One year later with 21-only, police find calmer downtown

BY HAYLEY BRUCE | MAY 09, 2011 7:20 AM

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On a warm May night around 12:45 a.m., three Iowa City police officers stood in the center of the Pedestrian Mall, arms folded, surveying four scattered groups of students.

"We're going to DC's," one officer declared, and the other two followed.

But just minutes after they enter the 21-only establishment, the three exit.

Not a student in tow.

On the same night last year, police said they might have issued a ticket to an underage student in the bar. Not anymore.

The underage students aren't downtown, officers say. At least not after 10 p.m., when the ordinance kicks in.

"Before 10, we're busy," said Iowa City police Officer Rob Cash. "Now, with 19- and 20-year-olds … we're seeing an earlier bar rush — especially the [Friday After Class] crowd."

The Iowa City City Council implemented the 21-ordinance — which restricts minors under 21 from entering bars — on June 1, 2010, and voters upheld it in November 2010. Since then, local police who work the downtown beat said they experience a rush from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Then things settle down.

And recent statistics back it up.

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Since the 21-ordinance, possession of alcohol under the legal age citations have been sliced by more than half — dropping from 758 PAULAs in the 11 months before the ordinance to just 249 this year as of Sunday. The number of tickets for presence in a bar after hours has jumped from 63 during the roughly 11 months before the ordinance to 166 after.

And while some students swarm to the neighborhoods once the clock hits 10, others line up outside exempt establishments — which used to be regarded as restaurants.

Namely, police said Sam's Pizza, 441 S. Gilbert St., meets capacity every Wednesday night, having to turn people away during its karaoke night.

"We definitely hit it before, but it's huge now," Iowa City police Officer Niles Mercer said. "We had some issues with enforcement since we started paying attention to it, but it's just like any other bar, especially when it has a special event such as karaoke — either we go, or we get called there eventually."

The Airliner, 22 S. Clinton St., has always been a popular spot, police said. But they speculate much of the crowd is underage.

"The underage students flock to places with exemptions," Mercer said. "Entrance is easy because so many kids have IDs. I bet half the kids in the Airliner are underage, but there's no way of measuring that."

And while officers said it's tough to judge whether fake IDs are being used more than before, they agreed the fake IDs are of better quality.

Now, officers said students are customizing their fake IDs on the Internet, purchasing numerous copies of plastic with their real names, information, and photos.

"I did [Friday After Class] last week, and at least eight of the licenses I collected had holograms," Mercer said. "They're very close to the real thing; I can see why the doormen don't know the difference."

While officers still deal with the occasional argument or lost intoxicated students, police said they aren't seeing the inappropriate behavior and assaults they used to, a result of the older crowd.

"The older students go downtown to see their friends and dance; the younger students are down here for different reasons," said Iowa City police Sgt. Brian Krei.

Johnson County Ambulance Service Director Steve Spenler said calls to downtown have dropped 4 percent since the ordinance — a change officers have noticed as well.

"It's nothing compared with what it was," Krei said. "I remember nights when the ambulance would park right there on Clinton [Street] because it would save time."

Although downtown improvements have previously been credited to increased presence and enforcement, officers said they didn't think things would have turned around without the 21-ordinance.

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