University of Minnesota police are trying a new tactic to prevent students from becoming victims of crime. They’re cracking down on student drinking.

Alcohol was a factor in a string of robberies that made headlines last year, said UMPD Chief Greg Hestness.

“A lot” of victims were under the influence of alcohol, which made them easy targets for criminals, Hestness said. “Not in all cases,” he hastened to add. “But it’s a factor.”

Hestness said that the university has long had a “zero tolerance” policy against underage drinking. But this fall, the department decided to step up enforcement as part of a broader effort to prevent more serious crimes.

The first weekend in September, three plainclothes officers were sent to popular student gathering spots, such as Dinkytown, to watch for alcohol violations. They issued 89 citations for underage drinking or public consumption that first weekend, and 49 more since then, said Sgt. Jim Nystrom.

“It’s always part of what we do,” he noted, but students tend to be more on guard around uniformed police officers. This was the first time, he said, that they sent plainclothes officers to “specifically target” drinking violations. And they plan to keep doing it.

Minneapolis police Inspector Kathy Waite, who is working with the university police on the safety campaign, told members of the Board of Regents Thursday that “most of our victims are heavily under the influence of alcohol.”

Some are so intoxicated that they can’t help police solve the crimes.

“They don’t even necessarily recall where they were,” she said. “It makes it extremely difficult to move forward on those investigations.”

Hestness cited one case this summer, when two young researchers were robbed at gunpoint near the law school. “The suspects noticed they were pretty intoxicated and followed them,” he said. “They’ve kind of got their eyes out for people who are under the influence.”

Hestness acknowledged that, by focusing on student drinking, he may be criticized for “blaming the victim.” But alcohol, he said, “is such a factor in their vulnerability. … If you’re walking alone, if you’re under the influence, all those things increase your risk.”

Some OK with move

Last fall, the university saw a spike in sexual assaults and robberies in and around the campus, prompting a major effort to improve safety, from new streetlights and cameras to added police patrols.

Some students welcomed the crackdown on illegal drinking as one more step in that direction.

“I think it’s a good idea … because it makes everyone vulnerable,” said Lauren Thompson, 20, a fine arts student from Woodbury.

Ryan Koster, a 2012 graduate who works as a campus pastor, agreed. “The police crackdown lets students know this is something that’s important,” he said.

But John Makielski, an 18-year-old freshman from Fergus Falls, Minn., was a bit wary of the message it may send. “If you’re a victim of a crime, you’re a victim,” he said. “I don’t think it’s your fault.”

He added that U students have “a lot of good resources” to protect themselves, including the Gopher Chauffeur program, a free shuttle service for students. “I think students need to be proactive as well,” he said.

Caitlin Parsley, a 19-year-old junior from Fairmont, Minn., said she had no problem with the extra scrutiny on alcohol use. “If it’s illegal, like with underage drinking, I think all around it seems like a good move.”