HAMILTON — Five bars accounted for nearly half of all police calls to businesses with liquor permits in 2009 and 2010, according to a JournalNews analysis of police records.
Police responded to the addresses for Club Car, Alibi’s Bar, J&J Bar, Grub Pub & Patio and Tailg8tors 642 times, or 47 percent of the total calls for service to bars, pubs, taverns and other watering holes over the two-year period, Hamilton police records show. Some of the calls include incidents occurring near the bar but were unrelated to the bar’s activities.
The city has recently targeted two of the bars — J&J Bar and Tailg8tors — in multiple attempts to convince the state to not renew their liquor permits. In each case, the Liquor License Commission, a three-member panel appointed by the governor, granted the renewals despite objections from the city and the Ohio Division of Liquor Control.
State law dictates that liquor permits must be renewed every year. State agencies and local governments can object to the renewal for various reasons, including tax and health code violations and activities that cause a nuisance in the neighborhood.
But revoking a liquor license is not an easy task, even when there are substantial problems associated with it, according to state and local officials.
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“We’re often very successful at the first hearing, but less successful as appeals progress through the system,” said Matt Mullins, spokesman for the Ohio Division of Liquor Control.
In 2010, before any appeals went to the Liquor Licensing Commission, the Division of Liquor Control supported objections to liquor permits 27 out of the 35 hearings where evidence was presented and a decision was rendered; so far this year, eight of 19 objections were supported by the Division, according to state records.
“The safety and welfare of Ohio citizens is the Division’s first priority,” Mullins said. “The Division’s decisions are guided by statutes, rules and legal cases in determining whether to overrule or sustain an objection.”
Statistics on commission rulings were not immediately available, but local cases show the city has had little success in winning favorable rulings.
“The commission usually sides more with the bar owner than with the city,” said Colleen Taylor, Hamilton assistant law director who handles liquor permit challenges.
“The question we get from the commission, can you prove that the people just came from the establishment or were going to the establishment? That’s hard to prove.”
The city has objected three times to renewing Millville Avenue’s Tailg8tors license to sell alcohol since 2009, according to Ohio Division of Liquor Control records. In each instance, the division supported the city’s stance and decided to reject the renewals, but on appeal, the Liquor Licensing Commission reversed the ruling and renewed the license, according to state records.
Taylor said most of the complaints have been about noise from motorcycles and loud trucks in the early morning hours.
Tailg8tors owner Nick Smithson said the problems stem primarily from one nearby resident who he said calls police to complain dozens of times a year.
Smithson, who bought the bar in August 2005, said he feels he is being unfairly targeted by the city because he has taken several steps to control problems and has reduced calls for service to his bar from an average of 53 calls in each of the past two years to 27 so far this year.
Those steps include installing 16 cameras in and around the bar, turning in fake driver’s licenses that he’s confiscated and posting a sign by the front door that gives notice to motorcycle gangs: “NO COLORS.”
“We do not want to be a problem,” Smithson said. “We haven’t turned a blind eye to anything. We have done everything they have asked and beyond that.”
There have been 11 challenges to J&J Bar’s liquor permit since 2006, but the liquor permit has never been revoked, according to state records. The citations include tax problems in previous years and an after-hours consumption in February, on which the city recently was notified that they lost the appeal, according to the city’s assistant law director.
Police responded to J&J Bar’s address on South Third Street 132 times in 2009 and 2010, including incidents of shootings and at least one stabbing, according to police records.
The owner of J&J Bar could not be reached for comment.
If the police get enough complaints from neighbors, or if there are continuous problems associated with a liquor establishment, vice officers will conduct an investigation which may lead to a recommendation to object to the license renewal, said Ryan Beckelhymer, spokesman for the Hamilton Police Department.
Beckelhymer said bars can take a variety of steps to make the atmosphere less-welcoming to troublesome patrons, including changing music, cutting people off when they’ve had too much and hiring a police officer for an off-duty detail.
“Just because the neighborhood is bad, doesn’t mean the bar is bad,” he said. “The owners are very important. They play a very intricate part in whether a bar is bad or not.”
Linda and Kenneth Sheehan, known as “Mom and Pop” of Club Car at the corner of East and Maple avenues, have been in business seven years in one of Hamilton’s roughest neighborhoods. The city has never challenged the renewal of their liquor license, though there were 141 calls for service to the bar’s address in 2009 and 2010.
Linda Sheehan said there is often a lot of drug and prostitution activity outside the bar and they stay vigilant about who comes inside. Many of the calls for service, she said, are made by the bartender to help deal with an unwanted patron and keep the peace.
“If they don’t want to leave, instead of getting violent with them, you call the police,” she said. “If you don’t call the police sometimes, you’re going to lose control of your bar.”
Shirley Horsley cringes a bit at the thought of a troublesome bar closing down. That’s because the patrons of that bar are likely to end up at other watering holes including her establishment, the Grub Pub & Patio at Hancock Avenue and Ohio 4.
The bar serves lunch and has a family-friendly atmosphere during the day, but there’s a different clientele at night, Horsley said. Twelve cameras provide added security in and around the establishment, and Horsley said she has often assisted police in providing video footage that helped criminal investigations in the neighborhood.
“Our biggest problem is that people don’t leave when they are told to leave,” she said.
Police responded to the Grub Pub address 124 times in 2009 and 2010.
Similar to what the Sheehans said, Horsley said the high number of calls reflects barmaids being proactive in calling the police when there’s a problem.
Police responded to the address for Alibi’s Bar 139 times in 2009 and 2010, according to police records. Travis Grimes, bartender and son of owner James Grimes, said most of the calls have been because of neighbors calling the police about noise and other disturbances going on outside the bar.
“There’s hardly ever any problems inside this bar,” Grimes said, “because most of the people coming here have been coming for 40 or 50 years and everybody knows each other.”