Local police have not wavered in their push to see the Latrobe Valley’s largest late-night venue shut at 3am, telling a hearing they believe it is the best way to reduce alcohol-fuelled assaults.
In a rare visit to regional Victoria, the Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation sat in Traralgon on Thursday, to hear closing arguments in the dispute between police and the Kay Street Entertainment Complex about the opening hours of Saloon Bar and Inferno nightclub.
Traralgon-based Sergeant Brent Muir told the commission in the early hours of Sunday mornings – following Saloon’s biggest night of the week – he would use the town’s two divisional vans and often call in Churchill and Morwell resources to patrol the entertainment precinct and deal with people’s anti-social, drunken behaviour.
“I spend my time holding heads out of vomit and conducting checks on people who are often aggressive to me and my staff,” Sgt Muir told the commission.
“We take every resource possible to make sure people get home safely.
“It’s not fair on the (broader) Latrobe Valley.”
Saloon and Inferno were licensed to open until 7am, but usually closed at 5am on their busiest nights.
As part of the legal dispute, the licensees reduced the opening hours to 4am from 15 November last year, but police continue to push for a 3am close.
While police acknowledged anti-social behaviour was not unique to patrons of Saloon and Inferno, Acting Latrobe Inspector Dean Thomas said he was not seeing the same volume of incidents from other venues.
Act Insp Thomas said when police arrested alleged offenders for being drunk or drink driving, they routinely asked where the person had been drinking.
He told the commission between 1 January 2013 and 21 March this year, 44 people processed at Traralgon said they had been drinking at the Kay Street Entertainment Complex.
“I do think the number of incidents are in excess of what I would expect to see and what the community would expect to see,” Act Insp Thomas said.
“Times show a lot of these arrests occur after 3am.
“Venues staying open so late creates a culture where young people feel they’ve got all night to go out.”
Under cross-examination, Act Insp Thomas admitted he had not been to the venue for “some time”, had not read a public safety specialist’s report about changes implemented by the licensees, nor had he engaged Latrobe City Council.
The action against the licensees was originally brought by former Latrobe Inspector Mick West, who has recently moved to Bendigo to take up a position as superintendent and was not at Thursday’s hearing.
Barrister John Larkins argued there was a culture of ‘pre-loading’ on alcohol and told Act Insp Thomas he was singling licensees Andrew and Josie Panayiotou out based on “very little knowledge of the venue” and in order to “put into practice your view of where society should head”.
In giving his evidence, Sgt Muir praised steps the Panayiotous had taken since December to address anti-social behaviour, but said it had not prevented violent assaults.
They hired Melbourne-based public safety specialist and former Victoria Police officer Dr Tony Zalewski to develop a security management plan and standard operating procedure for the venues, which was implemented on 17 December.
In a report to the commission, Dr Zalewski indicated the licensees had installed additional CCTV, implemented a duty manager to ensure staff were suitably qualified in RSA and Level 2 First Aid at the start of each week, among other changes.
According to data from a crowd controller’s register submitted to the commission, between 17 November 2013 and 16 March this year, 215 people at the venue had been removed for intoxication, while there were 22 incidents of aggression and violence.
Dr Zalewski said the high number of removed patrons should be viewed as an example of the venue’s proactive approach in dealing with drunks.
Police intervention was required at one incident inside the venue and two outside, while 11 instances of unacceptable behaviour were recorded, including domestic disputes, smoking in the venue and sexual activity in the toilets.
There were no reports to the venue of drink spiking, illicit drug use, or illegal weapons, according to the report. About 1000 to 1500 people attend the venues each week.
“There’s nothing that indicates a systemic problem in the venue,” Dr Zalewski said.
He said it was critical for licensed venues to have a formalised structure in place and he believed Mr Panayiotou was committed to continuing the new system.
Dr Zalewski said he believed when questioned by police, drunk offenders would often state the last place they had been drinking, and he believed Victoria Police should adopt a similar approach as Queensland Police who ask where a person started drinking, in order to accurately map whether they had ‘pre-loaded’.
He has recommended a final independent review of the new security system be conducted in three months.
During their visit, the commissioners took a tour of the Kay Street complex.
They aim to hand down their decision on the matter “as soon as possible”.