Very early last Saturday morning, I was riding in a police cruiser with Anchorage police officer Will Cameron when I saw a guy stumble though the parking lot behind the Gaslight Lounge. The guy reached in his pocket as he approached a car, fumbling for his keys. Cameron flipped on his lights. We got out. The guy began to cry when he saw us. He'd wet himself. He couldn't really put a sentence together.
Cameron asked him where he'd been drinking that night, checked his ID and got him a cab. We got back in the patrol car. There was an example of somebody being over-served, Cameron told me. Wait staff, bar security and bartenders are supposed to be on the lookout for that kind of thing. Selling alcohol to someone who is already blitzed is against the law. But downtown on weekends, Cameron and other police officers find plenty of people staggering toward their cars, especially as the bars close near 3 a.m.
Drunk driving is just one flavor of bar-related mayhem that police say has become a serious problem downtown. Patrons of the larger club-style bars tend to be on the younger-side, often 20-somethings, police say. Sometimes they are armed. Add too much alcohol and big crowds and it's easy for things to get out of hand. Fights. Sexual assaults. Drug dealing. Stabbings. Last fall, outside Platinum Jaxx, someone was shot and killed after a fight broke out around 2:45 a.m.
The cost to the public keeps going up. When the bars let out on busy nights in the summer, officers from all over town might be called to deal with what Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew has called a "frat party" in the streets. Calls stack up elsewhere. Last summer APD paid several officers overtime to keep a lid on things. That isn't cheap.
"It's a mess," Cameron told me about what he'd seen at bar break. "It's really volatile. It just explodes."
We cruised down G Street. A couple of young women dressed in short skirts with bare legs, teetered in heels down the icy pavement. A few downtown bars cause a disproportionate amount of trouble, that's obvious, but police I talked to, including Cameron, were careful not to be too pointed with their opinions. The politics of the downtown bar situation are delicate, which might be one reason problems have gone on so long.
Anchorage bar owners, represented by the Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant & Retailers Association, are a powerful lobby in the city with political ties (including to Mayor Dan Sullivan, who is an owner of a downtown pub). APD doesn't want to get adversarial with the bars, Mew told me when I talked to him a few days after my ride-along. They want cooperation, he said.
On the night of my ride-along, cops were everywhere, including taking surveillance photos. I started thinking about how much it probably cost the city, all those salaries, equipment, gas. Cameron and I circled back down Fourth Avenue passing the busiest bars -- the Anchor Pub & Club, the Pioneer Bar, the Gaslight. "You shook me all night long," blared out into the street. I caught a glimpse of a shirtless guy with tattoos and dog tags riding the mechanical bull at the Gaslight.
"Oh, look at this guy," Cameron said, pulling the cruiser over by the Anchor.
A 20-something man was draped on two of his friends, dragging out of the bar. They could barely keep him up. His eyes were blank screens.
"It's his birthday," one of the friends said. "We got him a little drunk."
"Did they kick you out?" Cameron asked.
"Not yet," said a friend.
Cameron flagged a cab with his flash light. A lot of what we did was like that: high priced baby-sitting, trying to keep drunk people out of trouble. But in the background, there was always the threat that things would escalate. What if one of the drunk jokers had a gun? What if a fight broke out?
The Assembly has tried before and failed to find ways to ease the bar situation with ordinance changes. Now there are new proposals on the table. One would stop owners of large bars downtown from serving alcohol an hour early, that's 1:30 a.m. on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends. Another would let bars stay open several hours after they stop serving alcohol, so patrons might sober up a little and then trickle out, rather than flooding the streets. Mew seemed to favor something like that idea when we talked, so long as there's a way to make sure the bars picked up unfinished drinks at the time they now close, he said.
"All these call for a trial period," he said.
I also talked to Silvia Villamides, head of CHARR, who said bar owners support staying open later. When I asked her about over-serving, she defended the bars, saying that it's hard to tell how drunk some people are. You never know if they were taking drugs, like diet pills, that could exaggerate intoxication, she said. Changing the laws for bar-closure hours is only part of the solution, she said.
"We also would like would like to see more police presence," she said.
Really? Seems to me dealing with rowdy patrons should be part of the cost of doing business for bars. They're serving the drinks. Why should the public be picking up the tab?
Note: After this column was posted I heard from Gaslight Lounge owner John Pattee who said he checked his video camera to see where the intoxicated bar patron at the beginning of the column came from. He says the man was walking down the alley along the public lot behind the bar and did not come from the inside Gaslight.