FPD’s ECHO Unit targets overcrowding, other activities in and around downtown bars

By Lou Ponsi

On weekend nights, downtown Fullerton transforms from an eclectic array of eateries and trendy boutiques into party zone.

As these food and drink establishments become nightclubs, swarms of 20-somethings converge on the area surrounding Harbor Boulevard and Commonwealth Avenue, known as the SOCO District.

They cram into the club of their choice, barely able to move in some cases, much less dance.

The Fullerton Police Department’s ECHO Unit is tasked with maintaining order in the popular area.

Fullerton PD ECHO Unit patrol officers walk through a parking structure used by the Saturday night crowd, looking for people drinking in and around their cars before going into bars, a violation of drinking-in-public laws. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

One way involves making unannounced visits to some of downtown’s 50-plus restaurants and bars to ensure they aren’t exceeding their occupancy limits, which are established by the fire marshal.

“That’s always been one of the No.1 goals and objectives of the ECHO Unit,” said Sgt. Jose Arana, supervisor of the unit. “We’ve been very zero tolerant on it over this last year.”

With clickers and flashlights in hand, officers perform surprise walk-throughs on these establishments, counting every patron and employee

Bars that exceed their occupancy limits get shut down on the spot.

Bartenders stop serving, the lights go up, patrons are ordered to leave and a citation is issued.

After the crowd is cleared out, the bar can reopen.

Fullerton PD officers question two males before issuing a citation for open containers during a routine patrol of a downtown parking structure. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Since July, the FPD has issued roughly seven citations for overcrowding, Arana said.

Some establishments have been cited multiple times.

Bar owners seem to be getting the message.

Over March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, and March 18, Arana and his officers paid surprise visits on a dozen downtown bars.

Only one was shut down and cited for exceeding its maximum occupancy.

“Initially, they were reluctant to accept what we were trying to accomplish, but now they’re starting to accept it, which is ultimately the safety of everyone inside,” Arana said.

The one establishment that was cited over St. Patrick’s Day weekend exceed its occupancy limit by close to 100.

“You see how unsafe that is,” Arana asks rhetorically. “Can you imagine a fight or a fire?”

Fullerton PD Officers Michael Halverson pulls out an open bottle of Jameson Irish Whisky found in a parked car with people during a routine patrol of a downtown parking structure.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

A study by the National Fire Protection Association, an organization that develops codes and standards related to fire safety, found that an estimated 7,410 structure fires in eating and drinking establishments were reported to U.S. fire departments each year, from 2010 to 2014.

What the ECHO Unit is trying to avoid is a tragedy akin to the Feb. 20, 2003 blaze at The Station Nightclub in Rhode Island in which 100 people were killed.

Overcrowding factored into the high death toll, an NFPA investigation found.

The Station was filled beyond capacity, with 462 people in attendance when it was licensed for only 404.

When not making surprise visits to nightclubs, the ECHO does walk-throughs of downtown parking structures looking for people doing drugs or drinking alcohol.

Fullerton PD Officer Joey Gonzales holds up an open can of Jack Daniel’s whiskey found in possession of a group of people in a parking structure. A bottle of Skyy pineapple vodka also was found. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

During a single walkthrough of a multi-level structure on March 18, police issued eight citations to partiers drinking alcoholic beverages while sitting in parked vehicles.

Another downtown constant is jaywalking – revelers crossing the street in the middle of Harbor or Commonwealth, rather than at the crosswalk.

Fullerton PD officers Michael Halverson, left, and Joey Gonzales issue jaywalking tickets at Commonwealth Avenue, west of Harbor Boulevard, in front of a sign warning people to only cross at crosswalks. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

In about a 30-minute span, the ECHO unit wrote about a dozen citations to downtown partiers who were jaywalking across Commonwealth.

Fullerton PD formed ECHO in 2007, when it became clear the burgeoning downtown party zone needed more of a presence by law enforcement.

“The officers that work our downtown area on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are challenged with keeping anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people safe in a very unpredictable environment,” said Sgt. Jon Radus, FPD spokesman.

Fullerton PD officers hand out jaywalking tickets on a Saturday night in front of a Do Not Cross sign on Commonwealth Avenue, west of Harbor Boulevard, in Fullerton. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC