With Idaho bars more open than in Washington, fights and assaults have spiked in Coeur d'Alene

The Moose Lounge in downtown Coeur d'Alene.
The Moose Lounge in downtown Coeur d'Alene.

In mid-November, Washington bar and restaurant owners yet again learned they'd need to close to in-person dining and drinking, which has not been at full capacity since the first pandemic-related shutdown last March.

Drive a half hour east of Spokane, though, and Coeur d'Alene bars and restaurants have largely been able to remain open, with little to no indication that much of normal life has been put on pause just across the state line.

For law enforcement, it quickly became clear this winter that the difference in rules was contributing to an uptick in assaults, highly intoxicated people hanging around outside bars, fights, and other alcohol-related crimes in the Lake City's downtown.

Coeur d'Alene is a tourist town, and it's not unusual for the police there to plan extra patrols to deal with swelling crowds of out-of-towners. But that's usually during the summer months, when extra officers on overtime help patrol the beach and downtown area as the demand rises, according to Coeur d'Alene Police Chief Lee White.

However, this winter the issues around the downtown nightlife scene have become so numerous that more officers have had to be brought on to deal with a new wave of crime. Overservice of alcohol, property damage, drunk driving, groping and fights — some involving guns — have all become more prevalent.

"The problems are largely surrounding four bars, and those are Mik's, the Moose [Lounge], Iron Horse and The Beacon," White told the Coeur d'Alene City Council during a presentation on Feb. 16. "The problems usually start around 10 pm and go until about 3 am most Fridays and Saturdays."

Between those four locations, there were 122 calls for service on the weekend evenings from Jan. 1 to Feb. 9, with a noticeably higher number of fights and alcohol-related crimes than in previous times, White noted. That's significantly higher than calls to those bars during the same months over the last two years, making it seem like outside traffic may be a significant factor.

In response to White and others raising concerns, owners at those four bars have voluntarily agreed to close earlier on Friday and Saturday nights in an effort to reduce the issues. The Corner Bar, meanwhile, got lambasted on social media after telling the public they no longer will accept customers with out-of-state identification cards, including from Washington. White told council members that some other bars have also said that if groups come in and say they're from Spokane, they encourage them to leave.

But it remains to be seen whether the reduced hours, and in some cases the preference not to serve customers based on residence, will reduce the issues or not.

THE PROBLEM

In a sampling of 100 cases from the last year, 50 incidents at the problem locations involved Idaho residents, 43 involved people from Washington, and the remaining handful involved people from other states.

During his presentation to the council on Feb. 16, White emphasized that the recent issues have to do with overservice, and the fact that more people are coming from Spokane and Washington than usual. He noted that multiple people contacted during the past few months self-identified as gang members from Spokane who needed special treatment when taken to jail.

He showed a short compilation video illustrating just a few incidents downtown this winter captured on body cameras. More serious incidents weren't shown because the suspects hadn't been convicted yet. In one case, White noted that an officer had gotten three calls to respond to a fight in just half an hour.

In one clip inside a bar, a man wearing a white T-shirt bearing the message "Actually, fighting does solve everything" crosses his arms as an officer checks his identification.

"You can't even be in here, dog," the man tells the officer wearing the camera. After another officer returns his ID, he leans forward and says, "[Expletive] feds! [Expletive] you. Beat it [expletive]."

In another clip, a man cannot stop swaying and stumbling on the sidewalk as an officer asks for his ID. Police ask him to lean against the wall so he doesn't fall over, and as soon as he does, the man slumps to sit on the ground.

In yet another shot, a man is being held up by two friends near an intersection. One wipes his face with a paper towel or napkin. An officer asks if he got in a fight because there's apparently blood, and the friends say he just fell on his face.

"The continued shutdown in Washington is obviously contributing to some of the activity we're seeing here," White notes.

Overservice appears to play a role in nearly all of the incidents, and White noted in his presentation that more than 60 reports of overservice have been filed with the Idaho State Patrol's Alcohol Beverage Control bureau.

The Inlander left messages seeking comment from managers or owners of each of the four bars that have been singled out. All either did not respond or declined to comment.

"We are extremely concerned the next big event is just around the corner," White says. "By that I mean a murder, a shooting, a stabbing, a really provocative rape, something like that."

WHAT'S NEXT

Idaho State Patrol's bureau in charge of alcohol enforcement can put together cases for administrative violations and track and punish businesses where crimes keep happening.

The alcohol violations submitted by local officers to the state agency this year could result in penalties for businesses, including fines or even suspension of a license and the ability to serve alcohol, if any incidents are found to be severe enough.

Short of that, the Coeur d'Alene council could consider other options such as a required curfew or early closing time for businesses in the problem area.

All four bars that were singled out as having the most calls have since voluntarily opted to make their last call earlier on Friday and Saturdays, with all closing around midnight on the weekends now.

However, there were still plenty of calls for intoxicated people until about 2 am the first weekend of the experiment (Feb. 19 and 20), says Coeur d'Alene Officer Mario Rios, who typically serves as a school resource officer at Coeur d'Alene High School and is a public information officer for the department. He worked a late shift that weekend and says many alcohol-related calls still came in, which may have been related to other bars or people showing up downtown already drunk.

"What we've seen is sort of a cooperative effort brought up by the businesses on their own," Rios says, referring to the few bars who have opted to close early.

In his 20 years with the department, Rios really only recalls one other time period from about 2009 to 2012 when downtown saw these issues at the same level, noting it was "kind of the wild, wild West" until a particularly troublesome nightclub ceased operating.

"But now, obviously during this pandemic we're seeing that increase," he says.

While the bars see if the earlier closures help, officers like Rios will continue to be called on for overtime shifts to respond.

"We're still running our downtown emphasis on the weekends," he says.

When reached on Friday afternoon, Feb. 26, Rios was in the middle of essentially a double shift.

"It takes a lot of our time and resources," Rios says. "I started at 7 am today, and I'll be working until 2 am tonight — that's how much it's putting a tax on our resources."

Coeur d'Alene Mayor Steve Widmyer says by email that the city plans to work with Idaho State Patrol's alcohol enforcement unit "to strictly enforce the current laws on the books." While it appears the events have increased due to larger crowds, including people from Washington, Widmyer says he hasn't yet talked to politicians on this side of the state border about other possible solutions.

"Our main emphasis will be enforcing our laws in CdA," Widmyer writes. ♦

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...