City to bar owners: Police your crowds Proposed law in Charleston calls for expanded security

Charleston's lively night life, like East Bay Street on Wednesday night, has prompted the city to consider a “Late Night Entertainment Establishment Ordinance,” under which bar owners would be called upon to control their patrons inside and outside their clubs.

Charleston's late-night bars could soon pick up more of the cost and burden of policing rowdy crowds.

An ordinance making its way through City Council would require bar operators to provide security, police sidewalks in front of their business and make sure their parking lots are cleared out 30 minutes after closing time.

Also, doors and windows on establishments where music is played would have to be shut and sealed by 11 p.m., and “management techniques” for crowds would have to be observed, and security personnel would have to wear readily identifiable clothing.

The “Late Night Entertainment Establishment Ordinance” was formally introduced to council this week.

The effort, backed by Mayor Joe Riley, comes as Police Chief Greg Mullen in recent months has been highlighting what he said is a pattern of sometimes unruly behavior downtown, including around the City Market and King Street bar district, which draws the highest mix of visitors, students, tourists and locals.

If the ordinance is adopted in the coming weeks, repeated failure to comply could lead to court appearances or jeopardize business licenses and occupancy permits. Passage appears likely given the early nods of support.

Mullen said the ordinance is similar to that of other cities and is aimed at “creating a collective mindset” that everyone has a stake in keeping the bar scene orderly.

“If you are operating a business, you are creating that crowd,” he said.

Other aspects of the proposed ordinance include security personnel tied to occupancy rates, and door people and other personnel requirements needed after midnight.

Some of the questions sure to be raised by bar owners: Will the ordinance mean hiring multiple new security staffers? How much training will be needed? What are the potential insurance liabilities and costs?

The ordinance is not coming out of a vacuum. Mullen has repeatedly said the worst times for the behavior are often seasonal, or are tied to the restart of college semesters. He has also shown police video of young people leaving bars and clogging narrow sidewalks or flooding directly into the streets alongside cars.

Some bar operators say the city is overextending its authority, essentially telling private enterprises how many employees they have to hire and requiring them to police crowds outside their doors and in parking lots.

“I don't see what authority I have to tell people to get off the sidewalk,” said Jim Curley, owner of AC's Bar and Grill on King Street.

Drunks and rowdy street people have ignored his staff before when they were asked to move along, he said.

“They don't recognize me as having any authority,” Curley said.

Not all bar operators are against the change. Andrew Zuccarini, general manager of the Mad River Bar and Grill at the Market, said his business already is following many of the planks in the ordinance, including security people being easily identified and numerous.

“I'm in agreement with everything they are doing,” he said.

While the ordinance seems to have collected overwhelming support when it was introduced Tuesday, some council members still have questions over legal issues. Councilman Aubry Alexander wanted to know the ramifications of someone being made part of a bar's security team but without any management training.

“What made me nervous was having untrained individuals performing crowd control,” Alexander said. He worries about “some ruffian out there that is going to push people around and perform something that could be avoided.”

The training aspect was sent back to the city's legal department to look at. Mullen said he already has been providing security classes for local businesses, but said they have been poorly attended.

Meanwhile, the chief is still trying to get as many as eight more officers assigned to the bar district, something he expects to happen this year with money from the city's accommodations tax.

Mullen said all the measures are needed to keep the bar area safe and prosperous. It is reflective of a city “with this kind of vibrancy,” he said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.