Bars ponder citywide bans

The Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia is spearheading a move to enforce citywide bar bans on troublemakers. If approved, patrons booted from one bar could be facing nothing but closed doors by March.

Lower Deck bouncer Carl "Gooch" Comeau checks a patron's ID. A move by the Restaurant Association of N.S. may create citywide bar bans for troublemakers. Photo: Adam Miller

Problem pub patrons beware.

Halifax's bar and restaurant owners may approve a plan this week to enforce citywide bans on known troublemakers.

Backed by the municipality and local police, this initiative by the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia could have certain customers blacklisted and barred from all member establishments.

According to RANS executive director Gordon Stewart, the initiative is meant to target issues including violence, criminal activity, underage drinking and dangerous clients.

"We're trying to get the bad elements out of bars and restaurants and keep them out permanently," said Stewart.

"One of the problems is that if they're banned from one place they just walk around the corner and go into another place. The problems they caused at the first - they're just re-creating it at the second."

Participation in the program would be open to establishments with bar, lounge, dining or cabaret licences. Though it's entirely voluntary, Stewart said participation is key.

"It's not going to work if you only have six operations signing up for it, and 40 others don't participate."

But after hearing from some of Halifax's bar owners, Stewart said he doesn't expect that to be a problem.

The association is set to meet on Feb. 11 to further discuss the initiative. If approved, the program could be up and running by March, Stewart said.

But before the program can get rolling in the Halifax Regional Municipality - and perhaps later across the province - Stewart said there are still some significant issues to sort out.

One such question is how to collect and share patrons' information while staying within the law. Other outstanding questions include enforcement methods and the length of bans for certain offences, such as underage drinking.

"(Underage drinking) is a pain to the operators because the operators are the ones that get penalized. And generally speaking the people who have been caught walk away free," he said.

"One of the things about this program is you don't get to walk away free anymore. You get banned."

Pre-existing programs in Amherst and Vancouver

It's not an unprecedented idea in the province. The town of Amherst has had a similar system in place for almost eight years, according to Constable Francis Smith of the Amherst police.

Smith said the program is a partnership between 12 local businesses and the police. When one of the businesses has trouble with a patron, they can immediately ban the person for anywhere between a couple months to indefinitely. Then they'll call to let the other establishments know who has been booted out.

"So, if someone is making trouble at Teazer's, they'll kick him out and call up [another bar]," said Smith. "So that he doesn't just go into another place right away and start up again."

Smith said the most important part of the plan is communication. Every month, the bar owners meet with Smith as a "board of directors" to discuss why new names are added to the list, as well as work out a final decision on how long the person should be banned. He said these meetings ensure that bar owners have good reasons for handing out bans.

The names of people who aren't allowed into the bars are publicly displayed on large boards at the participating businesses. There are approximately 70 names on the list right now, and it is updated weekly, he said.

"Sometimes, someone will phone up and say 'You've got my name up on the wall. I want you to take it down. That's embarrassing,'" he says.

"They should have thought of that before getting into a fight."

Once someone has been banned from the participating bars, Smith said the ban can only be lifted by another vote of the group. However, they do periodically review cases that have been on the list for a while.

The idea has also received traction outside Nova Scotia. Vancouver's Bar Watch program has been running since 2003. Other B.C. towns have adopted it as well.

Under the program, bartenders scan the IDs of all patrons entering the bar, and share their personal information - name, date of birth, photo and gender - with other businesses through a database.

A review of the program was launched last year over privacy concerns. B.C.'s privacy watchdog ruled that Bar Watch could continue to operate as long as the information was deleted within 24 hours - in most cases. Bars are allowed to hold on to a person's information for a year if they cause trouble when inside.

A law passed in Alberta last November allows establishments to share some of their patrons' personal information, but no formal program yet exists.

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