Concern over density of alcohol sales prompts mass liquor law compliance sweep

By Gary Walker

LAPD officers issue open container citations during  a gathering of the Venice Drum Circle Photo by Ted Soqui

LAPD officers issue open container citations during
a gathering of the Venice Drum Circle
Photo by Ted Soqui

Responding to worries by many longtime residents that there are too many outlets for alcohol sales in Venice, agents with the California Dept. of Alcoholic Beverage Control conducted a mass inspection of local bars, restaurants and liquor stores on March 19.

State ABC agents accompanied by local police and community leaders checked liquor licenses and reviewed compliance with health and safety laws at about 100 area businesses, finding a small number of California Business and Professions Code violations.

“We’ve never done an operation this big [west of downtown L.A.],” ABC Supervising Agent in Charge Will Salao said.

The sweep came as part of the ABC’s Informed Merchants Preventing Alcohol-Related Crime Tendencies (IMPACT) program, intended to educate retailers and restaurateurs on how to reduce alcohol-related crimes such as sales to minors and people who’ve already had too much to drink.

“We need businesses to help prevent problems in the community and reduce tragedies on the roads by properly checking identifications and refusing to serve individuals who are obviously intoxicated,” Salao said. “IMPACT inspections can help achieve that and also reduce public nuisance problems.”

The IMPACT inspections were unannounced but, unlike undercover sting operations, were not intended to catch illegal sales in the act. Agents instead focused on identifying areas of noncompliance and informing alcohol sellers of the need to correct them.

“We’ll eventually follow up with our most egregious violators,” Salao said.

Venice Neighborhood Council member Robin Rudisill, who accompanied a group of agents during inspections, praised the agency for being responsive to public concern.

“I’m very impressed and appreciative that ABC is doing this. I think this is one of the first times that I’ve seen a government body take our concerns this seriously and actually react in a way that is being helpful to us,” Rudisill said.

Salao said the operation was a direct response to discussions among community leaders and advocacy by nonprofit organizations about the high density of alcohol-sales outlets in Venice.

The Westside Impact Project, a Los Angeles County Dept. of Public Health-funded effort to reduce underage and binge drinking rates in Santa Monica and Venice, staged a series of undercover alcohol purchases in December to gauge how frequently retailers checked identification during sales to young people.

The group’s Operation Safe Sale found that eight of 10 targeted locations in Venice did not ask for age identification when selling alcohol to 21-year-old volunteers. In Santa Monica, only one in 10 retailers failed to check ID.

Last month the Venice Neighborhood Council hosted a town hall meeting to discuss the number of stores, bars and restaurants in Venice that sell alcohol.

According to the Westside Impact Project, the density of alcohol sales outlets in Venice — 34 per square mile — is among the highest in Los Angeles County, where the overall average is four outlets per square mile.

California Dept. of Alcoholic Beverage Control records show 98 liquor licenses in Venice. In April 2013 the Westside Impact Project counted 106 in Venice and 330 in Santa Monica.

“The numbers are there. This points out that operational practices really matter,” Westside Impact Project manager Sarah Blanch said. “There is a lot of passion about [density of alcohol sales] in Venice. I would say it’s one of the community’s biggest concerns.”

Holding the line on alcohol sales has been a major talking point for those opposed to the Gjusta bakery expanding its operations at 320 Sunset Ave. with a late-night outdoor dining patio near a residential area.

At a Nov. 13 administrative hearing, LAPD Capt. Brian Johnson (then head of the department’s Pacific Division) publicly stated his opposition to granting Gjusta a liquor license due to an already high density of alcohol-selling businesses in Venice. Gjusta’s application is still pending.

“People coming to hearings and being more active has made all the difference,” said Rudisill, who reviews liquor license applications as a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee.