Bars and police give and take on the issuance of liquor licenses
Homer Simpson once said: “Here’s to alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
Alcohol has always been a point of contention in the United States. It has been the boon of toasts, a means of celebration, and an industry that has given life to Northwest culture from the vineyards of Oregon to the microbreweries of the Pacific Northwest.
But it has also been the bane of some, from the darkness of alcoholism to the tragedies that follow drinking and driving. Ironically, despite its use for celebration, alcohol is a depressant.
While the United States attempted to curb alcohol-related problems during Prohibition 80 some years ago, for most of American history it has been the only legal drug with intoxicant properties.
But in this state, booze is served with a tight leash. Washington’s liquor laws are extensive, making it clear the distribution and serving of alcohol is a privilege, not a right.
Bellingham’s downtown is home to a large concentration of establishments that serve alcohol. The Central Business District’s nightlife sizzles from Thursday to Sunday.
But for some, that sizzling has a burnt edge to it.
“Have you been downtown at night?” asked Bellingham Police Deputy Chief David Doll.
According to Doll, Chief Randy Carroll and Officer Mark Young, downtown has a drinking problem. The vibrant nightlife often requires a large amount of police resources to respond to calls, Carroll said.
“When all the police are at a fight at XYZ club, your neighborhood is unprotected,” he said.
Downtown does garner a lot of attention from the police. In 2006, 19 percent of the city’s alcohol offenses were from downtown, along with nearly a fifth of all assaults and calls for public order maintenance citywide. Those calls have alcohol on their breath.
“A majority of our calls are related to alcohol abuse,” Young said. “Whatever we can do to minimize that is in the public interest. We’re negligent if we do not.”
A license to serve
Alcohol is a legal — albeit controlled — drug. The reins of that control lay in the hands of the Liquor Control Board (LCB). Getting a license requires jumping through bureaucratic hoops, including passing the application by the Bellingham police for review. The LCB then reviews a slew of information about applicants, including criminal background, criminal activity or evidence of hidden ownership when determining whether to grant a liquor license.
As a matter of policy, the LCB notifies the local authority when an application is received. The local authority, typically the mayor’s office for cities, passes around the application to different municipal entities for review. Those entities include public works, the fire department and the planning department, as well as the police department.
In Bellingham, Young, Doll and Carroll review liquor license applications and make recommendations to the mayor, who advises the LCB of any concerns. Often, those concerns have to do with past history of the applicant. But recently, the police have taken a different approach. Carroll said a decade ago the police realized a reactive approach to liquor licenses wasn’t working.
“It’s harder to get a license back from a violator than it is to stop the issuance or object right in the beginning,” Carroll said.
State law does put a lot of responsibility for crimes that involve liquor on bars and taverns. Bars and servers can be penalized and even charged if someone drives after drinking at an establishment.
Two Bellingham bars — the Horseshoe Cafe and Downtown Johnny’s — are currently under the microscope of the LCB after the people accused of hitting and killing a 19-year-old man in June said they were drinking at those establishments. The allegations, based on what the two suspects said they did the night in question, have resulted in seven-day liquor license suspensions for the bars.
Two other bars also received scrutiny in the case. The suspects allegedly visited The Royal Inn and the State Street Depot. According to the LCB, bartenders at The Royal cut off the suspects and kicked them out.
The State Street Depot closed its doors in August after it withdrew its liquor license renewal application after receiving a letter from the mayor’s office and the Bellingham police to the LCB requesting the renewal not be granted. According to the LCB, the closure was due to allegations involving the hit-and-run death, but no charges have been filed against the establishment.
If someone pulled over for driving while under the influence says they’ve been drinking at a given bar, it becomes a black mark on the bar’s record. Some bar owners have voiced concern that people caught drinking and driving may name bars they were cut off at as retribution. But most bars have protection against false claims. Bartenders at Cap Hansen’s keep a log, in which they keep track of people they kick out, do not serve or have problems with. Owner John von Krusenstiern said most bars have something similar.
But there is no doubt that most drunk drivers come from places that serve alcohol. Perhaps that’s why the focus has shifted from the people driving drunk to the source of the alcohol.
“When you just arrest DUIs that come from one place, you’re treating the symptom, not the cause,” Young said.
Getting down to the cause has resulted in a preemptive approach when the police review a liquor license application. But the practice has some people concerned.
Kendrick’s Billiards owner Brian Rollo said he was surprised when he got a letter from the police objecting to the pool hall’s application for a license to serve beer and wine in 2005. He met with the police and came to an agreement about the license, but the experience raised some questions.
Rollo contends that by limiting the number of establishments that serve alcohol, downtown will not have enough to meet demand. That means the city guarantees those it does approve are successful, he said.
“The city shouldn’t be in the business of picking who wins and loses,” Rollo said. “The market takes care of itself. If there were too many bars serving alcohol, some would close.
“The fact is people are going to want to go to bars. Shutting down establishments will not solve problems. Prohibition showed us that.”
Several bars, including the State Street Depot and the Station Pub, have closed because of city objections. But others haven’t even gotten off the ground.
Von Krusenstiern and his wife had a deal in place to buy Chiribins, a now defunct bar on Magnolia Street. But the police nixed the deal after looking at the business plan and concerns about an unidentified past incident involving the von Krusenstierns.
Chiribins had been troubled, with numerous noise and over-service complaints, but not under the management of the von Krusenstiernses. Von Krusenstierns said the objection was due to the business plan and the area around the establishment and was not aware of any other factor.
The von Krusenstiernses had withdrawn an earlier application for a liquor license at the Chiribins location in order to meet with the city and address concerns. But in February, John told The Bellingham Business Journal the city was happy with the business plan and they reapplied for the license. But the license stalled again on police objections, and the deal to buy the establishment fell through.
The preemptive approach is also affecting the plans of one of Bellingham’s most cherished projects. The new Pickford Film Center, currently under construction at the Dreamspace on Bay Street, has been one of the most recent applicants to have the city object to its proposed license.The center applied for a license to serve beer and wine that patrons can take into the theater with them, typical of a trend among independent theaters that are serving alcohol.
Alice Clark, executive director of the Whatcom Film Association, said the LCB had no problems with the application, but the city had some concerns about the film center’s plan.
“I’m not thrilled about people being in a dark theater drinking alcohol,” Carroll said. “Human nature is ‘We’ll get away with what we can get away with.’”
Clark said the center is pursuing the liquor license as they envisioned, which would allow for alcohol to be consumed in the theater.
“We want to be able to offer this to our own community and feel we are all adult enough to handle it, just like other cities and theaters around the country,” Clark said. “Our clientele is not coming to the theater to get drunk. They are coming to see a movie.”
The Pickford has no documented calls for service, nor does the Whatcom Film Association have a past history at any other location. The police are basing their recommendation on what they perceive could happen, Carroll said.
For those businesses that do have a history, however, police recommendations are often based on the frequency and nature of past complaints. In the letter concerning the State Street Depot, the police included more than 100 calls during the past year from the establishment. Incidents involving alcohol violations were highlighted, including numerous complaints of over-service.
Calls to 9-1-1 play a big part in the police’s recommendation. Red flags include documented reports of over-service and inability to keep patrons under control, Young said.
“We look for calls to service that, in our estimation, are a management issue, not a routine police issue,” he said.
However, the list in the letter to the State Street Depot included calls such as violation of a court order, lost property and litter.
A bar owner who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution said the practice the police have of documenting every call for service to the establishment has many bar owners telling employees to not call 9-1-1.
While Young said he hoped that was not the case, he said bars need to find solutions to problems that do not require the police.
“If there’s a problem, there’s not always a police resolution,” Young said.
One downtown establishment changed the type of music played and created a dress code to help change the environment of the bar and alleviate problems, he said. Those changes were the owner’s ideas, not the police’s, he said.
“They saw the problem as well as we did,” Young said.
Young said repeatedly the police are not in the business of dictating management of establishments serving liquor downtown. But the police are making recommendations based primarily on management issues, and for a reason.
“The state liquor law doesn’t address management,” Young said.
In the letter concerning the renewal of the State Street Depot’s liquor license, management was tied to the type of music the bar played. According to the letter, Depot general manager Ben Gilmer told the police the amount of calls was due to the “hip hop” crowd at the bar, and he intended to stop playing rap music. The police and the liquor control board followed up on the promise and found the Depot was still “playing this kind of music and the bar was packed.”
Gilmer was unreachable for comment on this issue.
Young said he looks at the type of operation, the individual owners and if the establishment is a good fit for the area. However, the criteria for what is a “good fit” are a big gray area.
“Criteria is sort of an open-ended term,” Young said.
Music, management, whether minors will be allowed in the area — there’s nothing in writing limiting what the police and city can object to.
“They can object to a license for any reason,” said Brian Smith, spokesperson for the LCB. “Having said that, the local authority should have a good reason — typically related to public safety or youth access — why they’d object. Ultimately, the board has discretion.”
Even though the LCB has the final say, its ear is tuned to the local authority. A state law signed this summer formalized an existing policy to give considerable weight to objections from the local authority, if based on chronic illegal activity.
Liquor license applicants are not entirely subject to the whim of objections from the city. They can appeal a complaint from the local authority, but Doll said the process has never gone that far in Bellingham. Objections are usually based on documented reasons.
“It’s not arbitrary,” Doll said. “It’s focusing on public safety and the impact on our resources. There’s still due process and that’s what’s important.”
But according to one bar owner who wished to remain anonymous because of fear of retribution, the city and police are abusing their power by dictating culture downtown.
That may not be too far from the truth, at least as far as alcohol is concerned. The various city entities help create and enforce the vision for the Central Business District, Carroll said.
“We set the cultural standards for downtown,” he said. “You set the cultural standards for your business. It’s the culture that one establishes in the beginning of the business that really sets the tone of the business.”
Carroll said a liquor license is not necessarily an invitation for problems, but it does call for increased diligence.
“Does it invite trouble?” Carroll asked. “It depends on how one defines trouble. It certainly invites more responsibility and more demands than not having a license.”
Carroll said establishments such as bars can be a boon to the culture and safety of downtown, if managed well. Legitimate-use businesses often lower crime just by bringing people and activity to the area, he said.
“There are some wonderful drinking establishments in this town,” Doll said. “Their impact on the community is not a negative impact.”
But downtown businesses need to be responsible to the impact they have on the community, Carroll said.
“That word ‘responsible’ is very important,” he said. “I don’t see why we should fence off downtown and let people drink and fight.”
Carroll said not every call the police make is the right one, but they do have good intentions.
“If we’re going to make an error, we’re going to make an error in the direction of public safety,” Young said.