There’s nothing like the freedom of downtown Las Vegas. Hanging out in front of the Beauty Bar, sporting your best skinny jeans, asymmetric haircut and Seattle-approved facial hair, drinking from that frosty 40-ounce can of PBR …
HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, SCOFFLAW!
While it may be news to those who have partied and perhaps drunk a wee bit too much in and around downtown, when you leave the visitor-friendly confines of the Fremont Street Experience you shouldn’t bring that beer or day-glow radioactive “margarita” east of Las Vegas Boulevard.
Merchants on East Fremont are teaming up with Metro, Las Vegas city marshalls and a new, uniformed private team of “Rangers” to have people leave those cans and drinks under the canopy.
Law enforcement unveiled the policy two weekends ago with a media barrage that included news reporting from channels 3, 5, 8 and 13 and stories in the Sun. Cops and Rangers and TV personalities saturated the Fremont East District, and those who brought their drinks with them from the Fremont Street Experience were asked politely to finish them, throw them away or walk back across Las Vegas Boulevard.
The laws aren’t actually new, but the enforcement was.
So: a new era of public boozing downtown.
Then, last weekend, we sent a team to test the enforcement on Thursday and Friday night. The mighty hand of law enforcement was nowhere to be found. People were drinking everywhere.
So: back to the old era of public boozing downtown?
JUST WHAT ARE THE RULES?
The first thing to know is that the rules for outdoor drinking are not the same as those south of Sahara Avenue, on the Strip, where pretty much anything goes as long as you’re not making a public nuisance of yourself. Downtown, there are laws that prohibit drinking alcohol purchased from an off-site retailer — 7-Eleven or supermarket, for example — within 1,000 feet of a bar.
So that means pretty much anywhere downtown. And that also applied to potent potables purchased at the outdoor bars at the Fremont Street Experience. Within the confines of the Experience, you’re free to imbibe, buy a drink in a casino, walk outside and generally not worry.
But don’t travel east of Las Vegas Boulevard with that can of suds, even in a brown paper bag, if you want to stay on the right side of the law.
That comes as news to some longtime residents. Steve “Downtown Steve” Franklin has been living and drinking downtown for many years. Informed of the rules, he waxes poetic while offering a few words of wisdom:
“A vision from the keeper of all good things downtown, The Blue Angel, spoke to me these words: ‘Eat, drink, be merry … and keep that shit on the down-low,’” Downtown Steve said. It should be noted that we saw him finish off an amber-colored liquid last Friday night in front of The Beat — not 20 feet from a gaggle of city marshals.
It is still possible to buy from a bar in East Fremont in a to-go cup and walk outside, because that, according to the statutes, is still legal. Few of the bars on East Fremont, though, are now selling in to-go cups.
The good news for downtown drinkers, if not drunks, is that the rules are spottily enforced. We dropped a couple of undercover imbibers to test the waters last week. On a Thursday night, our agent Kristy Totten got nary a raised eyebrow when she trotted from Sixth Street to Las Vegas Boulevard, and back again, with an open can of the devil’s brew.
“There were a lot of people out there with open containers,” she noted.
Metro police spokesman Officer Larry Hadfield said the downtown police officers can use their judgment as to whether to simply give folks with alcoholic beverages from outside the neighborhood a warning, but they can cite them for a misdemeanor, which can carry a $1,000 fine and six months in the pokey.
Police, it should be noted, have a cornucopia of statutes that can be used to roust knuckleheads, from disturbing the peace to public intoxication.
AGAIN WE ASK: JUST WHAT ARE THE RULES?
If the rules allowing or not allowing outside drinking downtown appear about as clear as mud to you, you’re not alone. When we asked the city why Las Vegas marshals were patrolling downtown, a spokesman directed our questions to Metro. When we called Metro, a spokesman directed the question back to the city.
And the Rangers? They directed enforcement questions back to Metro.
So it’s not clear who is enforcing what and where.
The Nevada ACLU has for years tangled with Metro and law enforcement and downtown, and the organization suggested that how (and if) the drinking laws are applied could be an issue in the future.
“If you have a law, it has to be applied across the board,” ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Tod Story said.
If Metro and friends indeed are looking for knuckleheads, they now have some help from the Rangers, a new uniformed force funded by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project.
The Rangers are led by Chris Curtis, who was wearing his Metro sergeant’s uniform just two weeks ago. Curtis says he worked with Hsieh to design the Rangers program.
“Tony asked me to do this and I said, ‘Let me think it out,’” Curtis said.
The Rangers will observe and report to law enforcement when necessary, and carry body cams to record their interactions with the public, but won’t play an active “Guardian Angel” type role in enforcing the rules, Curtis said.
The Rangers are trained to de-escalate situations in which, for example, people are arguing in a way that might lead to a bigger confrontation. They are available to give advice to visitors about where to park, play or get help. The Rangers are armed with information for homeless people on where to get a meal or shelter. They will even drop a quarter in a parking meter or help someone hail a cab, Curtis said.
The Rangers are off to a “good start,” he said, by encouraging people to obey the frequently ignored walk/don’t walk signals at Las Vegas Boulevard and other intersections.
RANGERS IN THE NIGHT
Allen Lichtenstein, ACLU of Nevada’s general counsel, said his group will watch to make sure the private group doesn’t violate the rights of visitors or residents. The ACLU’s focus is to make sure laws are also applied consistently.
Lichenstein said he went out in the wee hours of Saturday morning to see what was happening downtown.
“People were drinking everywhere” without interference from Metro, he noted. “I didn’t see any Rangers, but I didn’t see any problems, either.”
Curtis promised that Rangers will treat everyone in the Fremont East District and downtown with the same level of respect and service, and if necessary, the Rangers are being trained to provide information for police and arrest reports, he said. The goal for the group is to observe and report illegal activity, but that’s the extent of their policing, he said. He added that as of last Thursday, his Rangers had provided police with information on one arrest, a domestic assault case.
As of last week, there were 17 Rangers on staff, making $12.50 an hour, and Curtis was looking for more. He wants people “who have a passion for treating people right and making Las Vegas a better place,” he said. Potential Rangers have to undergo an extensive criminal background and can’t be drug users.
Curtis admitted that the fact that the Rangers have a name sometimes associated with the military — U.S. Army Rangers are an elite military service, and other armed rangers help hobbits find Mount Doom — and wear uniforms might prompt people to think that they are a group of tough guys, like the New York-based Guardian Angels that tried to set up shop in downtown Las Vegas years ago.
He said the name came from Hsieh, and who is he to argue? Curtis recalled that his original proposal was the name “Hipsters,” inspired by the acronym for “Helpers in Pink Suede Shoes.” Fortunately for those who might be allergic to hipster helpers in pink suede shoes, Hsieh nixed that suggestion.
“We wanted to be more about the content than the name,” Curtis said.
A couple of Rangers were out last Friday night providing that content. Greg Awana and Victoria Lema were walking in the Fremont East District, smiling at people on the street, including some who obviously carried open containers of alcohol.
Awana said they weren’t going to stop and say anything to anyone unless it looked like it might be a problem, but they would be happy to offer information to anyone who asked. If that happens, and he said it does, they’re there.
“We just give them information on the current laws,” he said.