Police more proactive about liquor license
Photo by Isaac Bonnell
Last summer, Steve Duthie got a letter. It looked like a form letter from some city department, so he left it on the counter to look at later.
At the time, he had been hearing rumors that other bar owners like himself were receiving letters telling them that the city did not support the renewal of their liquor license. Such a disapproving vote from the city was almost a certain sign that the business would not receive a new permit from the Liquor Control Board.
At least, that is how it was perceived. Contesting the police recommendation in front of the LCB could be costly and difficult. Thus the mysterious letter had become the black dot of the bar scene.
When Duthie finally got around to opening that letter, he discovered that he was a marked man. The police department objected to the renewal of the liquor license for his establishment, The Rogue Hero.
“I was pretty bent out of shape about it,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to lose this place. It just caused me to spend a lot of money with my attorney to prove my innocence.”
Duthie knew that things had been getting a bit rowdy downtown, but he also knew he wasn’t the cause of it. Sure, the bar had been increasingly crowded, but there never seemed to be problems inside the bar, just outside.
In his opinion, there were a handful of bars that had relaxed their standards to the point that over-serviced customers were causing problems at other establishments downtown.
“It made it look like all of us were guilty,” Duthie said. “There were two or three places that over-served customers and didn’t do downtown any service in doing so.”
Duthie eventually won the battle to renew his liquor license and this year the renewal process went smoothly, due to a much improved relationship with the police department.
Accept or reject
The fear of complicating liquor licenses had escalated to a point last year where bar owners and their staff were afraid of calling the police for any reason because it might count against them when it came time to renew their license.
At the time, the police were basing their accept or reject recommendations on the number of times they had to come to an establishment for a serious reason.
“Back then, our accept or reject issues were based on the impact to the police department,” said Deputy Police Chief David Doll. “If we saw an establishment that had a huge amount of calls for service and they weren’t making improvements based on recommendations we had made, then we would say ‘we can’t support this renewal or this application.’”
That proved to be an unpopular strategy and the Police Department has since moved to a more proactive system.
“Now what we do is provide the city attorney’s office with information on the impact of calls for service of a potential applicant then they make the recommendation,” Doll said.
This allows the city attorney to take into consideration other factors besides the impact on the Police Department, Doll said.
If a troubling trend should arise from the police data, Crime Prevention Officer Mark Young is the man who makes the first call.
“If I see something that has some issues, but not overwhelming issues, then I will get in touch with that establishment and just share with them the information that I have,” Young said. “I think the overwhelming response I get is ‘Thank you for letting us know.’”
Now that the lines of communication are open on both sides of the table, Young said, he receives calls from bar owners wanting to check their calls for service before their liquor license comes up from renewal. If there are any noticeable problems, Young helps them resolve those issues.
“It’s information that is right at the tip of their fingers. They just need to make a phone call and check it out,” he said. “However, I think it’s important for the establishments to know that it’s not something that we check everyday. It’s just information that comes to us in the course of doing business.”
Most downtown bar owners agree that the once-stressful relationship has now eased. Security staff are encouraged to call the police if problems should arise and the Police Department has made it known they are not out to get bar owners.
“We want these businesses to be successful and we want a successful and vibrant downtown, too,” Doll said. “We’re as dedicated as any department to making downtown thrive. And we need [bar owners] to call us when there’s a problem.”
“We’re not in the business of telling people how to run their business,” Young added. “Our business is making establishments safer for commerce. I think bar owners know that we’re a partner in helping their business.”
Both Doll and Young point to organizations like the Campus Community Coalition, which helped bring both parties together and ease tensions.
After analyzing the police data made available to him after he got the letter, Duthie was able to prove that most of the problems were occurring outside his bar, as he had suspected.
Those problems have now dissipated, but Duthie said he still feels the effects of being marked as a problem establishment. He estimates that he has lost at least $186,000 in revenue, including the money spent proving his case, since receiving the letter.
However, Duthie said he is no longer worried about losing his liquor license. In fact, he has taken over the space next door, which was formerly a Chinese restaurant, and is in the process of expanding the bar to include booth seating and more pool tables. He said he hopes the business will become more of a restaurant than a bar.
Though the economy is tough right now, Duthie said he believes this is a good time to expand: “It’s better for me to step forward than to step back,” he said.
And with the help of local law enforcement, it will be a safe and fun place to enjoy a drink.