By Annika McGinnis, The Diamondback (April 19, 2013)
EDITOR’S NOTE: A student’s name was withheld because she discusses underage drinking. A worker’s name was withheld to protect his job.
They’d sneak in with friends, pay a few extra dollars or flash an ID depicting a person obviously several years older. Somehow, underage drinkers always found a way to get into the College Park bars, a former R.J. Bentley’s employee said.
But in December, everything began to change. The county liquor board started conducting more undercover investigations at the bars and fining those where they found violations, board chairman Franklin Jackson said. And the bars have responded, implementing stricter policies such as ID scanners and wristbands for minors to cut back on underage drinking incidents, the former employee said.
“You have to be an idiot not to realize there’s underage drinking going on at the bars in College Park,” the former Bentley’s worker said. “[Before], if you had a freaking index card, you could get into the bars. Now you have to have a legitimate fake ID, and it has to scan, so we have a scanner outside Bentley’s now.”
In late 2012, in response to the county’s Office of Management and Budget’s concern over issues related to the sale and control of alcohol, the liquor board began moving away from routine checks toward more targeted enforcement — actually going undercover into bars to investigate underage drinking, Jackson said.
The liquor board started investigating Bentley’s about once a week, sometimes twice a week, in December, the former Bentley’s worker said. After about a month, investigators started coming about once every other week — still a significant increase from the previous semester, he said.
The board’s investigations are routine and countywide, Jackson said. But if an issue is found, the board will visit that establishment more frequently, he added.
The board has fined two city establishments since 2012. Big Play Sports Grill received two fines totaling $2,500 for violating its entertainment permit on Feb. 6, and Town Hall Tavern was fined $5,000 on April 10 for selling alcohol to a minor.
At Bentley’s, investigators would pretend to be patrons when they arrived, the former worker said. He said they would then move into a back area used as a restaurant during the day and question customers who looked underage.
“[The customers] hid their fake IDs, or they did a pass-back so they didn’t have an ID on them, and if they don’t have an ID on them and they’re in the bar, we must have let them in,” he said. “So that’s why we’ve been more strict.”
Before the updated liquor board policies went into effect, it was easy for underage students to get into the bars, the former Bentley’s worker said. Bouncers used to “look at the ID, look at the person and ask them their age,” he said.
“Most people don’t look at the months, they just look at the years,” the former worker said. “So we say ‘how old are you?’ And they say 25, and we say, ‘That’s funny, because this says you’re 24.’ The month hadn’t added up yet. And they’ll be like ‘Oh yeah, I’m this age.’”
But instead of turning away underage patrons, bouncers would sometimes just charge them extra money — for instance, $7 or $10 instead of the usual $5 cover, the former worker said. And if a student knew one of the bouncers, they’d often just be let in, he said.
Late last year, Bentley’s began cracking down on such tactics. Bouncers began using an ID scanner every night, so students would need to have legitimate IDs, the former worker said. Bouncers also just used to stamp underage patrons, but now they hand out wristbands to minors. And at Cornerstone Grill and Loft and The Barking Dog, bouncers have been turning away more students, especially on nights they expect the liquor board to show up, he said.
Now, sharing IDs is more difficult, a freshman communications and English major said.
“[Before], I had a friend who used my ID, and she’s blonde and I’m brunette, but now it really has to look like you,” the freshman said. “I know someone who was using someone else’s for a while, and now they want to get a real ID with a picture because they’re scared.”
The new policies seemed to be hurting business, the former worker said. When Bentley’s implemented them, the worker said the owner told employees the changes were necessary to keep the bar in business. Since then, the number of customers has visibly decreased, the former worker said.
“In Bentley’s on Thursday nights, it used to be so crowded you’d have to shimmy through; you couldn’t even walk through,” he said. “And now it’s just like another [week]night.”
But the freshman said while some students initially avoided the bars the first weekend they heard the liquor board might be there, her friends went out again the following weekend. Inside Cornerstone, it’s still “so, so crowded,” she added.
A manager at Bentley’s said he had no comment, and a manager at Cornerstone said corporate policies forbade him from talking to Diamondback reporters.
Since the liquor board changes are so new, no formal evaluation has been conducted to measure their impact, Jackson said. But they have some anecdotal evidence: After a recent university sports game, Jackson said, there wasn’t as much violence or crime as in previous years.
“It seemed alcohol did not play any type of significant negative role,” he said.
Members of this university’s Alcohol Coalition — which represents departments such as the offices of Student Conduct, Public Safety and Fraternity and Sorority Life — said they weren’t originally aware of the new policies, but they support them.
Though police “occasionally” work with bouncers or check bars, the bars generally don’t call officers to report fake IDs, said University Police spokesman Sgt. Aaron Davis.
But officers often find students with fake IDs “passed out” or “zigzagging,” he said.
“A large amount of our calls are spent with people too intoxicated to take care of themselves,” he said. “That time could be better spent responding to calls for service.”
University officials are working to expand the Code of Student Conduct’s jurisdiction, which would mean students would face university sanctions for misdemeanors committed off-campus. But even if the university had jurisdiction in the bars, it would have to be a “significant enough incident” — such as a physical assault — to warrant action, said Tamara Saunders, the student conduct office’s associate director.
Still, Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Warren Kelley said the coalition supports the board’s new policies.
“We don’t endorse underage drinking, whether it’s in the bars or residence halls or anywhere else,” Kelley said. “We respect the liquor board’s intent to try to enforce the laws, and we just want our students to be safe.”