COLUMBIA — It's a typical Thursday night in downtown Columbia. Music blares from bars, and college students line up to get in, most of them with their IDs already in hand.
Outside Campus Bar & Grill, where the drink special is a 75-cent "triple well" — a three-shot mixed drink — bouncers scrutinize IDs. At times they bend, scratch and hold the IDs at different angles to make sure the holograms are authentic. If something looks wrong, the bouncers ask for a second form of ID.
Even after a customer makes it past a bouncer and into the bar, there are still other hurdles to be cleared. Lately, uniformed Columbia Police officers have been patrolling bars to make sure no one under 21 is drinking alcohol.
On Thursday, the arrival of the bar patrol was heralded by two mounted police heading east on Elm Street. Three uniformed officers on bicycles arrived next, parked in front of the bar and went inside. They walked around the bar and onto the decks.
One officer focused on a table of young women celebrating a birthday. He asked a young woman wearing a tiara for her ID, which, unfortunately for her celebration, didn't satisfy the officer. He asked for another form of ID, gave it a long look and escorted her from the bar. The crowd booed.
The birthday was apparently her 20th, not her 21st, a bouncer could be heard telling a bar patron.
Outside, officers asked another young woman for multiple forms of ID — none of which satisfied them. Then she was asked to touch her nose with one index finger, then the other. She apparently failed, because officers handcuffed her and put her in a squad car.
The Downtown Police Team, which formed just over a month ago, is meant to combat several downtown problems, including graffiti, panhandling and violence around bars. Now, police have extended their patrols inside bars to curb underage drinking.
Bengals Bar & Grill owner and manager Jay Rader said that he has “definitely seen an increase” in the number of patrols coming through his bar each week.
Columbia Police Sgt. Lloyd Simons said that, so far, these patrols have been very effective. Before the downtown patrols, bars had a 50-percent failure rate of serving minors. Now that number is down to 30 percent, he said.
One of the old methods for determining whether bars were serving minors was compliance checks, but many of the cases made from May 2008 to mid-April have been thrown out because they weren't conducted according to state regulations.
As a result, compliance checks have stopped, though they will resume soon, Simons said.
Simons said the “walk-throughs” are not a result of the problems with the compliance checks, but rather a part of downtown policing. He said he thinks the patrols are a good approach because they allow officers to interact with bars and patrons, prevent disturbances and show their presence in the community.
The approach doesn't just target underage drinkers – who can be issued a summons on a charge of minor in possession – but also the bars. They can lose their liquor licenses and be prosecuted criminally for serving minors — and that sometimes takes in not just bar owners but also bartenders, Simons said.
Of the problems that bars face when it comes to underage drinking, Rader said fake IDs pose the biggest challenge. But there's some forgiveness in the process.
Simons said that most of the time if a bar owner, server or bartender is found guilty of serving a minor, he or she is not at fault if a good faith effort was made to check identification. He said if someone has a very good fake ID, it can fool bouncers, and then they're not accountable. But if the ID is an obvious fake, they can face charges.
The new patrols have drawn negative reactions from some downtown bartenders and bouncers who say patrons dislike police being in bars. But Simons said that “as long as bars are doing what they should, it’s a solution” to the problem of underage drinking.
But Rader said even patrons over 21 might not feel comfortable being elbow-to-elbow with police in the bars. “When police come around, people are skittish," he said, "whether or not they are doing something wrong.”