Swackhammer’s in North Spokane pours more drunken drivers onto the streets than any other bar in the state.
The restaurant and its adjoining nightclub have held the record for the last six years for the number of customers arrested on suspicion of drunken driving, state records show.
“They have a problem,” said Spokane Patrolman Robert Grandinetti, who tracks the city’s bars and taverns and enforces alcohol regulations. “They know it and we know it.”
Since 1989, 263 people arrested on suspicion of drunken driving told law enforcement officers they bought their last drink at Swackhammer’s before slipping behind the wheel.
That number is nearly 16 percent higher than the state’s second place finisher, Bob’s Tavern in Blaine, north of Bellingham.
City police records show most drunken drivers who claim Swackhammer’s as their last watering hole were arrested between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. Nearly one in 10 had an alcohol level of at least twice the legal limit.
The Swackhammer’s arrest numbers are also significantly higher than those coming from bars and nightclubs in larger cities like Seattle, according to a study released by Washington State Toxicologist Barry Logan.
“I certainly think it’s high,” Logan said. “I mean, that’s a lot of people. Especially for a town your size.”
Not when you’re one of the state’s five biggest bars and serving food and alcohol to 4,000 customers a week - more than any other restaurant in Spokane, said Swackhammer’s coowner Tom Lynch.
“When you serve in the volumes we do, you’re going to have a hard time keeping track of everything everyone’s drinking,” Lynch said. “There’s no way you can baby-sit 700 people at once.”
Lynch partially blames the bar’s dismal record on its location at E21 Lincoln Road off North Division.
Because it is so far north, customers drive farther to get home and have a better chance of being stopped, he said. Many of his customers also consider Swackhammer’s a “destination place,” and stay until closing rather than barhop, a common downtown practice.
“Not everybody arrested for drunk driving will remember where they were last, especially if they’ve been around all night,” Lynch said. “People who’ve been to Swack’s remember it and say so.”
The location of a Washington State Patrol office less than two blocks from the bar contributes to more arrests out of the bar as well, Lynch said. Swackhammer’s also sits on the border of city and county lines, allowing coverage from both the sheriff’s and Spokane police departments.
“Regardless of all of this, though, we’re doing a good job,” Lynch said. “The (DWI) arrest numbers may be there, but we’ve never been shut down or fined or cited for overserving anybody.”
That’s true, said officials with the state Liquor Control Board and local law enforcement.
There have been only a handful of overservice complaints filed with the liquor board in the past six years and all were unfounded, said Robert Stamper, a control board agent.
Swackhammer’s has had one reprimand by the state and it came last March - a written warning for disorderly conduct involving an employee, Stamper said. Other than that, the bar has stayed clean.
“Their responsibility is not to serve someone who is visibly intoxicated and to make sure no one else does either,” Stamper said. “We have no real proof that says they are.”
Undercover agents have spent weeks in Swackhammer’s posing as customers in the past, and Stamper said he personally went to the bar on New Year’s Eve to watch employees.
Aside from customers who appeared to be drunk but were not being served alcohol, Stamper said he didn’t turn up anything.
Law enforcement officials, however, aren’t convinced Swackhammer’s management is doing all it can to prevent overservice. More employees should be hired to roam the dance floors and tables so that signs of drunkenness are spotted sooner, they said.
“Their job is to get in people’s faces and cut them off,” Grandinetti said. “Look at the numbers. Swackhammer’s is a leader in the state and has been forever and not by any close margins. I don’t think it’s all a big mistake here.”
Grandinetti’s list of bars and drunken drivers recently was sent to patrol officers, who have buckled down on DWI stops around closing time. They’ve started paying particular attention to Swackhammer’s, he said, often parking across the street so they can watch customers leave.
Spokane Cpl. Harry Kennedy said although no fatal accidents have involved drivers who’ve been drinking at Swackhammer’s, the arrest numbers should be taken seriously by bar management.
“Sooner or later, someone’s going to get killed out there and the lawyers will go straight after the tavern,” said Kennedy, who works in the police traffic unit. “To me, a history of DWI arrests like this would mean trouble.”
Bar owner Lynch, however, said he doubts the accuracy of the numbers. Many people may say they were at Swackhammer’s when they weren’t, he said.
The statistics also reflect only those arrests where the driver answered the question, “Where were you last drinking?” he said.
“Nobody has to answer that question,” Lynch said. “Not a whole lot of people do.”
Officials estimate between 30 and 40 percent of people arrested for DWI will name a bar or tavern. Others either don’t answer or say they were at a friend’s house or at their own home.
Although he disputes the statistics, Lynch said Swackhammer’s employees are trained well for the job. Once hired, they must go through an eight-hour alcohol seminar, where they learn to spot the signs of intoxication. Liquor Control Board agents teach part of that class, he said.
Employees also attend monthly meetings, where overservice is a “big topic,” Lynch said. On the bar’s busiest nights, about 20 employees work the floors.
In addition, the bar spends at least $500 a week serving free soft drinks and appetizers to designated drivers.
“We are doing the best we can but we’re always working on doing better,” Lynch said. “We have a young clientele, many who are just learning how to drink. Unfortunately, they like to learn at Swack’s.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: Alcohol highs About 40,000 people are arrested each year in Washington for driving while drunk. In Spokane, the drivers with some of the highest blood-alcohol levels reported getting drunk at a number of area bars: Cathay Inn, N3714 Division, was the last to serve a driver with a 0.39 blood-alcohol level in October of 1993. When the driver was stopped, he was still drinking. His level was nearly four times the legal limit of 0.10. Chan’s Dragon Inn, W1406 Third, served a driver in 1991 who was arrested for DWI with a 0.34 blood-alcohol level. Covered Wagon, E1709 Sprague, was the last to serve a driver in 1991 who had a 0.31 blood-alcohol level and was arrested for DWI. Duffy’s Tavern, E3302 Sprague, served a driver in 1991 who was arrested for DWI and had a 0.31 blood-alcohol level. J.S. Pumps, N415 Monroe, was the last to serve a driver last year who had a 0.30 bloodalcohol level and was arrested for DWI. Charlie & Jimmie’s Tavern & Eatery, E1403 Illinois, served a driver in 1993 who had a 0.29 blood-alcohol level and was arrested for DWI. Source: Spokane Police Department traffic records.
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