FARGO — The city of Fargo is changing how it evaluates liquor license compliance, moving away from things like tallying police calls for service and more towards a deeper dive into what is happening in and around drinking establishments.
That's according to Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski, who said changes began taking shape about nine months ago, after liquor license enforcement came under greater scrutiny by the Fargo City Commission.
Zibolski said one of the first steps the police department took was to review calls for service to particular establishments to determine how much the calls actually had to do with a given tavern.
"Our analysis showed that way less than half the calls for service had anything to do with a particular liquor establishment," Zibolski said, noting that in many cases calls for service to a tavern's address actually involved things like accidents that occurred nearby, or incidents on sidewalks or in apartments that shared the same address.
"Rarely in any instance do numbers alone tell the complete story. You always have to have context with numbers," said Zibolski, who added that the police department has a new process in place that requires officers called to a liquor establishment to fill out a form that attempts to clearly identify what the call was about and how much it involved the business itself.
Zibolski said in some cases calls for service to a business are a good thing, as it may reflect a desire on the part of a business to address issues that need attention.
"That's a good piece. And then there's the negative one, where we have to make referrals to prosecutors," Zibolski said.
Another change in how liquor license compliance is managed involves the city's Liquor Control Committee itself.
In the past, the board included two city commissioners and staff, including Zibolski, who said in his opinion a police chief sitting on such a board is a conflict of interest.
Under the reconstituted board, a city commissioner chairs the committee, but its membership is more citizen focused.
City employees, like Zibolski, who once were part of the committee now provide information to the committee from their individual area of responsibility.
Zibolski said that change and others that have been made in recent months will be noticeable at the liquor board's upcoming meeting at 1 p.m. Wednesday, July 28.
He said some establishments will be talked about that have done good things, but said a number of other issues will also be brought to the board's attention.
Africa nightclub review
Before the liquor board meets Wednesday, city commissioners will meet at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 27, to further consider the status of the liquor license held by the Africa International Restaurant and Nightclub, located at 4554 7th Ave. E., in Fargo.
On July 1, the city commission issued an interim suspension of the tavern's license due to public safety concerns pending a hearing on a recommendation from the liquor control board that the city suspend the bar's license.
City Auditor Steve Sprague, who oversees liquor licensing matters, has said such a suspension would be the first in the city in perhaps two decades.
At a liquor control board meeting that was held prior to the city commission issuing the interim suspension, Zibolski provided board members with a list of incidents at the bar, including the killing in May of security employee Dominique Dewayne McNair, 28.
So far, police have not publicly named any suspects in the case.
Zibolski documented several incidents that occurred at the bar in April and May, including overserving of patrons, fights in the parking lot, serving of a minor, disorderly conduct, loud music, assaults, and shots being fired outside the club.
In one incident, the chief reported that police responded to a call on May 29 from a party bus driver who said the 30 patrons who had been at the bar were highly intoxicated, with some urinating inside the bus. In another report, a woman fired gunshots outside the bar about 12:30 a.m. in a domestic case that resulted in charges.
During his presentation to the liquor board, Zibolski focused on security issues, noting that a security guard who performed patdowns and checked bags as patrons entered the bar was someone with a felony conviction who shouldn't have been in a position to potentially handle firearms.
Zibolski also showed board members security video of three men holding handguns in the bar on the night the fatal shooting occurred outside the business. At least two of the men were said to be security staff.
In a recent interview, Zibolski said the investigation into the fatal shooting involves "any and all entities from a criminal perspective."
He added that when it comes to business practices at the bar, Fargo police have passed some information to the liquor control board that may involve "investigation with state and federal entities."
The latter is being followed up on by the city auditor, Zibolski said.
Hearing both sides
City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn, who remains chairman of the liquor control committee, has also said federal officials may be part of investigations into happenings at the Africa nightclub.
However, in a recent interview he declined to speak at length about that possibility, stating he was looking ahead to Tuesday's city commission meeting to learn more about the situation.
"I really don't want to comment too much until that time, because that's when both sides will get to hear what the other has to say," Piepkorn said.
Former Africa attorney Stephen Baird has said the business dealt with all the violent situations retroactively, adding the nightclub revised its screening practices for armed patrons and has also employed a scanner to detect fake identification cards and to keep track of patrons who have gotten in trouble before.
Individuals who get in trouble at the bar in fights or become over-intoxicated are now put on a ban list, Baird said.
Asked about comments some members of the public have made regarding the enforcement action against the Africa nightclub and the possibility the business was being unfairly singled out, Zibolski stated that was "not the case at all."
He said given the same factors he would have made the same enforcement recommendation for any business.
Zibolski added that the new process of evaluating liquor license compliance and the new structure of the liquor board should help ensure fairness in addressing liquor license issues, while also raising the bar on accountability.
"We want to have successful, thriving businesses. But, we also need to assure public safety and responsible business practices," he said.