Policing Liquor Establishments

A Holistic Approach

By John L. Gray
Liquor Being Poured into Overflowing Shot Glass (Stock Image)

A small American town of 17,000 residents had one of the highest crime rates in the county. By day, it was a vibrant cluster of small retail shops with residents and visitors enjoying the friendly feeling. At night, however, a different personality emerged: a climate of street fights, open-air drug deals in the parking lots of bars, impaired drivers, property damage from vandalism, and minor thefts had existed for several years.

One bar in a large building had live music and catered to patrons in their early 20s. This establishment had fights that often included the bar’s employees nearly every night in the parking lot. Rumors of sexual activities and drug dealing constantly surfaced. In another part of town, local residents patronized three bars in close proximity to each other known as the Bermuda Triangle. When told to leave one establishment, they would walk to another and continue drinking. Police received numerous complaints of drug dealing, fights, and property damage.

Nearly every night, all of the town’s police officers, with assistance from state and county personnel, would go from one call to another about alcohol-related crimes, which depleted resources from other areas and increased response times. The town needed a new approach as the police leadership and the city’s elected officials continued to hear complaints from the community and crime statistics were not improving.


One proven method of making a community safer involves attacking the locations of crime and disorder. Being proactive early to prevent problems offers the most options for success. To this end, the author presents a strategy for police executives to consider that includes adopting the right mind-set, knowing who is responsible, partnering with other authorities, establishing a point of contact, agreeing upon expectations, training business employees, visiting the establishments, and documenting service calls.

The Right Mind-Set

The idea that assisting a bar in becoming successful, addressing issues of over service, or preventing disorder in such establishments belongs exclusively to the state’s licensing authority on alcoholic beverages constitutes a common misconception. These state agencies often are underfunded and have insufficient personnel to effectively monitor the vast number of licensees. The agents often can handle only the “biggest fire” and, therefore, must react to problems.

Mr. Gray
Mr. Gray, a retired police chief, is a speaker, trainer, and author of leadership-and management-related materials.

When police departments adopt the mind-set, from the executive to the patrol officer, that this is our problem and, therefore, our responsibility, real and lasting results can happen quickly. This mind-set will help form relationships, inspire working partnerships, and create determination to achieve success. Without this foundation, everything that follows will have inconsistent and temporary results.

The Responsibility

First, police leaders should research the state’s laws and court findings to determine the responsibilities of the liquor establishment. When police managers know the powers and responsibilities of the business establishment and the state’s regulating agency, as well as what tools their own departments have, they will be better equipped to make an effective plan and to engage in a working partnership.

For example, is the business accountable for the behavior of customers outside its building and in its parking lot? Who has the power to immediately suspend the business’ operations? Can police officers make an arrest for a minor misdemeanor that did not occur in their presence?

The Partnerships

Liquor control agents are the experts and an essential resource in the management of a bar. Many of the state’s licensing agencies have a database that provides information that can assist the police department and may include documentation of administrative violations, owners of record, and arrests of impaired drivers that came from the business. Meeting with representatives will encourage sharing information about a bar’s problems and its successes.

The licensing agency often has resources for training the employees of bars to prevent overservice and manage problems. The police department should learn about this training and participate in it.

“When police departments adopt the mind-set, from the executive to the patrol officer, that this is our problem and, therefore, our responsibility, real and lasting results can happen quickly”

Most liquor establishments will make the required changes necessary to improve business safety and will work with the police to create observable results. For the problem business, the police leader can bring in more partners who have regulatory authority, such as building inspectors, fire marshals, health inspectors, public works officials for street and parking issues, gambling enforcement agents, and state and federal revenue officials.

The police department should enforce codes fairly, firmly, and impartially. It should communicate with the prosecuting attorney about the history of problems and the proactive approaches that did not bring the desired compliance because the prosecutor can seek maximum accountability.

Challenging the renewal of a license, either by suspending or revoking it, is the last regulatory option for government. Similar to terminating an employee, this proves appropriate when all other courses of assistance, training, and progressive steps of accountability have failed. A huge undertaking, it will require the political will and financial commitment of the jurisdiction because ramifications concerning loss of tax revenue or the perception that government is “being heavy handed” against a business can occur. The success of the police department in this regard is based upon the timely and ongoing sharing of information with the elected officials; they need to be kept continually informed. The process of taking away a problem establishment’s license may be long and full of obstacles, but, when successful, substantial lasting benefits to the community include reduced crime and disorder and the availability of public safety resources for other priorities.

The Point of Contact

Police leaders should appoint one supervisory-level employee as the point of contact on all issues regarding liquor establishments so the business owners, the licensing agency, and the police administration can give and receive information. Larger jurisdictions may have to divide their communities into areas with several points of contact.

As the police department’s watchdog for emerging problems, the point of contact also is the face and voice of the department when dealing with the business and partnering with other government organizations. The value of this approach is the consistency of information, care, and communication from the police that can help keep issues firmly in focus.

The Expectations

Being proactive means that the police department’s point of contact meets with the owners and managers of liquor establishments before problems occur. Generally, owners want a successful, profit-making enterprise viewed as an asset to the community and, therefore, usually will cooperate with the police department.

The first step involves delivering a personal invitation to the business for a group meeting of liquor establishment managers. This represents a valuable tool because police leaders and owners can get to know each other. This meeting is about explaining what the police department can and cannot do, what it expects from the establishments on addressing problems, and what it can offer in the way of training and assistance to meet the common goal of a crimefree community and a safe business for patrons and employees.

From this meeting, the police department’s point of contact should schedule individual meetings with the owner and the business’ management team to help create the relationships, address unique issues, and establish the avenues of communication. The management team members should be informed about the principle that if a crime or disorder is predictable in their business, it also is preventable, and they may be held accountable for failing to take appropriate action. The police point of contact should describe how the department will conduct proactive bar checks, how it will handle problems, and what assistance it can provide.

Having an agenda and distributing the minutes of these meetings will create valuable documentation. A written, formal working agreement between the department and the establishment represents a higher level of documentation that can help hold the business accountable.

The Training

Employees cannot be held accountable for what they do not know. By helping to train the wait staff and bartenders about dealing with problems and understanding expectations, the police department can increase the impact of the value of the lessons. After all, most workers want to be successful and avoid problems that could lead to criminal liability. This training may pay other benefits as well. For example, when officers respond to the business for a complaint, the employees often will be more comfortable cooperating and may provide more information when they have a relationship with the department.

The Visits

Knowing that a police officer likely will stop by can prevent many problems. Defensiveness and skepticism often diminish when these visits are not a surprise. These checks are intended to see whether employees are using the training that they received, to communicate to potential problem patrons that the police are available to take action, and to deepen the communication relationship with the department. A worthy goal is to have every bar visited by a patrol officer at least several times a week.

Officers need to know from the department’s command staff the importance of doing this work. Conducting bar checks may cause resistance and noncompliance from officers who never have done such duties or fail to see their value. They should be trained on how to conduct patrol checks of bars, what problems to look for, how to deal with intoxicated persons who are not committing a crime, and what solutions and tools they have at their disposal.

The department should inform liquor establishments that undercover operations also will occur throughout the year at different times. It should consider adopting the practice of making immediate custodial arrests for employees who commit crimes because these have a chilling effect on establishments that allow crime to happen. One effective operation, the underage patron sting, often involves a male and female couple underage by more than 12 months. Of course, the department should craft a comprehensive policy and procedure that meets legal standards and the current professional practice.

“Police leaders should appoint one supervisory-level employee as the point of contact on all issues regarding liquor establishments...”

The Documentation

A 1-page, check-the-box form for officers to document every call to a liquor establishment creates a climate of fairness. In addition to a normal police report, this form includes information as a cross-reference. What makes this tool especially useful is that it requires the officer to determine whether or not the business could have prevented the event. The completed document is distributed to the department’s point of contact who does a follow-up conversation with the establishment’s management team.

The immediacy of feedback and accountability between the business and the police can prove valuable. For example, when a liquor license is up for renewal or is being challenged, these documents and the department’s case reports become the evidence to present at the administrative hearing. Also, reliable data on liquor establishments within the jurisdiction helps to ascertain if perceptions are accurate. Wise leaders will listen carefully to their employees for the reasons behind their judgments but will use sound data before making a decision to target any location of crime for extra attention.


For the town in the opening scenario, change occurred when the police department decided to own the problem. Conversations began with the state liquor control agents and the business owners, and a police lieutenant became the point of contact for all information and conversation with the businesses.

An order, backed up by training, was given to all the patrol teams, and the frequency of routine checks increased. The department started undercover operations, and one resulted in 18 arrests on one night alone. The media accompanied officers and publicized the businesses where arrests occurred.

Within 2 years, two of the Bermuda Triangle bars had changed ownership or management, and their operations improved. The ultimate result of the new approach was that the city’s crime rate dropped by 25 percent. The sales tax revenue lost by the closure of several bars was offset by the reduced costs of jail and court costs and rebounded within 12 months.

“The immediacy of feedback and accountability between the business and the police can prove valuable.”