Policing Bottles and Brews: Fact Check - Voice of San Diego

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Policing Bottles and Brews: Fact Check

Statement: “The vice squad files a protest against every single new alcohol license in the city in order to dictate restrictions on the license,” said Jacob McKean, owner of Modern Times Beer in an April 30 Q-and-A with Voice of San Diego. Determination: Mostly True.

 

Image: MOSTLY TRUEStatement: “The vice squad files a protest against every single new alcohol license in the city in order to dictate restrictions on the license,” said Jacob McKean, owner of Modern Times Beer in an April 30 Q-and-A with Voice of San Diego.

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: Jacob McKean is opening a brewery in Point Loma but he says San Diego police have delayed his opening date.

McKean is waiting for a state-issued liquor license but San Diego police demanded changes to his initial plans for his brewery, Modern Times Beer. He eventually agreed to the proposed tweaks, including two that bar him from selling bottles smaller than 22 oz. and restrict the brewery’s hours.

In a recent Q-and-A, McKean claimed his experience is far from unusual. He said San Diego police file a protest against every new liquor license in an effort to impose restrictions.

The craft beer industry is considered among San Diego’s most thriving so we decided to vet McKean’s statement.

Every aspiring brewer or restaurateur needs a series of approvals to serve alcohol.

The most crucial is a liquor license from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The license allows bar, restaurant or pub owners to sell alcohol but also imposes certain restrictions.

To start, they must fill out an extensive application. The state agency eventually forwards a copy of the document to the local police department and the brewer or bar owner notifies neighbors with newspaper notices and signs that remain up for 30 days. In some cases, letters go out to neighbors and businesses within 500 feet of the property.

Those who object to the plans can file a written protest with the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

In San Diego, many of those protests come from police.

San Diego police do indeed protest every application that comes across their desks, said Lt. Dan Plein, who supervises the department’s vice, permit and licensing unit.

“We want to have an opportunity to slow the process down long enough that we can take a look at public safety issues,” Plein said.

The department formally suggests adjustments to the store or bar’s plans. For example, they may suggest barring live entertainment or propose a cutoff time for alcohol sales.

Before making such recommendations, Plein said police assess the crime rate in the neighborhood and consider how many other bars and restaurants are in the area. Whether the proposed gathering place is in a neighborhood or industrial area also factors into their suggestions.

Police share their proposals with the state alcohol agency and the person who hopes to open the new bar or restaurant. Then the three parties try to reach some agreement.

There’s typically some degree of compromise but police preferences are taken more seriously than most protests by neighbors, said Jennifer Hill, who supervises the San Diego office of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Hill said the state agency gives “great weight” to local law enforcement because they’re familiar with the dynamics of a particular area. They have knowledge of local bar policies that might result in a spike in crime or raise safety concerns, she said.

Generally, police withdraw their protest once there’s some agreement on suggested regulations but the state agency sometimes overrules the suggestions from the Police Department.

Hill couldn’t say how often that happens.

If the bar or restaurant owners object to the police recommendations, they can present their case to an administrative law judge. This is far from ideal for the bar owner.

That move lengthens the time it will take to obtain a liquor license and open the new spot. It can also require thousands of dollars in legal costs. There’s also no guarantee they’ll prevail.

Grant Tondro, a co-owner of three Rancho Bernardo restaurants that serve alcohol, decided against challenging the police protests for those reasons.

As result, all three of his spots — Brothers Provisions, The Barrel Room and Urge Gastropub — must stop selling alcohol by 10 p.m. and can’t host musicians without getting another license.

“I can’t even have a guy playing a guitar in the corner,” Tondro said. “It’s illegal.”

Like McKean, Tondro doesn’t think police should protest every liquor license.

Reviews make sense, he said, but formally protesting each one doesn’t.

Plein defended the Police Department’s policy.

“Our role isn’t to promote business; it’s not to deny business,” he said. “It’s to make sure that they can operate in a safe fashion in the community that they’re in.”

But do police really protest every liquor license?

Not quite.

The state alcohol agency doesn’t forward every liquor license application to the city Police Department.

Police only get the ones that have a public component, Hill said.

For example, the agency doesn’t forward applications from wine importers who distribute to restaurants and fishing boat companies that request liquor licenses, she said.

For that reason, we decided McKean’s claim is mostly true. Police aren’t protesting every new license but they’re weighing in on most of them.

The rules could change soon.

Mayor Bob Filner is working with McKean and others to create a craft beer task force. Filner wants the group to review land use and police regulations, and recommend changes that will allow local brewers to thrive.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa.halverstadt@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0528.

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