An array of bars got hit with liquor violations this month after a Durango Police Department sting operation.
Three bartenders were given citations for serving minors July 14; two more establishments were given verbal warnings.
“It’s so serious when they violate that,” Cmdr. Ray Shupe said. “We do the compliance checks because we’re trying to curb that. It’s proactive liquor establishment checks.”
Last December, Colorado Pongas was in danger of losing its liquor license after it was suspected of multiple violations. In January, the pool hall and watering hole struck an agreement with the Durango Local Licensing Board that allowed it to stay open.
As part of the agreement, the bar sent employees to trainings with the DPD about liquor laws. The DPD engagement team used the deal to form a new program that consists of an education program and random checks on liquor establishments to ensure they’re not overserving or selling to underage customers.
“The big thing that we try to do to combat that is to get the establishments to help us with that,” Shupe said. “We do the education piece first because we want to gain voluntary compliance, and then we do the compliance checks just to make sure that they’re doing what they’re supposed to.”
A couple of weeks before the operation, DPD’s community engagement team went to as many establishments as they could to spread the word that an operation would be occurring over the next several weeks. Any business that sells alcohol is subject to the checks.
“They hit as many of them as they could,” Cmdr. Jacob Dunlop said. “They didn’t hit all of them, but they asked neighboring establishments to spread the word. There was some advanced notice.”
However, Elena Devin, manager of Joel’s Bar, said she wasn’t aware of the police doing random searches on bars and hadn’t heard of the classes they were offering.
“The only time I talk to the police is when they come in,” Devin said. “They’ll come in and just kind of watch. They’ll talk to some people and check their IDs.”
Rick Carney, owner of Moe’s Starlight Lounge, said despite the department’s good intentions, the constant police presence is hurting his business.
“I have always supported the Durango Police Department and I too want what’s best for the community,” Carney said. “But right now, it feels like they are treating us like low-life, second-class citizens. It feels like they do not want us around and they are doing everything to make business incredibly difficult.”
Carney said he contributes greatly to the local downtown economy and believes law enforcement is treating bars unfairly, which provide a structured environment for drinking.
“The most important thing we contribute to the community isn’t just the good times and entertainment, but we provide a structured environment in which to have those good times,” Carney said. “If you discourage that, you’re going to end up with people still drinking in non-structured environments.”
Allison Wall, co-owner of the Balcony Bar & Grill, said she knew police were capable of checking on restaurants, but they didn’t have any idea when it would occur. Wall said that most liquor establishments know when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are in town.
Officers met with Wall on Wednesday morning to go over classes they offer, which go over all the statutes associated with the local liquor code, and also train bartenders and bouncers how to spot fake identification, identify intoxicated patrons and de-escalate conflicts.
“They ran through it all with us,” Wall said. “They stated that they’re not trying to shut down bars or anything like that. Their main concern is underage drinking, things that are happening to people that are either overserved or not of legal age. I think it’s a great thing that they’re doing it for the community.”
The engagement team utilizes different tactics to enforce the code. This past weekend, the team used two plain-clothed undercover agents and a volunteer 20-year-old woman to attempt to purchase alcohol.
The volunteer was instructed to attempt to gain entry into various establishments but not to misrepresent her age. If she was asked to show identification, she would say she didn’t have any. If the establishment let her in, she was to attempt to purchase alcohol. If she was served, she would complete the transaction and then notify officers.
“She doesn’t try to weasel her way in,” Dunlop said. “She doesn’t try to misrepresent who she is. She doesn’t lie about her age. She just tries to enter.”
The bartender who serves alcohol to the undercover minor is the one who will receive the citation, which can range from $75 to $500.
The establishment itself doesn’t receive a citation, but all reports and documentation are sent to the Colorado Department of Revenue Liquor Enforcement Division. The establishments could get hit with a fine and/or a seven-day liquor suspension.
Police also had undercover officers in plain clothes who were making sure bartenders weren’t overserving patrons. No instance of overserving was witnessed, Dunlop said.
“The overservice is just as much of an issue if not a larger issue to our community,” Dunlop said. “That leads to a lot of the secondary incidents that we have later on in the night when the bars close where we’re dealing with disturbances and fights out on the street because the establishments may have overserved the patrons.”