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Germany

Public Drinking Patrols Pursue Wily Drinkers

An initiative in an area of Berlin that was introduced to clean up public spaces and prevent people drinking alcohol in the parks is facing a challenge to enforce its prohibition.

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It doesn't matter if it's a hot day, the patrols don't want to see this

Berlin's local authorities recently decided to clean up the city's parks and green spaces. One of their aims is to stop people drinking alcoholic beverages there.

But that hasn't prevented some drinkers from finding spots where they can open their bottles undisturbed.

One of those flaunting the law is Frank Schulz, head of the urban planning department in the Kreuzberg district. He and some friends are here to enjoy a glass of wine in the park after work. They don't intend to let the law -- or the rain clouds -- spoil their private happy hour.

The average German drinks 140 liters (37 gallons) of beer and wine a year, and most don't see anything wrong in having a drink in the park. Schulz says he's against any American-style general prohibition on public drinking.

Bierabsatz sinkt

"I think it would be a step backwards," said Schulz. "And I'm not sure how far proponents of the idea want to go and what they want to achieve. They can't seriously want to see people hiding their beer and wine bottles in brown paper bags like you see in New York. Isn't that a little hypocritical and out of step with the times? I think we should definitely avoid going that down that road."

CDU counterpart favors "zero tolerance"

Nevertheless, Schulz's counterpart in Reinickendorf, Michael Wegner from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is all for an American-style "zero-tolerance" policy. "I think New York under Giuliani showed the way. Singapore is another example, and Berlin could learn a few things from them."

Wegner is aggressively targeting public drinking in his district in northern Berlin. "There are three aspects here in Reinickendorf where we're paying especially close attention," he said.

"We go in there and try to inform people, tell them what the law is and clean things up that way. But that often doesn't work very well, and then we have to ban people, start official enforcement proceedings and impose fines," Wegner added.

Summer heat means busy time for patrols

Patrols in Wegner's district have been especially busy this summer. Although the temperatures make a cold beer out-of-doors especially attractive, the rule in Reinickendorf is still "zero tolerance."

So what do Berliners think about trying to keep drinking out of the parks? One lady admitted to being firmly in favor: "You see lots of these little groups of alcoholics just hanging out, and I don't think that's good. It just encourages others to do the same thing, especially teenagers."

However, members of the male population of Reinickendorf have different ideas. "I think it's a waste of time, because I don't really see a problem here in Berlin. It doesn't bother me -- occasionally I'll have a beer out on the streets too," one man said.

Public place, public choice, say drinkers

Alcopops

"That's part of what goes on in public spaces. It's one of the things that makes a park what it is," another added. A third gave a more ambiguous answer: "I don't think banning alcohol is wrong, but I don't know if people should be punished either."

"Let the people live the way they want to live -- and besides, the police can't check what's inside every single bottle," a fourth man concluded.

Critics of the crackdown worry that it will lead to parks being empty and unused. "A park that's always empty is a park that has lost its purpose and its justification for being a park and a public space," Kreuzberg's Frank Schulz said.

Offenders finding new ways and new places to drink

And even Michael Wegner sometimes wonders whether his zero-tolerance policy works. "In the area around Gorkistrasse it's become a kind of game -- we chase them 150 meters up the street and then back, between the park benches in the pedestrian area and then to the playground a little further off," he lamented.

"Depending on where the patrols and the police are active, they disappear for two weeks and then they come right back."

But the law is the law, and the patrols aren't about to end.

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