Friday, October 14, 2005

Where did you have your last drink?

About a year ago, Austin police began asking drunken driving suspects a new question as part of their roadside investigation: Where did you have your last drink?

Officers began logging the answers in their offense reports and compiling a list of the most frequently mentioned bars and restaurants. Then they started sending the information to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

The agency began investigating establishments on the list. Since this spring, it has issued citations against at least five of them, and it is trying to yank the alcohol license of Dallas Nightclub on Burnet Road, which tops the list. Forty people arrested for DWI since January have said they consumed their last drink at Dallas.

Dallas, which says the statistics unfairly imply that they knowingly serve drunken patrons, is fighting the agency's attempt to revoke its license.

"We aren't naive enough to think that we are going to stop drunk driving," agency Lt. Robert Saenz said. "But if we can help reduce it, then we think we are contributing to this fight."

Austin is the first city to provide such statistics to the agency. Saenz and other officials said they hope to persuade police in other cities to do the same.

The list, obtained by the Austin American-Statesman this week, includes other well-known venues.

Some cater to mostly college students, others to young professionals. Some are on the city's outskirts, while others are in popular downtown entertainment zones such as Sixth Street and the Warehouse District.

According to the list, Dallas was most frequently named by drunken driving suspects, followed by Cool River Cafe on West Parmer Lane, where 27 motorists have reported consuming their last drink so far this year. A manager at Cool River said he had been told by company officials not to comment.

Sherlock's Baker St. Pub & Grill on Research Boulevard and Chuggin' Monkey at 219 E. Sixth St. were next on the list.

Some bar owners and managers say it is unfair to use anecdotal, easily skewed statistics to launch investigations.

For instance, they say statistics do not account for different club's sizes and seating capacities.

They also say a larger police presence in an area can push establishments up the list.

"Certainly if you concentrate enforcement on a certain location, you are going to get more DWIs than in an area where you have less enforcement," said attorney Charles Webb, who is representing Dallas. "I'm certain the number is not an accurate reflection. They are raw statistics."

TABC agents say their aggressive enforcement effort, which they are calling "Operation Last Call," is the result of a renewed partnership with the Austin Police Department and represents a shift in the way the agency investigates drunken driving.

In the past, agents often opened cases based on neighborhood complaints or tips from bar patrons who reported seeing intoxicated customers getting behind the wheel.

But after the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission — which regularly evaluates the performance of state agencies — expressed concern that Texas leads the nation in drunken driving fatalities, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission decided to change tactics. The Legislature helped by approving money for 60 new agents statewide along with more support staff.

Saenz said Austin police statistics give the agency "a better starting point, a place to look." He said they follow up with investigations, including undercover operations.

Meanwhile, Austin police also have been working for months to help curtail drunken driving, which last year contributed to nearly half of the city's 73 traffic fatalities.

The department has added a citywide DWI enforcement team of 19 officers whose main responsibility is drunken driving arrests, although patrol officers continue to make DWI stops.

To decide where to deploy the DWI team, department leaders began requiring patrol officers to question motorists about where they last drank. Drivers are not legally obligated to answer.

"You want to attack the source of the problem," said Cmdr. David Carter, who heads the department's traffic enforcement division. "If I don't know where the problem is, then I don't know where to put my people.

He said officers wanted to talk to state agents this spring to learn such things as which parts of the city had the highest number of alcohol licenses.

That's when police told agency representatives about the statistics they had begun gathering.

"We ran with it," Saenz said. "We understand that it is not scientific data. But we also understand that where there is smoke, there is fire."

The TABC targeted Dallas — the first club they investigated based on the statistics — this spring.

Saenz said many of the DWI arrests citing the club as the driver's last stop happened late on Wednesdays or early on Thursdays and that the club, which bills itself as Austin's premier country and western dance venue, promoted Wednesdays as "ladies night." The club served beer for 69 cents and other drinks for $1.69.

In March, state agents conducted an undercover operation and made a couple of arrests for public intoxication, Saenz said. When the number of DWI arrests involving Dallas patrons continued, he said, the agency filed a motion in June to revoke the club's alcohol license.

Webb, the club's attorney, said the club has raised some of its drink prices, not as an admission that the promotion was leading to drunken driving, but "to be responsible and look at all the possible causes.

"We believe the club is performing in a professional manner and controlling its crowds in a very professional manner," he said.

Last week, officials invited owners and managers of more than 10 other establishments on the list to discuss concerns.

At the meeting, Saenz said, officials said their goal was not to suspend or revoke alcohol licenses but to work with the establishments to find ways to decrease the number of drunken drivers, including limiting drink-price promotions.

Dave Pantano, the manager of Rain, a club in the Warehouse District, said employees are trained to spot customers who may be intoxicated and are instructed to no longer serve them.

OPERATION LAST CALL

Dallas Nightclub - Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission officials have filed a motion to revoke the club's license after agents said the club failed to do enough to combat drunken driving. The nightclub is fighting the move.

Cool River Cafe - State agency officials said they contacted the restaurant on West Parmer Lane earlier this year, and it later ended a promotion that may have led to more drunken driving. No drunken driving suspects since August have cited it as the place they last drank.

Sherlock's Baker St. Pub & Grill - State agency officials have filed a case against the club for serving intoxicated customers. Since January, police say 23 DWI suspects have cited it this year as the place they had their last drink. I was informed several months ago that the Austin DWI Task Force would be targeting their enforcement on patrons of Sherlocks due to the high number of DWI arrests related to their club.

Chuggin' Monkey - Austin police say 14 drunken driving suspects have reported this year that they consumed their last drink at the popular Sixth Street club, which seats about 477 people. Managers could not be reached for comment.

Rain on 4th - A club manager said that he was surprised and concerned to learn where the club ranked on the list and that he will review the club's policy on intoxicated patrons with bartenders.

Click here for the full story as reported in the Austin American Statesman