Undercover cops working at Anchorage bars in recent weeks have brought criminal charges against about 20 patrons whom police say had too much to drink, and charges are pending for staff who may have served too many drinks to their clientele, police say.
Meanwhile, local hospitality industry representatives say the police are overzealous and unfair. The bar and restaurant owners said they plan to hire a lawyer to defend servers and bartenders caught up in the undercover operations.
According to Anchorage police Sgt. Mark Rein, the cops work like this: Undercover officers, often working in pairs, stroll into a bar, order beers or cocktails and scan the room looking for the most intoxicated person there. Likely suspects might include the guy falling off his bar stool or the lady stumbling and swaying while barely staying on her feet, Rein said.
"It's what I like to call 'drunk-plus,' " Rein said. "One of the things that we've seen is somebody removes their wallet from their back pocket, grabs money, can't seem to count it, and then throws a bunch of money up on the counter. The other thing that we've seen numerous times is actually vomiting in the licensed premises."
Once the plainclothes officers identify someone, they call Rein, who waits outside in a car and radios uniformed officers to arrest the person or issue the person a court summons for being drunk on a licensed premises. The undercover officers also try to track the drunkenness back to a particular server or bartender, Rein said, though that's often more difficult in a crowded bar. A successful investigation also requires proving the bartender or server knew the person was drunk, Rein said.
Customers are often stunned and outraged when they get popped in a bar, Rein said.
"It is commonly a surprise that it is against the law to be drunk at a bar. Some people are really angry and have that kind of, 'what do you expect me to do in a bar' (reaction)," Rein said.
Rein would not comment on the six establishments whose employees he said have pending cases for over-serving. And the police sergeant admits his officers must be subjective in judging drunkenness: There is no set limit for how drunk a person can be in a bar, and the charges are based on the officers' observations, according to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
That doesn't sit well with Darwin Biwer, owner of downtown watering hole Darwin's Theory and board chairman of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailer's Association, an industry group that, among other things, trains and certifies the people who serve alcohol in the state.
Biwer says the undercover police are ignorant, overzealous and trying to snatch more federal and state grant money by making more arrests.
"If they don't make a bunch of arrests, they're not going to get their money. They've got to show that they're doing something," Biwer said. "We are the experts. The police aren't the experts. They're just out there trying to justify their overtime."
CHARR plans to hire an attorney to defend local servers and bartenders facing criminal negligence charges when accused of over-serving or accidentally serving to a minor.
In the latest issue of the Alaska CHARR Magazine, the organization's president and CEO, Dale Fox, wrote that CHARR has raised more than half of the roughly $100,000 needed to keep a lawyer on retainer for just such cases.
"Most servers plead guilty, pay the fine, do the short jail term or community service and move on with their lives," Fox wrote. "Really, do we think that a server who makes a mistake is criminally negligent and should be punished by jail time and big fines?"
Biwer said the servers don't have a choice.
"It's not because they're guilty. It's just too expensive to fight it," he said.
Holding a particular establishment responsible for a patron's drunkenness is also questionable, said Pioneer Bar co-owner Denny French. That's because it can be hard to guess how much a person had to drink before entering the bar or what their tolerance might be.
"It's just a very difficult thing to judge, and the bartenders do the best job they can do," French said.
And it's often not as obvious as Sgt. Rein describes, French said. Officers have pulled patrons out of the Pioneer who didn't appear to be drunk at all and weren't causing trouble, he said.
"People go to a bar to drink and have a good time and relax, and if they're not a threat to anybody, I don't agree with a sting," French said. "Of course, we're stationary targets and we're easy to swing at."
Biwer said the officers' observations, compared to an experienced server of 20 or 30 years, is insufficient.
"Police officers, they don't spend much time in bars, they don't really know what 'drunk on premises' means," Biwer said. "You're trying to tell me that a police officer comes in for 15 minutes and knows more about who's drunk than who isn't?"
"Any bar owner does not want somebody drunk on the premises. We want them out of here. If they're drunk, they're falling down, they're stupid or loud or anything, we don't want 'em," Biwer said. "Nobody else likes to have a drunk in the bar, they're just disruptive."
Sgt. Rein said the point of the stings is not to target the patrons or servers specifically, but to have a "chilling effect" on over-serving in general. The ultimate goal, Rein said, is to cut down on violent crime associated with excessive drinking, including assaults and sexual assaults.
"We see a spike in those over the weekends at the bars downtown," Rein said. "You've got hundreds of people walking around, drinking to excess."
"The bar problem downtown, especially on the weekends, is a significant one."
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.
By CASEY GROVE
Anchorage Daily News
Alaska Dispatch Publishing