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So far two initiatives are in the works. This month, several downtown bars will experiment with an ID scanning program designed to flag problem drinkers. Sometime soon – possibly this year — the eight police officers paroling downtown will begin to once again wear video equipment to record interactions with the public.
“It’s a touchy situation, especially in a college town,” said Ed Stoner, president of Old Town Properties. Stoner owns several downtown properties including the building that houses Lucky Joe’s. “You want to have a fun atmosphere downtown without having a Gestapo-type thing. On the other side of the coin, you can’t let things get carried away.”
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The integrated scanner system works like this: A person’s ID is scanned when they walk into a bar. If they cause a problem, the bouncer flags them. When they’re scanned at the next bar, bouncers know their history and can decide whether to let them in.
“This is not about surveillance, it’s not about tracking people everywhere they go,” said Team Fort Collins Specialist Dawn Nannini. “It’s about bar safely and safety in the downtown area.”
Team Fort Collins oversees Responsible Alcohol Retailers, an association designed to encourage the safe sale and consumption of alcohol among retailers by offering training, education and alcohol-management programs. Half of the approximately 40 downtown liquor license holders are RAR members. Some members have agreed to participate in the scanning pilot, which will launch later in May.
“This is a really big leap of faith for them (bar owners) and the fear is that consumers will be hesitant about the system so it’s really important that we all move forward as a group and not have businesses back out at this point,” Nannini said.
The system records a person’s name and birthday for 24 hours and the bars, rather than the courts, decide when, if and how long they want to keep the person away from their establishment. RAR will pay a monthly service fee for members involved in the pilot, but the bars will have to pay for system hardware, which will cost $2,000 to $5,000 apiece.
Fort Collins police also hope technology will help reduce problems.
Sgt. Dean Cunningham, supervisor of the downtown district, wants to reinstate a video surveillance program where officers wear video equipment to record interactions with the public. The program, which was used for several years, was stopped in January.
“We stopped the program because we didn’t have a formal policy for it,” Cunningham said. “I don’t think we were doing it wrong, but we wanted to make sure we were doing it absolutely right.”
Cunningham believes video will help clarify some discrepancies between the public and police. In March, a video of a Loveland man accusing a Fort Collins police officer of shoving him for no reason brought negative attention to the department.
No one knows whether the video system will actually help decrease alcohol-related incidences. Cunningham, who was recently put in charge of the downtown unit, said other changes seem to be working. He said the increase in January from four to eight officers in downtown and the start of a late-night bus program in February that moves about 400 to 500 people out of the downtown area between 11:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. on weekends have helped manage bar traffic.
“The biggest problem is that we have all those people who come out together at the same time,” Cunningham said.
To temper the amount of people flooding the streets after last call, some cities have staggered bar closing hours, which requires bars to close early on a rotating basis.
“It’s an idea that we’re kicking around but we want to voluntarily work with the bars to see if that’s something they want to do,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham said the relationships between his officers and downtown bar owners are critical to managing the downtown after-hours crowd.
“There’s not one bar I could jump up and down and point to and say ‘That’s an irresponsible bar,’” Cunningham said. “The majority of the bars are doing the things they need to be doing. Sometimes you just can’t control some of the stuff that happens when people start drinking.”
About a year ago, the City of Fort Collins increased fines for alcohol-related offenses. The move covered infractions such as public urination, obstructing a police officer and disorderly conduct. Offenders can offset some of the fines they incur by entering a community service program and joining morning parks crews that clean up downtown messes.
“There’s a certain population of people who these fines won’t work for,” Nannini said. “(They) do not have the capacity at the time to consider the consequences of their behavior. But if one person in a group of friends gets a public urination ticket and has to pay a big fine, you can be sure the rest know about the fine and the inconveniences.”
Nannini said creating a holding facility in Fort Collins for those who have had too much to drink could also help reduce alcohol-related incidences. The nearest holding facility now is in Greeley. Taking a drunken bar patron to Greeley takes officers away from where they’re needed most: on the streets.
While the police and bar owners have a plan to better manage downtown after 2 a.m., policymakers aren’t ready to step in – yet.
“I would prefer that it be worked out between the business and the police, not the city,” said Fort Collins Mayor Karen Weitkunat. “I think there are solutions. (More) regulation doesn’t necessarily improve the situation.”