At the end of last year, many businesses and music fans declared victory when the Denver City Council approved an ordinance allowing patrons over the age of sixteen to play with the big kids at approved establishments that provide both booze and entertainment. The city had changed its all-ages enforcement policies earlier in the year, a move that inspired community leaders and punked-out bandmembers to point out that kids need access to live music as an alternative to mall, street and drug cultures. The issue ultimately went to a thirty-person citizen task force, which worked with city officials for six months to come up with a solution. In December, councilmembers finally passed the proposal (only Debbie Ortega voted against it).
But not everyone regarded the new rules as a positive development. Although the Denver Police Department was relatively quiet at the final public hearing, the department had already made it clear that there were simply too few officers to ensure the safety of kids suddenly thrust into environments where alcohol was as easily attained as a temporary case of tinnitus. While the initial goal had been to come up with rules that would apply to music venues interested in serving an all-ages audience, the ordinance also opened the door for any and all cabarets -- plain old bars, basically -- to apply for the right to have kids on their premises. Should the proposal pass, two officers had told the task force at an early meeting, the DPD would do its best to determine early on which establishments could be trusted to do their own policing. And the wording of the ordinance gave them a tool to take care of potential trouble spots: It prohibits any club that's received a police citation from applying for an all-ages permit for two years. That language has already prevented clubs like the Church from opening their doors to those over sixteen.
"It was very clear that they fully intended to try to establish a baseline of who was on the up and up and who was maybe not so trustworthy," Rock Island's David Clammage, who sat on the task force's ordinance committee, says of the DPD. "They basically said, 'If we're going to do this, we have to do it to everybody so that we know it's a level playing field.'"
And lately the cops have been living up to their words, keeping a close eye on businesses all over town. In October the DPD launched a sweeping campaign of undercover sting operations at more than 120 cabarets, everything from dance clubs like Rock Island to more general bar-and-grill-type places like Govnr's Park. Of those, nearly forty were ticketed and fined after cadets under the age of 21 were permitted access and served alcohol.
While DPD lieutenant Tony Lopez, commander of street enforcement for the vice bureau, maintains that the stings are part of a routine and ongoing effort, he also acknowledges that the department began using underage cadets once the all-ages ordinance started moving through the task force. "We have always done bar inspections; it's just one of the many things that we are responsible for," Lopez says. "We started using the cadets as a new tool when the all-ages issue became another of our responsibilities. We respond to complaints and sometimes just pick a place randomly. But if we reduce the number of places that are going to bring these young people in and not know how to handle them, then all the better. I am not too comfortable about putting an eighteen-year-old in an environment where people are drinking, and a lot of us have felt that way since this thing started."
Wayne Chicino has never been comfortable with the idea of letting minors in his bar. As the general manager of Charlie's on East Colfax for over twenty years -- during that time, his club had never received a single citation from the city -- he says that Charlie's and other bars are now paying the price for an ordinance that many of them opposed from the beginning. Like the nearly twenty other members of the Tavern Guild, an association of local gay-bar owners, Chicino lobbied vigorously against the all-ages proposal, regarding it as a fiasco in the making. "There was discussion in the early meetings about the city using nuisance abatement as a way to prevent people from obtaining the all-ages permit," he says. "As soon as I heard that, I knew that we were headed for trouble."
But it turned out that trouble was actually headed for Charlie's. In November the club was fined, ticketed and ordered to close for one day after a bartender served a nineteen-year-old undercover cadet who had cleared the doorman. (The doorman was fired the next day. "Unfortunately, firing was all that I could do to him," Chicino says.) On the night Charlie's closed for business two weeks ago, Chicino rented his parking spaces to concertgoers attending the Willie Nelson concert across the street at the Fillmore in an attempt to make up the lost bar revenue.
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In the past, Chicino says, his club's relationship with the police and the city has always been friendly and open; Charlie's even hosted seminars for other bar owners who needed help in identifying minors, with police officers providing instruction. And while Chicino says he doesn't believe that gay establishments have been a DPD target during the recent sting operation, many of them have been hit hard. Over the past three months, the Brig, the Detour, BJ's Carousel and Tequila Rose have all received citations. Chicino lays the blame squarely on the ordinance that he's loathed from the start.
"I commend [police chief] Gerry Whitman for wanting to get to this thing early," Chicino says. "But there should be some consideration of the fact that some places have no interest whatsoever in being involved in this. Gay bars, in particular, are never going to want to open their doors to children, because there's already a perception that gay clubs try to prey on the young. We've proven ourselves time and time again. They always come in in uniform to be sure that things are running properly, and we welcome them. But to bring an underager in on purpose... After 21 years, I just didn't think that we would be susceptible to this method, where they send in a cadet who looks like he's thirty."
Chicino says the all-ages ordinance has created other problems for Charlie's. Since it passed, he's had to beef up his door staff and constantly field calls from teenagers who think they can now legally enter any club they like.
"They don't realize that there's a form of due process, that a place has to apply for this so-called privilege," he says. "My phone rings off the hook with young children who expect to be permitted in here. The very last thing in the world that I would want to do is make it easier for a child to come in our bar."