What should you do if a police officer stops you on the street on your way home from a bar or club and demands to know where you’ve been drinking?

Don’t tell them.


We wanted to tell you to lie—to tell them you had beers at home, or to say you were drinking in a bar that no longer exists, like Manray, Kincora, or Sugar—but that would be illegal. Deliberately lying to a police officer is false reporting, and that’s a crime, so you shouldn’t do it. We would be technically obstructing justice if we told you to lie, which is why we’re not telling you to lie.

But you don’t have to answer the question, and you shouldn’t answer the question.

Earlier this month, the office of City Attorney Tom Carr warned Capitol Hill bar owners that police will approach apparently intoxicated pedestrians, ask them where they’ve been drinking, and try to shut down any bars they name. Many bar owners claim that menacing police patrols have already begun and that Carr’s latest crackdown appears to be politically motivated.

Bar and club owners have united to oust Carr—who is up for reelection after eight year in office—because Carr has protested liquor licenses, imposed onerous restrictions on upstanding businesses, and, most infamously, was a leading force in an aggressive 2007 anti-nightlife sting called Operation Sobering Thought. A campaign of organized harassment that cost the city tens of thousands of dollars, Operation Sobering Thought resulted in zero convictions and sparked an avalanche of bad press for Carr’s office.

Walking past the bars that line Pike and Pine streets, you can’t miss the campaign signs for Carr’s challenger, Pete Holmes. A police-accountability advocate, Holmes is an attorney who has practiced in Seattle for 24 years. Neumos on 10th Avenue and Pike Street has two billboard-sized banners for Holmes. Havana, across the street, held a benefit for Holmes this month, and so did the Crocodile in Belltown.

On October 6, about 40 bar and club owners attended a meeting in the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct headquarters. The monthly meetings, which have a history of constructive dialogue with law enforcement, have served as a monthly check-in to collaborate on ways to keep the nightlife scene safe. But this meeting was different.

Tienney Milnor is the East Precinct city attorney liaison for Carr’s office. According to numerous people who attended the meeting, Milnor accused the bars of being responsible for a rising trend of assaults and robberies on Capitol Hill. People are being overserved, she reportedly said, and then assaulting and robbing people when they leave the bars. Carr, reached by phone after the meeting, repeated Milnor’s claim that there is a problem with overservice and associated violence near the clubs on Capitol Hill. “I believe bars that serve alcohol and push people out on the street who are intoxicated bear some responsibility for what those people do, especially in circumstances of overservice,” he said.

At the meeting, Milnor warned that police will begin patrolling the streets of Capitol Hill looking for visibly intoxicated people, asking where they’ve been drinking, and keeping tabs on those bars. (Remember: If you are approached, don’t answer.) The city would be working with the Washington State Liquor Control Board to issue citations, take away licenses, and shut down any bars that were named.

“She said it three or four different times that… we would lose our licenses,” says Mike Meckling, owner of Neumos and Moe Bar, who attended the meeting. “We haven’t had problems with overservice, we haven’t been cited for anything.”

The pitch of Milnor’s tirade then sharpened, according to Meckling and nearly a dozen other people who attended the meeting.

“The next thing she said that blew people away is how angry she would be if she were prosecuting some guy that had shot his wife after getting drunk in one of our bars,” says Meckling, who is also president of the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association. “At one point, she called for a raise of hands for who wanted their licenses taken away,” Meckling says. “It’s like, could this be more patronizing?”

“They were looking at us like we are not legitimate, above-the-board businesses,” says Jeff Ofelt, a co-owner of the Cha Cha and King’s Hardware, “like we’re doing something criminal.” He also confirms Milnor’s threat: “If there was a fight a mile away, they were going to trace it back to the bar they were drinking at, which seems absurd.”

Ofelt is right. It is absurd to link bars to a spike in assaults and robberies on Capitol Hill, because assaults and robberies on Capitol Hill aren’t rising.

They’re going down.

Crime statistics from the Seattle Police Department, which track crimes monthly and are broken down by police beat, disprove the claims being made by Carr’s office. Comparing the most recent three-month period for which data is available—May through July of 2009—to the same three-month period last year shows no spike in assaults or robberies. In the three beats that include the Pike/Pine corridor and much of Capitol Hill and First Hill—within roughly a mile of all the bars in question—assaults dropped from 121 in 2008 to 119 in 2009. Robberies dropped from 23 to 21. Assaults and robberies are down or flat across all of Capitol Hill. Those aren’t significant declines, but they demonstrate the claims being made by Carr’s office are false.

When specifically asked where their figures are coming from, Milnor said, “This is just a general overview of what officers are seeing… I don’t have the exact dates.”

“She’s in the fucking city attorney’s office making policy in the East Precinct, and she doesn’t know the crime stats that she’s basing policy on?” says David Meinert, a nightlife advocate and producer of the Capitol Hill Block Party.

To find out what the police might be “seeing,” I called the SPD four times and asked for any accounts of overservice being linked to violent crime near the bars and clubs on Capitol Hill. The first officer I spoke to told me that the crime statistics I had were the only reliable data. (“Those are the facts.”) When asked if there was any anecdotal evidence of crime related to these bars—anything that would support Carr and Milnor’s claims—the officer told me that “anecdotes are inconclusive.” Each time I called police, I asked to speak to an officer in the East Precinct familiar with bar-related violence. Each time, officers said they would call back. In five days, no officers returned calls with alternative crime data or information about crime on Capitol Hill.

Milnor insists that the bar owners who attended the meeting are collectively experiencing “confusion” about her remarks. After Meckling sent a sharply worded e-mail to the mayor’s office, Milnor sent out an e-mail clarifying her position. “The city and specifically the East Precinct has not made any policy changes regarding the drinking establishments,” she wrote. But she cited a rise in assaults and robberies in her e-mail, the supposed “spike” that remains uncorroborated by data or the SPD. She also said that, in addition to concerns of drunk people perpetrating offenses, drunk people can be targeted for crime because they are incapacitated. Carr said that her “clarification” was intended to “make it absolutely clear that we want people to not overserve, to check IDs, and to not do anything that they’re not supposed to do. It’s not in anybody’s interest to have violence up on Capitol Hill.”

Milnor confirmed in her conversation with me that officers will be stopping and questioning visibly intoxicated people. Officers will ask, says Milnor, “Where have you been? Where are you going?” (Once again: You don’t have to answer those questions.)

“To assume that the drunk person even knows what you’re asking them—if they’re so drunk—is a bad assumption,” argues Meinert. “If I’m drinking at Joe’s Bar, and I leave and get stopped by the police and they ask me where I have been drinking, I’m probably not going to tell them Joe’s Bar,” he adds. “Because I like Joe’s Bar. Instead, I’m going to tell them I was somewhere else—maybe a bar I don’t like.”

As for her threats to shut down bars, Milnor says no new sting is under way. “It’s a matter of understanding what the ramifications are, but I don’t think I really went into that. I said we don’t want to have to cite people.”

But since the meeting with Milnor, police officers have been harassing bars on Capitol Hill, according to witnesses. “I’ve always had nothing but a great experience with [the SPD] until this last couple weeks,” says one bar owner, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “We were right at capacity on a weekend night. Two officers came in. They were making threats about calling other city department heads to come in.” The bar owner says he hadn’t exceeded capacity limits. But he was concerned that “constant harassment” would lead him to “shut down,” he says. “They make it hard enough [to run a nightclub] as it is, to make it harder seems impossible.”

“There have been increased visits in the last week since the meeting at the East Precinct,” says another bar owner, who also asked to remain anonymous. “More importantly, the tone of the visits has changed. They are more menacing and more confrontational. And this all coincides with the nightlife community’s support of Pete Holmes.”

Bar owners are rightly concerned about a nightlife crackdown tainted by political overtones. In 2007, Carr and the Seattle Police Department conducted Operation Sobering Thought one week before the city council was set to vote on strict new legislation to regulate nightclubs. Police claimed that two dozen people either illegally served minors or let undercover officers who didn’t have valid ID into bars. But the campaign was widely considered overzealous and sloppy. Among the follies, police jailed a bar employee for 11 hours, allegedly for serving a drink to a drunk man—which would be considered overservice—but the Seattle Times wrote that the police report indicates that the bartender “poured him a glass of water.” Carr charged the bartenders and doormen who were arrested with gross misdemeanors, punishable by a year in jail, but not a single case resulted in a conviction.

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After Operation Sobering Thought was slammed in the press, Mayor Greg Nickels opened a dialogue between city hall and club owners. Carr offered plea agreements for lesser charges to 17 of the defendants, most of whom had no criminal history, Carr says. For nearly a year, police have been polite, say club owners, and meetings at the East Precinct headquarters have been constructive and cordial. But the tone shifted after Nickels lost the primary election.

“This is Tom Carr’s office being vindictive about nightlife,” says Meinert. “It looks like a political calculation. At the beginning of this race, Carr tried to reach out to the music community and get our support. People pretty much said, hands down, we don’t trust him—we need to get someone new in there.”

For his part, Carr insists bar owners are targeting him.

“How many people have you heard from?” Carr asked, when I told him that numerous bar owners were disconcerted by the threats made by Milnor. “And how many [of those people] have had fundraisers for my opponent?”

Carr says he wouldn’t launch a politically motivated campaign against the clubs because they are campaigning for his opponent.

“Why would I want to stir this pot right now?” Carr asks. “That makes no sense whatsoever.”

Here’s what makes no sense: Carr’s office claims, with no data to back it up (the data, again, contradicts Carr’s office), that there’s a growing problem with overservice in bars and clubs, leading to violence. But one week before the East Precinct meeting where Milnor threatened the club owners, Carr defended Operation Sobering Thought to the Stranger Election Control Board by claiming the effort had led to a lasting decrease in overservice and alcohol-related violence. “The success that I measured was things calmed down,” Carr said in September. Just last week, when discussing Operation Sobering Thought, Carr said, “Maybe checking the IDs, doing a better job of [avoiding] overservice, and searching for weapons has limited some of the problems, which is what we were hoping for.”

It also made no sense for Carr and the SPD to launch Operation Sobering Thought right before the city council was to vote on nightlife legislation in 2007. The sting effectively sabotaged the bill—Nickels vetoed it under rising pressure from the media and nightlife advocates that the sting was a political ploy.

Is this another terribly timed political stunt?

“The rationale for this thing sounds entirety manufactured,” says David Osgood, a criminal-defense attorney who defended several bar employees arrested and charged in Operation Sobering Thought. “When it smells fishy, you’ve got to look for the rot. Why are they doing it? Why now? The music and nightlife community, the bar owners, are all supporting Pete Holmes. Tom Carr takes things personally. He is a very vindictive person and a very reactionary person. This is his way of telling Pete Holmes supporters no more Mr. Nice Guy.”

Win reelection or lose, Carr’s latest efforts to go after the clubs could have serious consequences—for Carr.

“If we receive a complaint that Tom Carr is using city offices or facilities to assist his campaign, there would be penalties if we found a violation,” says Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

Arguably, a crackdown on clubs now, in the weeks before the election, would do more damage to Carr’s chances. So what’s really going on?

At a forum hosted by the West Seattle Democratic Women in late September, Carr revealed that his father, an alcoholic, died of an alcohol-related accident when Carr was 14 years old. “I don’t talk about this much,” he said. “When I was a kid, police would come to my house a lot. Back then, police would show up and just tell my dad to quiet down.” Carr is notoriously vindictive in political circles, has a reputation for taking things personally, and is quick to become agitated. Carr’s dislike for alcohol combined with what he may perceive as a personal rejection by the bar owners—made worse by their embrace of his opponent—may have set him off.

Another theory: Carr has always had it in for these bars, as is evident from his track record, but Nickels reined him in, particularly after the deluge of bad press following Operation Sobering Thought. After Nickels lost in the primary election—giving up any meaningful power he had over the city attorney’s office—Carr was free to launch a fresh crusade against the bars. The meeting on October 6 was the first after Nickels lost. Carr may see this time as a window to whack the bars before the next mayor takes office. If Carr fears he will lose the November election to Holmes, this may be his last chance to punish the bar owners for opposing him.

Lastly, perhaps Milnor was a loose cannon and Carr had nothing to do with her crazy rant, right before the election, ripping the scab off an embarrassing wound. Now Milnor and Carr are back-stepping to protect against the potential fallout. But this third theory doesn’t hold water. Milnor stands by her assertions of rising crime, and Carr stands by Milnor. Milnor says she and Carr talked before the meeting but didn’t discuss specific plans. On the topic of bars and nightlife, she says, they discussed “city laws and ordinance and we talked about creative solutions, proactive solutions” to dealing with bars. In other words, Carr knows what Milnor is doing, and they’re looking for “creative solutions” for dealing with bars. Osgood says, “‘Creative solution’ is another code word for harassment.”

Carr may get his revenge.

“If I had to go through what we went through before, I would sell my business without a doubt,” says Meckling. He claims that Neumos and Moe Bar have always vigilantly checked identification and refused service to anyone who is visibly intoxicated. He says, if he sells, “Then the city can deal with an irresponsible owner running a 700-person live-music venue and see how that affects the neighborhood.”

Meinert doesn’t think Meckling is making an idle threat.

“When you work in the music business, your profit margins are pretty slim, you are doing it more out of passion than profit,” says Meinert. “When you then are being harassed on top of that by the city, you have more incentive to just do something else.”

Carr opponent Holmes grasps the value of bars and clubs. “They are going to be a key part of the city’s economic recovery, as a tourist city and a city of music,” Holmes says. “They need to be encouraged, not repressed.”

In 2008, the 2,000 businesses in Seattle’s music and nightlife industry created over 11,000 jobs and generated $90 million in local and state taxes. The industry, says Meinert, “employs thousands of people, it pays taxes, and it’s an economic engine.”

“In my mind, Operation Sobering Thought was a mistake,” Holmes says. “It would be refreshing if Tom Carr would just admit that it was a mistake.” Holmes adds that the state liquor board has jurisdiction of overservice in a bar and is the “most appropriate” entity to deal with overservice problems—if they exist. “Coercion is something that has to be used sparingly.”

“If you are a fan of nightlife, there is no reason for you to vote for Tom Carr,” says Quentin Ertel, owner of Havana on Pike Street. “You have every reason to vote for Pete Holmes.” recommended

This article has been updated since its original publication.

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