The life of an undercover alcohol agent

At the age of 7, Ken Van Horn walked into a Lawson’s drug store in Warren with his parents. As the family shopped, a robber entered the facility, grabbed Van Horn by his hair and threw him to the ground.

“The area I grew up in wasn’t the best, so that incident definitely motivated me to go into law enforcement,” Van Horn said.

Today, Van Horn is an enforcement agent for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, specializing in crimes linked to alcohol.

He visits Youngstown State University, Kent State University and the University of Akron to work with local law enforcement agencies to solve alcohol-related problems.

He first came to YSU in 2001 at the request of John Gocala, YSU’s police chief at the time.

Van Horn has 19 years of police experience and began working for the state in 2001.

He grew up in Warren and graduated from KSU. After graduating from the Warren police academy, he worked for the Windham Village and Vienna Township police departments.

His job requires him to work undercover, so when he accepted his current position, he said he had a tough time transitioning from being uniformed every day to looking like a civilian.

“I was able to grow facial hair and wear whatever I wanted,” Van Horn said. “I almost went back to my old department because it felt odd to me.”

He said, at the time, Youngstown had problems with bars in the area serving alcoholic beverages to minors.

Since 2001, the investigative unit has shut down approximately seven bars, which Van Horn says is a “relatively high number.”

“YSU doesn’t have problems like Kent and Akron do,” Van Horn said.

YSU Police Chief John Beshara said he appreciates that the task force is readily available.

“Ken provides a great service for the police department,” Beshara said.

He added that Van Horn and his team have taken in YSUPD officers to train them on how to efficiently deal with situations when someone is drinking underage, whether in a bar or at a party.

He said that, while Youngstown’s problems are with bars, Kent’s and Akron’s are with house parties.

“I’ve seen them drag couches into the street being lit on fire on other campuses,” Van Horn said.

YSU is proactive in preventing problems like this before they occur, Van Horn said.

He said staffing is an issue. The unit is made up of 13 men who cover 16 counties from Trumbull to Mansfield.

He relies on local law enforcement agencies to be active in preventing alcohol-related problems.

“That’s what makes YSU unique. They stop the problems before they happen,” Van Horn said.

He said it’s beneficial that he no longer has to witness as much domestic violence, since most of his work is undercover.

The hardest part, he said, is not being able to talk to his wife about why he may have had a bad day.

Although the emotional toll for the most part doesn’t get to him, certain situations do.

“What really bothered me was when two kids wrecked a car and died,” Van Horn said. “We had to reconstruct what happened, find out where they got the alcohol. But in these cases, I confide in other agents.”

Since coming to YSU, Van Horn said the task force has made around 1,500 alcohol-related arrests.

Looking forward, he hopes to bring safety to the community by preventing underage drinkers from getting behind the wheel.

“What we’re trying to do is stop things from going wrong before they happen,” Van Horn said.

“We’ve done a better job with violations because of them,” Beshara said. “We have a zero-tolerance policy. If there is an alcohol violation, it’s going on paper, and they’ve worked with our guys to make sure we’re doing it right.”

Outside of work, Van Horn has a 6-year-old son who says he would like to be a police officer one day.

Van Horn will support him no matter what but said, “I hope he doesn’t.”