I was talking with Author Scott Deitche last week about his upcoming book, Cocktail Noir. He wanted to know my main character’s favorite drink, and I regretted telling him that Matt Sinclair’s had his last glass of bourbon six months before the story in the first book took place because of the wreckage booze caused in his life.
The conversation turned to Cop Bars, and Scott asked what makes a good cop bar. Since I had spent quite a bit of time during my career with Oakland PD (well, at least the first fourteen years) sitting on bar stools after work, I had some insight into this.
Location, location, location
A cop bar must be close to and accessible to the police station so that it’s easy for cops to stop by when they get off work. Over the years, there’ve been a number of different watering holes frequented by OPD. When I came on, many day-shift cops would go to Dahkes, a bar within a Hofbrau directly across the street from the PAB (Police Administration Building/Police Headquarters). When I worked swing shift (4-midnight), the younger officers on the department frequented the bar in the Mexicali Rose Restaurant. It was two blocks from the PAB, and it wasn’t unusual to see every table in the bar area covered with pitchers of beer and margaritas and surrounded by half of the officers on the swing shift, along with dispatchers, EMTs, and nurses. When I transferred to Vice Narcotics a few years later, I was introduced to a small, dark, hotel bar across the street from the PAB where the undercover cops could drink without rubbing shoulders with the uniformed cops and thus marking themselves as cops. The Warehouse, four blocks from the PAB, has been THE cop bar in Oakland for the last three decades.
A cop bar doesn’t have to be the cheapest place in town, but most cops aren’t interested in $10 martinis or $12 shots of top-shelf tequila. They’re more likely to drink domestic beer (out of the bottle or by the pitcher) and simple mixed drinks or shots. Free happy hour food is another plus.
It has to be a place where cops can relax and let their hair down, not a place where they need to look over their shoulder or worry the next guy through the door is going to hold up the place. They also have to feel comfortable talking about how the mayor, city council, judges, police chief, and half the brass are all idiots, without fear of being called into Internal Affairs or seeing their comments in the local newspaper.
What makes a cop bar is the attitude of the management and employees. The owner and bartenders either love or hate cops; there’s no in-between. Sometimes a place is a cop bar for years until management changes and tries to attract a different clientele, so the cops drift away. Cops see the management and employees at The Warehouse as members of the police family. The walls of the bar are covered with police memorabilia: patches from hundreds of departments, photos, and plaques. Non-cop patrons are very welcome, but on more than one occasion, people who verbalized anti-police feelings after a few drinks were “escorted” from the bar. Truth be told, some were physically thrown out the door. ACLU attorneys or public defenders wouldn’t be welcome, but prosecutors from the DA’s Office are regulars. Although the term “police groupie” is out of fashion today and disparaging to those lovely women who love hanging out with cops, The Warehouse has their share of female patrons who have no professional connection to law enforcement.
Everybody knows your name
The theme song from the TV show, Cheers, reminds me of the sense of community that exists in The Warehouse. A good cop bar is like an old-time neighborhood bar, only the neighborhood consists of shoes who carry a badge and gun for a living and their friends. I returned to The Warehouse for a fellow officer’s retirement party one night after not having been there for more than a year. Before I got halfway across the room, the bartender had an open bottle of Bud Light on the bar waiting for me along with a “How ya doing, Brian,” as if I’d never been gone.
Cop bars are also where police go to celebrate or mourn. Three years ago, I flew to Oakland from my home in Connecticut for the funeral of four OPD officers who were killed in the line of duty during one tragic incident. The Warehouse was where everyone went the night before and the night after the funeral. The street was blocked off to handle the crowd of hundreds of cops from Oakland and around the country, and the contingent from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and NYPD’s finest felt as comfortable there as they did at their cop bars back home.