It takes a lot for a bartender or a bouncer who has worked till closing to make an 8 a.m. meeting.
But several dozen showed up yesterday, along with the restaurateurs and tavern owners who employ them, to meet with Fairfax County police following a much-criticized Christmastime operation in which police entered bars and arrested customers for public intoxication.
An agent for the Virginia Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control Board listed a few ABC tips to determine drunkenness: The dangling, unflicked cigarette ash; frequent trips to the restroom; loud curses; a wobbly walk; slurred speech.
The audience saved its applause until Mike Curtin, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, asked why the training session came after the raids. "This meeting is about a month or two too late," he said. "It is our fervent hope that in the future we will work together to prevent the public embarrassment, public outcry and loss of revenues that have come out of these operations."
The outcry was raised over a December operation in which plainclothes officers entered 20 bars in Reston and Herndon looking for violations of state liquor laws. In three establishments, the agents summoned uniformed officers who arrested nine patrons for being drunk in public, a Class 4 misdemeanor. In Virginia, bars and restaurants are considered public places. Public intoxication is defined not by blood alcohol levels but by behavior and appearance.
In the two weeks since the arrests, Fairfax police have been bombarded with questions and criticism.
The entire Herndon Town Council has complained about the tactic and questioned why county police were raiding Herndon bars. Fairfax Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who represents the Reston area, has asked police to explain their actions. Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said she had "serious concerns" about a tactic that has won little community support. Hanley said the sting was unlikely to be repeated.
Police say their tactics have been unfairly characterized. Police Chief J. Thomas Manger alleged yesterday that an organized campaign against police has been spread on the Internet.
"People think that customers were yanked off bar stools by SWAT teams," he said. "That's untrue. What's true is that 18 people were asked to do sobriety tests voluntarily [and] half of whom were arrested. Public intoxication is against the law. You can't be drunk in a bar."
Asked where one could get drunk, he replied, "At home. Or at someone else's home, and stay there till you're not drunk."
Manger said police had done nothing improper. "If a patrol officer observes someone violating the law, I don't know how I could ask him not to enforce it," he said.
But several of the tavern owners and their customers contend that police overreached.
"We don't want to see police officers coming in, tapping people on the shoulder and giving them sobriety tests at the door," Jimmy Cerrito, owner of Jimmy's Old Town Tavern in Herndon, told the Town Council on Tuesday. Several of his customers were arrested, and the ABC is investigating whether to fine him.
Several council members said they never want it to be repeated in Herndon.
"It is the unanimous opinion of the council that police overstepped their bounds and overreacted," said council member John M. De Moyer. "It was improper behavior."
Council member Dennis D. Husch said police should have sought cooperation by educating residents that it is illegal to be drunk in a bar even with a designated driver.
"Fairfax County should investigate the circumstances that allowed such a twisted application of the law, a reprimand of who was involved to ensure it never happens again, and the issuing of a formal apology to the citizens of Herndon," he said.
The police are not without supporters, however.
"In our view, law enforcement is doing its job," said Chuck Hurley, an official with the National Transportation Council and former national board member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Hurley noted that the nine men arrested for being drunk in public had blood alcohol levels ranging from 0.14 to 0.22. The legal limit for drivers is 0.08.
"That's not just a few drinks," Hurley said. "Nothing in the Constitution says you're entitled to be intoxicated at these levels. These are somewhat unusual tactics. But given the facts, I support law enforcement. We consider Fairfax County police to be everyday heroes."
Supervisors Hanley and Hudgins said they had received numerous complaints about the raids. Last week, Hanley asked the county executive to review the operation and report back to the board.
"Certainly, I have serious concerns about it," she said. "While it's clear that police have to enforce all our laws, it's best done in a way that has community support. And community support of this particular method is clearly lacking. I think a review will show this particular method was not a success. And I am confident our police department will recognize that."