and river safety. Two years and another drowning later, most of the ideas are still under consideration. Binge drinking in the city is still common.

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If you ask people in western Wisconsin to define binge drinking, some would say it's 10 or more drinks in a night. Others would say it's drinking for several days in a row. Experts define binge drinking as consuming five drinks or more in one sitting. Police say western Wisconsin is second in the nation for binge drinking. 

There's plenty of opportunity. La Crosse has 137 full liquor licenses. About one-quarter of the city's 50,000 residents are college students. In comparison, Rochester, with 100,000 people, has only 70 licenses. 

La Crosse's downtown is full of bars, and on a Friday night it's also full of students. Sgt. Craig Oleson is cruising through the area at 1 a.m. With the city's prompting, the police department increased patrols during bar time.

"Probably the biggest thing that I look out for are the drunk drivers. Intoxicated people walking around and might need some sort of a welfare check," Oleson says. 

He watches a few women in tank tops and heels almost topple over as they run into a bar. One guy runs into the street and nearly body-slams Oleson's patrol car. Oleson doesn't even blink. 

La Crosse police are also paying particular attention to underage drinking and house parties. 

[The problem is] five dollars all you can drink. I mean one thing adds to another, and at the end of the night you've got an extremely intoxicated person who blows four times the legal limit.

The 2005 task force recommended fewer bars, and no more late-night drink specials. The city is still considering these proposals.

Oleson drives onto a bike path that runs alongside the La Crosse River. He stops and shines his spotlight into the brush along the riverbank.

He says a few weeks ago, three students were reported drunk and missing. One woman had left a downtown bar drunk. Oleson says she got confused and panicked. 

"She ran right into the river. And she waded across the river which is about waist deep and it's a fast current. She lost her shoes and ripped her pants. And she got up, walked into Festival Foods and asked for help," Oleson says.

This happened even as a volunteer police patrol was watching the riverfront that night, in addition to the regular police patrol.

Former City Council member and former student Andy Monfre served on the city's Alcohol Task Force. He wants a fence along the river and a gate at Riverside Park's levee, where the last two students likely fell into the Mississippi. 

Monfre believes the city won't install either because most of the drowning victims are students. 

"A lot of the La Crosse residents do have a little bit of friction between the university because they're saying, 'Hey, this is our river. We don't have a problem with drowning down there. It's the students who are coming in and binge drinking in our town, and why should we change what we're doing because of them,'" he says.   La Crosse Mayor Mark Johnsrud isn't so sure.

"In general this isn't just a student issue," he says. "If you look at the budget for the La Crosse Police Department, we have a $9 million budget, and our officers spend well over 50 percent of their time dealing with alcohol-related problems -- whether it be drunk driving, domestic violence, domestic abuse."                    

Johnsrud says a gate won't solve this chronic problem. But he says it will hurt tourism, the city's second-leading industry. 

Instead, Johnsrud proposes fining people for public intoxication. He also wants to enforce a law that would ticket bartenders and bars for serving alcohol to people who seem intoxicated. 

Chad Longway, vice president of the La Crosse County Tavern League, says taverns aren't to blame for alcohol problems. 

"The taverns in the city of La Crosse sell 29 percent of the product. Seventy-one percent of the product is sold at convenience stores, grocery stores, gas stations," says Longway. "So we sell a very small percentage of the product, but we seem to get 100 percent of the blame." 

Longway says students come to the downtown bars after drinking for hours at house parties. He says someone can easily walk up to the bar with a fifth of vodka in him and look sober. It's the next drink that might put him over the edge. Longway says bartenders can't know that, and shouldn't be blamed for the cumulitive effect. 

He also says fining kids for drinking doesn't help. He says police have been fining underage drinking at house parties for years. 

"That has not deterred underage people from drinking. So I think we have to start by education. This is not going to change in the next six months and the next 12 months. This is going to have to educate the next generation of people," he says.

Officials at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse say the school already does a lot of alcohol education. They say society glamorizes alcohol use and that fuels the fire.

Marching and shivering around the park, River Watch volunteers Rachael Collins and Reuben Bigjohn say people drink in groups and the drinking snowballs. 

"I mean it's hard to, you know..." Bigjohn starts.

"...To get it to stop?" a reporter asks.

"Yeah. To get yourself to stop, too. You got the peer pressure, and..." he says.

"Drink specials," Collins cuts in. "Five dollars - all you can drink! I mean, one thing adds to another, and at the end of the night you've got an extremely intoxicated person who blows four times the legal limit," she says.

Collins thinks people should be drinking at home. But as police reports show, whether  students drink at home or at a bar, too many then get into trouble, whether it's breaking  into someone else's home, vandalizing storefronts or even running straight into a river.