Police and business owners using new tech to keep underage drinkers and weapons out of Madison bars

UW Health nurses reported staff and patient safety concerns to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Thursday.
Published: Nov. 9, 2023 at 6:41 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 9, 2023 at 10:40 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A police cruiser makes its rounds through downtown Madison on a weekend. Stop number one for Officer Rick Bruess and his Central District Community Policing Team is what they call a tavern inspection.

“One of the many things our team is tasked with is doing these tavern inspections. Our students call them bar raids,” said Bruess.

The tavern inspections are weekly check-ins at a rotating list of various drinking establishments downtown to check not only if bars are following their liquor licenses, but also that everybody inside is being safe and responsible. That includes checking for fake IDs.

Through a number of open records requests to the Madison Police Department, NBC15 Investigates has been tracking the bar inspections, seeing the dates, times and taverns they are taking place at. The data also shows how many underage people police came across ranging from zero people to 130 people depending on the stop.

Using a fake and getting caught can land someone a hefty fine or even a trip to jail. The fine for a fake ID citation starts at $376. But Officer Bruess says the more people lie about it and try to keep up the charade, that fine goes up and the person could even end up with being put in jail. He says the best thing to do is come clean right away.

Madison police are partnering with bar owners to crack down on students using fake IDs, especially in the downtown entertainment district. And the fakes are getting harder and harder to catch because of the way underage drinkers are getting them. Police and bar owners are now testing out new technology to keep fakes out and weapons, too.

“Gone are the days of just being able to be a bouncer at the door, grab the ID, look at the birthday, give it back to them and send them on their way. The bar has been raised and they have to scrutinize these IDs a little bit longer,” explained Bruess.

Bruess says when he started in his current police unit, about three-fourths of fakes police confiscated were ones underage drinkers bought online, often for hundreds of dollars a pop. Now, he says, that number is closer to 98% bought online. The cost for these fakes is down to about $20 each now, and Bruess says they can look nearly perfect.

“They have all the security features that state would have on that normal ID, so to the naked eye it looks legit and real. And so that’s the challenge some of these taverns are having to deal with now is that these ids are getting so good, they have to up their game a little bit when they’re checking these IDs,” said Bruess.

This is where the new technology comes in. Tech companies are now trying to level the playing field to give taverns and other places the upper hand in verifying IDs. There are new tools Madison police have tested that scan IDs with a 94% accuracy rate. Two companies Madison police are recommending to bar owners- Intellicheck and Patron Scan.

“Intellicheck does a really good job checking fake IDs. When we tested it, it was 94% accurate,” said Bruess.

Patron Scan is more of a communication tool between taverns, scanning IDs to store that information into a database. So if someone in a bar gets in a fight or causes issues, the bar owner can go into their Patron Scan system and flag that particular ID.

“And then that person then, if they go to another bar using patron scan, it will flag them as well. And that bar can then choose, ‘hey this person was kicked out of wherever. Do we want them in our establishment?’” said Bruess.

Over at Churchkey Bar and Grill, on a Saturday night in November, its bouncer busted dozens of forged government documents at the door all within just 30 minutes. The bouncers are trained to look at IDs along with body language of the person handing them off. And then they will ask further questions if they suspect something is off.

Churchkey General Manager Armando Acosta is working to keep out underage drinkers. And he’s taking safety a step further. After patrons get their IDs checked, they are ushered over to another employee who uses a metal detector wand to look for weapons.

“Before that we were catching guns coming through on people’s projections and bag searches. So we decided that was it, that was the last straw,” said Acosta.

Acosta has had the metal detector system for about two years now.

“It discriminates against nobody. It doesn’t care what color you are, doesn’t care where you come from, do you have weapons on you? That’s it. If you do, why are you coming to my bar? Why are you going to any bar?” questioned Acosta.

Acosta says before he implemented wanding, the bar generated about one call to 911 per month for things like bar fights or unruly customers. Now with the wands, that number is way down. Acosta says he’s had to call police about half a dozen times in two years.

“That’s a huge lack of impact on the community from us. Our tax dollars are not wasting resources simply because we wand,” said Acosta.

Wands aren’t just keeping weapons out either, they’re picking up people trying to sneak in outside alcohol, too. The detection not only keeps people from being overserved but saves the bar owners hundreds of dollars a night.

“That’s the thing I talked to other bars about. This alone, there’s a monetary value here. Look at how much money you’re losing. Each one is about 2 ounces. That’s two shots so eight to 10 dollars of revenue you’re losing times 100 a night. And if you’re struggling it adds up quickly,” explained Acosta.

Acosta is now talking to other bar owners around town, sharing what he’s learned from his technology with others. He says using metal detectors can carry a negative stigma along with it, people thinking a bar is unsafe.

“I don’t understand why people even correlate it with being unsafe. It’s a step we are doing, it’s a service for the community. It’s our responsibility to be good neighbors, good people in our community,” said Acosta.

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