Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Our View - When should a city shut down a bar like Los Cocos?

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Aug. 12, 2009.

Although bar owner Heather German decided Tuesday to close Los Cocos permanently, Iowa City officials are left with an important lingering question: Under what conditions and under what authority could and should city government close an establishment for presenting a sustained, serious risk to public safety?

It's a question that the city attorney's office will need to explore before Iowa City ever again sees a bar that in its first 11 months, according to police, requests more than 210 calls for service -- which required 396 officers to be dispatched and resulted in 74 arrests and three warrant arrests. A bar that then, in its 12th month, has patrons allegedly involved in a stabbing, a display of a handgun and eventually a shooting.

The Iowa City Council does have the authority to deny a liquor license renewal request, but even that's not enough to shut down a bar quickly. The downtown bars Etc and the Field House, whose license renewals the council denied last month, have the option to appeal the decision to the state and stay open while their appeals are heard.

But the Etc and Field House decisions were based on the number of times police had issued citations to patrons for underage possession of alcohol. Police say Los Cocos doesn't have an excessive number of alcohol violations or underage possession charges -- just a disproportionately high need for police response.

After contacting German and holding what Police Chief Sam Hargadine called a "frank discussion," the police, the city and German were able to reach an agreement about what problems the bar would have to address to keep its license.

The council agreed with the police recommendation last month and gave Los Cocos a six-month renewal with stipulations that the bar owners and staff:

• Not violate any laws.

• Enforce occupancy limits.

• Sufficiently staff the bar with appropriately trained people.

• Meet monthly with the police to discuss concerns.

• Not host any after-hours events.

• Eject patrons causing problems, ban them for the calendar year and turn over their names to the police.

• Continue to report all criminal activity even as they work to achieve an immediate reduction of fight, disturbance, assault, weapons, intoxication, littering and narcotics calls.

But last month's stabbing and Sunday's shooting suggests an escalation of violence rather than "an immediate reduction."

German, who said she was in Los Cocos every night the bar was open except Wednesdays, said she always felt safe in the bar until early Sunday morning. That's when, after word spread that someone in the bar might have a gun, employees cut the music and — without explaining why — asked everyone to leave the bar and re-enter after being passed over with a metal-detecting wand by staff.

Police have not said German or her staff did anything wrong in how they reacted to the situation. Nevertheless, police also say that, while standing outside waiting to re-enter Los Cocos, Bernard James Butler of Cedar Rapids shot Cortez Parker of Iowa City in the abdomen during a fight.

Even German agreed that whatever steps the bar took to address the violence were inadequate. She said she wanted to close the bar for a while to see if the problems in the neighborhood will die down, but told the Press-Citizen Tuesday night that she had decided to close the bar for good.

City officials didn't seem to be in a rush to close the bar. Iowa City mayor Regenia Bailey said she did not expect the city council to address Los Cocos' liquor license until it came up for renewal at the end of the year. And Iowa City Police Sgt. Mike Brotherton said that, while Los Cocos has its problems, "they're not any more significant than other bars in the downtown."

Given recent events, we're glad German has taken the step on her own to close her bar. But we'd still like to know the answer to the lingering question: Under what conditions and under what authority could and should city government close an establishment — anywhere in the city — for presenting a sustained, serious risk to public safety?

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