Make bars responsible for rowdy customers

2013-02-11T00:00:00Z Make bars responsible for rowdy customers Arizona Daily Star
February 11, 2013 12:00 am

The following editorial appeared Thursday in the Arizona Daily Sun:

Flagstaff has a problem with street alcoholics. It also has some solutions.

But that's not the only alcohol-related issue facing the city. As we reported last week, downtown bars have generated thousands of police responses and arrests over the past three years for assault and disturbing the peace.

Rowdy patrons are turning downtown and nearby roads into a danger zone and spilling out into adjacent downtown neighborhoods.

We can appreciate that Flagstaff bars have always had a rowdy character - it's what happens when young adults come together in a kind of mating ritual lubricated by substances that impair judgment, not to mention motor control.

A college town simply has more customers for the bars, and hence there are more bars in Flagstaff than most cities the same size. The goal is usually to contain the rowdiness at a level that the bouncers and bartenders can deal with privately.

Clearly, however, containment isn't working in Flagstaff. The bouncers are outsourcing many of the problem drinkers to the police by throwing them out on the streets.

On some nights there are so many of them that they've outnumbered police, and the drunken street fighters have turned their anger on police, with injuries to all parties.

In other words, it's gotten out of hand, and it's time to ask the tough questions: How and why are so many bar patrons able to drink to the point of intoxication - or at least severely impaired judgment? And who should be held responsible when their behavior gets out of hand?

Prevention seems to be sketchy. The state liquor control officer for the region does periodic inspections, but he is stretched very thin. Police can do walk-throughs that temporarily cool off potential troublemakers.

We suppose the state could hire more inspectors and the city could pull more officers off their beats to walk more frequently through bars. But why should public funds be spent policing customer behavior that should be the responsibility of the private business owner to control?

With the bars apparently unable to control the rowdiness, police and judges need to start throwing the book at repeat offenders. That's what they've done with a handful, banning them from downtown bars.

Should stiffer penalties in general for bars and drinkers be next? That's already been done with drinkers who get behind the wheel - there are now much steeper fines, automatic jail time and loss of driving privileges for DUI.

What about penalties at the point of intoxication, especially if the impairment has been shown to result in violence or behavior that creates a disturbance? Pass a law that makes it a criminal offense to be drunk in public and start taking away the liquor licenses of bars whose patrons are convicted, and we're pretty sure we'd see drink limits and maybe even breath tests in the bars almost immediately. At the least, we'd support a minimum 72-hour hold on anyone arrested in an impaired condition.

And who should pay for it? The bars might contend they already pay the city an extra 2 percent tax on all sales through the Bed, Board and Beverage levy. And of course, they pay property taxes - or their landlords do.

But judging by the police responses at just five downtown bars alone, we don't believe the bars are covering anywhere near the expense their customers are imposing on the local criminal justice system as well as the quality of life downtown.

If the situation continues, we'd back an even higher tax on liquor by the drink, with proceeds dedicated toward more enforcement.

Nobody's out to put the bars out of business or take away the civil liberties of their patrons. But when a legal product is being abused to the point of endangering public and police safety, unduly burdening taxpayers and harming the quality of life in a part of the city as important as Flagstaff's downtown, business as usual is no longer acceptable.

Let's hope the bars have gotten the message and act on it immediately.

Otherwise government has a duty to step in, and as we all know, that's not likely to be cheap or as effective as self-policing can be.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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