Safer streets

Law enforcement, city officials, bar owners say downtown changes work

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COEUR d'ALENE - It was in the less-populated winter when a pair of high-profile gun incidents brought Coeur d'Alene officials together to figure out how they could crack down on unruly behavior downtown.

They had to keep downtown safe for the sake of the community, they said at the time; too much had been invested downtown to let it go to waste.

Six months later, law enforcement officers, bar owners and city officials say the crackdown is working.

Increased police patrols will continue, too.

"It's not a passing fad; it's not a seasonal thing," said Police Chief Wayne Longo. "I think we're seeing a change in our city and you can't sit back and not adapt. You have to change with it."

Added to the patrols were a pair of changes to outdoor city ordinances aimed at preventing clustering on sidewalks outside bars and restaurants. Outdoor dining and drinking hours were scaled back to a 10 p.m. cutoff, an hour earlier than before, and sidewalk tables can no longer zig-zag too far out on the sidewalk.

Now that some time has passed, no news is good news.

But with summer in full swing and bigger crowds now a weekend norm, bar owners and patrons said they hope it can continue.

"They just need to stay on top of it," said Shawn Murphy, director of operations for the Coeur d'Alene Brewing Company on Lakeside Avenue. "I'm curious to see how the summer plays out. This is the first extended stay of hot weather, so the crowds will be coming out. We'll see."

But Murphy, as with many other bar owners, said the increased foot patrols are making a difference.

Three teams of two police officers have been patrolling the downtown all summer. Instead of waiting and responding to a call, the officers are walking through the bars and alleys - what Murphy and others are calling a "proactive approach."

In 2009, the department didn't cite anyone for over-service or serving to a minor. So far in 2010, they've issued three over-serving citations and two for serving to minors.

Some downtown patrons said they're impressed with downtown's cleaned-up atmosphere. While it's not perfect, it seems to have come a long way in six months.

"It sounded like from the reports it was out of control," said Bert Lyon, 55, who grew up in Coeur d'Alene and followed the downtown stories in the news. "I was alarmed; it frightened me. That wouldn't be my first impression of Coeur d'Alene."

But hanging out downtown on Friday as well as over the last few event-packed weekends, Lyon said she wouldn't classify downtown as the wild, wild, West. She didn't think the original reports were exaggerated - just that the city's effort has made the improvement.

"What they're doing here, they're doing in (Alaska)," she said of the extra patrols, comparing it to the area she lives most of the year, where condensed bar areas attract more supervision than other spots.

So if the crackdown is what's making the difference, she said, keep it up.

Others said they don't feel much different.

Andy Williams, who has been coming downtown to the bars for a decade, said he has always felt safe at night in the city's core.

"I think those were a couple of isolated incidents," he said of the gun reports. "It's always felt safe to me."

The gun incidents, which included a Dec. 27 late night shooting which left two Moses Lake men injured and another early morning report a month later where a Coeur d'Alene man brandished a pistol to a group of men, weren't the sole reasons the city changed its codes. They said they had heard for a couple of years that late night behavior was deteriorating, and those reports were straws that broke the camel's back.

"Everybody's tightened down to say that that kind of behavior isn't becoming, is not conducive to everyone enjoying the downtown," said Mayor Sandi Bloem. "It just isn't welcome."

But a downtown nightlife is welcomed, she added, and it can be an important fourth tier to an economically successful downtown. Sherman Avenue attracts early morning business with its coffee shops, afternoon shoppers come for its retail stores and evening crowds come for dinner. Maintaining a responsible yet successful nightlife would mean downtown is attracting dollars from 6 a.m. to well past midnight, a boast not every city can claim.

But the nightlife scene shouldn't detract from the other three. Other businesses had complained to the city that their properties were being vandalized late at night, which they attributed to intoxicated people leaving the bars when no one was around.

Perfect, things aren't, as Murphy said stuff still happens from time to time in front of the Brewery.

"I've had my flowers trashed," he said, adding that he closes by 11 p.m. to avoid the trouble that comes with the late, late crowd. "But that pretty much happens every summer."

Officials are continuing to meet bi-monthly to make sure the communication remains open and what has been achieved isn't lost. Part of the meeting breaks down the areas where calls for police service occur.

The majority of those calls occur near the 400 block of Sherman Avenue, where there's a concentration of bars. But comparing 2009 to the first six months of 2010, those calls seem to have dropped off dramatically.

For all of 2009, around 2,700 calls were reported to police between Foster Avenue and Lake Coeur d'Alene, and from City Park to Eighth Street.

So far this year, 175 calls have been logged in a half-mile radius from the 200 block of East Sherman Avenue, roughly encompassing much of the area included in the 2009 report.

Of those 175, 60 were alcohol- or assault-related offenses, according to Sgt. Christie Wood.

More rule changes could be explored, too, Longo said. One possibility is to draft a city code requiring bartenders to take a class to learn about safe serving. That's still only in the discussion stage, however.

"We're working hard and we're all working together," said Jerry Goggin, Icon, Underground and Beacon Pub owner. Goggin now uses a metal detector to screen incoming customers on busier nights to the dance club, something J.R. Briseno, manager of Baja Bargarita and the adjacent Toro Viejo Mexican restaurant, does too. Both Goggin and Briseno said customers are not trying to get in with weapons.

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