Downtown Alcohol Issues

Issues surrounding downtown alcohol issues have gained attention over the past few weeks, stemming primarily from license non-renewal procedures on establishments in the downtown.  Quite a few outlets have picked up on the topic of tavern checks/bar raids (terms that depend on the semantics used by police or students), including the Isthmus, the Critical Badger, Laptop City Hall, and the Sconz to name a few.

The alcohol license non-renewal process opened up the arena to discuss some of my own thoughts on the greater issues of alcohol in the downtown/campus area. At the June 2nd Council meeting, I gave the following remarks (re-posted to this blog from my other site after a few requests):

(I am going to type the following text from my notes and bullet points so please forgive any minor abbreviations exact consistencies from comments I gave in person that you can watch on the video.)

“I just wanted to talk for a few minutes about some of the non-renewals in my district and around the downtown campus area. First, I want to thank the police for trying to be proactive about safety issues, especially issues involving alcohol, but, I think we can agree to disagree on what are the best practices and priorities, specifically underage drinking. Now I don’t think this is the time or place to vigorously debate laws of the drinking age, but I do feel the targeting of catching underagers in bars merits discussion.

I am frustrated with the process of these non-renewals, even as the Alder, I was not included in any discussions with city staff or police about serious actions proposed in my district and I would appreciate future inclusion in future discussions. With the background of proposing these non-renewals, I am concerned about the priorities behind the rationale, especially dealing with the selective targeting and priority placed on catching underagers in bars. I am looking forward to meeting with Police Chief Ray in two weeks to discuss campus and downtown safety and this is one of the many topics I am eager to discuss.

It shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise to acknowledge that our state has a deeply rooted drinking culture, and our city is no exception. I again applaud the police and others, like County Executive Kathleen Falk, for not just sweeping alcohol issues under the rug as just part of the norm. However, I feel that the rationale for some of these non-renewals will not address these rooted issues and in some cases even make them worse. I am concerned about the prioritization and subsequent time, energy, and resources spent on trying to catch a handful of underagers in bars when a higher focus should be on real, serious crimes like assault and burglary. I know too many anecdotes and sat thought the ALRC trial to know how many hours and resources every weekend are spent on targeting underagers in bars, patrons who I would argue are actually the least likely to cause problems like fights because they know the added consequences they would face.

That being said, do I think the police have a safety role in bars? Absolutely. From enforcing fire code, to making sure no one is over-intoxicated or getting medical assistance to those in need, police absolutely play a major role in keeping bars safe. But what I am concerned about is focusing our limited police resources on catching 19 or 20 year olds when there are more serious public safety issues, as previously mentioned. Getting back to some of the cultural issues, I think we need to be pragmatic with the fact that 19 and 20 year olds who are set on drinking will drink. If the proposed non-renewals are efforts to stop underagers from drinking, the idea is far from the mark. If spending tons of police resources on issuing underage tickets in bars is a strategy to ‘teach kids a lesson,’ these efforts are again misplaced. I know it may come as a shock to some people, but like I said, 19 and 20 year olds set on drinking will drink, whether that is in a licensed establishment or behind closed doors.

This brings up another point about how people who are set on drinking are safer in regulated establishments where there are things like enforced fire code, licensed servers, known quantities of alcohol in drinks, and absence of secluded bedrooms. Conversely, the closed doors of dorm rooms and hot, overcrowded basements do not have these safeguards and are therefore seriously less safe for people consuming alcohol. Finally, I am concerned about how this non-renewal process, stemming from the prioritization of catching a handful of underagers in bars, will impact the relationship between police and young people, especially students here in the downtown. This targeting of 19 and 20 year olds in bars drives students to have a strained view of police when they should always be viewing them as protectors of safety. I again know too many instances where students were reluctant to call for help when they were drinking underage in the dorms and someone got seriously sick, but were hesitant to call for help because they were concerned about themselves getting in trouble for drinking underage. Or when uninvited guests at a party become belligerent or violent or steal things but the hosts are reluctant to call because there are underagers drinking there.

Are these the right choices made by students? No way. But there are inconvenient truths about how many young people act. These hesitancies to call for help are so contrary to what we are all taught that I think they are ignored because we are afraid to talk about these issues. Are there serious improvements that need to be made to the drinking culture in Madison, especially in the downtown-campus area? Yes. But instead of working against bars and against students, let’s work with them to address these serious issues, not just put a Band-Aid on the issues of alcohol so we can tell ourselves we are doing impactful things by displacing 19 and 20 year olds out of licensed establishments and into less-safe house parties and behind the closed doors of dorms and apartments. Issues relating to alcohol and safety are serious and seriously complex. There is no one solution, but by having a serious conversation about what our best practices and priorities should be, I think we can begin to get to the real issues behind these problems.” (end of remarks)

Issues of alcohol, especially underage drinking, are complicated and significant. I have talked with Police Chief Wray and Central Capt. Schauf about some of my concerns and will contunie to build on this dialage and the interest as well as concerns I have also heard from constituents, students, businesses, and other Alders. As Brenda Konkel noted (see comments) from a recent Public Safety Review Committee, the number of police incidents listed under LIQUOR LAW/BAR CHECK/OTHER has increased quite a bit: from 34 in 2006, to 144 in 2007, to 392 in 2008.  As you can read from  my remarks, I absolutely feel police presence in and around bars in a safety enhancer, however, as I noted, I do not feel spending hours checking IDs for 19 or 20 year olds is the best use of police time, energy, and resources.

Again as noted, targeting underagers in bars does not curb underage drinking, and I would argue, often pushes students into less safe environments like dorms or house parties, but more significantly, does not help the already strained relationship between police and young people. 18-20 year olds who are set on drinking are going to drink, whether that is behind the closed doors of a dorm room or in a house party or in a regulated, licensed establishment. I recognize and respect the law but would advocate for more discretion from the CPT who carries out the tavern checks/bar raids. There is no one “solution” to these issues and I don’t want to feed into some stereotypes that all students just want to be free to drink as much as they want, whenever they want, wherever they want, and that police should stay out of it. That is not the right approach to build consensus nor is it a good policy.

These topics and conversations are sure to continue and I look forward to responsibly and respectfully advancing the dialogue with students, police, businesses, and all interested parties.

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