Citing an alarming rise in the amount and severity of criminal activity occurring downtown after hours on Friday and Saturday nights, Missoula Police Chief Pete Lawrenson last week met with about a dozen downtown tavern owners to discuss ways they can collectively head off a major incident before one occurs.
“The open container level of violations is just completely out of control,” said Lawrenson. “When police officers are responding into the area, we’re threatened almost on a nightly basis. We are primed to have some sort of a civil disobedience take place in the downtown area ... and the potential for injury and property damage is just extreme.”
Lawrenson says his officers have noticed a rise in the number of fights, vandalism, sexual assault, litter, health risks (such as blood and vomit on the sidewalks), traffic violations by pedestrians, and property damage to downtown businesses. He is concerned that Missoula may experience a riot similar to the one that occurred recently in Pullman, Wash., where in a two-hour period rioters inflicted more than $400,000 worth of property damage in a one-block area, resulting in numerous lawsuits against bar owners and the city.
Police officers are also concerned about a growing tendency for people to be more confrontational and less responsive to officer’s instructions. Lawrenson says the roots of the problems are many, ranging from the increased use of illegal drugs in Missoula, particularly methamphetamine, to a pervasive disrespect for police authority. However, the major culprits continue to be a widespread disregard of Missoula’s open container law, lax enforcement of underage drinking and overcrowding in the bars.
“In any bar downtown on a typical Friday or Saturday night, you can’t even get in the door, they are that full,” said Officer Mike Sunderland. “I’m sure that if we did a head count, probably just about every bar downtown would be in violation of the fire code. It’s way over. Way over.”
Overcrowding not only makes it difficult for police officers to respond to disturbances inside, but also increases the likelihood of serving minors, says Sunderland. Officer Mike Muir added that overcrowding also contributes to the problem of over-serving legal patrons, who become intoxicated and then get behind the wheel. Muir noted that that drivers arrested in Missoula for DUI average among the highest blood alcohol counts (BAC) in the state. Over a 24-month period, DUI arrests averaged a BAC level of 0.22, more than twice the legal limit.
For the most part, Lawrenson assumed a cooperative rather than confrontational attitude with bar owners, trying to elicit workable solutions rather than threatening aggressive tactics, such as sting operations targeting underage drinkers, or pursuing restrictive city ordinances through City Council. Still, the police chief pulled no punches.
“I’m convinced we could fill the jail up in one night with just underage drinkers,” said Lawrenson. “If we wanted to sting you, I think we could shut you all down in six months. I bet I could do that, or at least I’d have you before the liquor control board.”
“Some of the relief that we may have is going to be the new jail facility,” Officer Marty Ludeman pointed out. “I finally got some teeth back into, ‘You’re under arrest,’ because I have a place to put you now.” Nevertheless, throwing offenders in the new jail is not the solution, and may only compound the problem.
“On a given Friday or Saturday night, we don’t have the manpower to go down and follow that up with the big stick,” explains Officer Mike Muir. “You’re talking maybe two officers on foot beat at two o’clock in the morning, surrounded by 300 people. Those two officers are not going to be able to take everyone to jail. And if we get five more officers down there, then you’ve got 50,000 other people in Missoula who are not getting police services, because we’ve got every officer on duty down there.”
For their part, the bar owners sounded willing to play ball, recognizing not only that they benefit from a safer and cleaner downtown, but also that if they fail to crack down on the problems, government or the courts will do it for them.
As Top Hat owner Steve Garr suggested, Missoula bar owners should consider hiring a professional security force similar the one used in Seattle’s Pioneer Square nightclub district. There, licensed and bonded bouncers check IDs and collect money, allowing patrons to roam from bar to bar on one cover charge. Garr says that it would eliminate the problems that arise when underage or ineffectual bouncers allow their underage friends inside and permit drinks to leave the bar.
“If we put professional security people at the doors, I assure you 90 percent of the open container problems and all the other stuff would go away,” said Garr.
Officer Marty Ludeman agreed, saying “If you take away the open containers from downtown, it takes away 90 percent of my reason to stop and talk to people and get in that confrontation in the first place.”
Rhino Bar owner Kevin Head suggested that tavern owners form a committee to meet several times a year with Lawrenson to discuss the problem and work on stricter enforcement among themselves. Other suggestions included arranging for taxi and bus service after hours, limiting crowd size inside the bars, and posting plain clothes officers at doors to check IDs. Lawrenson said he would approach Municipal Court Judge Don Louden about imposing stiffer penalties for underage drinking, open containers, and fake ID violations.