If treating customers and residents like potential airline hijackers, terrorists and bank robbers is the best plan Saratoga Springs officials can come up with for dealing with Caroline Street’s party scene, then the city either needs a better plan or it needs public officials with better ideas.
Desperate to curb the drunkenness and crime that stems from the city’s popular bar scene, some in the city have proposed closing off the popular party street to foot traffic and setting up security stations at each end that would include metal detectors, wands for personal body scanning, identification checks and private security guards.
Supporters of the idea, including Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino and Mayor Ron Kim, say it will make the street safer and allow police to better manage the crowds that can sometimes become large and unruly. They compared the security setup to that of Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn., a popular entertainment area that’s been subject to crowd-related crime, and to Disney World, which hasn’t.
It’s true that many places do restrict popular areas to vehicle traffic during busy times. Just on Saturday, the city closed off several streets for Chowder Fest.
But installing airport-like security on a public street is a whole other animal and opens up a whole host of problems — not the least of which are potential violations of the Constitution.
The First Amendment ensures the right to freedom of speech and to peaceably assemble, while the Fourth protects against unreasonable search and seizure.
How can the city justify preventing citizens from gathering, and how can they justify searching citizens and demanding identification for them to enter a public street, if those individuals are not suspected of crimes?
Mayor Kim’s answer to that is that if you don’t want to be searched or provide ID when stopped on this public street, just don’t go there.
It might not be that simple.
The American Civil Liberties Union has successfully gone to court to protect access to public streets, arguing that they have significance “as this nation’s archetypical space for public speech and association.”
The argument that these types of security measures are common at theme parks and sports arenas discounts the fact that those are private enterprises with the right and obligation to protect their properties and their customers. Public streets belong to the people who use them.
Can the city legally or ethically prohibit people from using them without cause?
Assuming the city gets past the constitutional and legal barriers, the security protocols open up visitors to potential racial profiling, exacerbating a problem with race relations that already plagues the city.
Demanding identification and conducting body searches for no other justification than entering a public street is reminiscent of the now-discredited “stop and frisk” policies that many city police departments employed in the name of fighting gangs and drugs.
Imagine if the substantial number of visitors denied access to the street turn out to be Black, Hispanic or another ethnic group. Is the city prepared to defend itself against the civil rights lawsuits that will bring?
As for the security officers themselves, what authority do they have to stop and detain private citizens and prevent them from accessing a public sidewalk or street?
Will city police be there to confiscate guns, drugs and weapons, and make arrests at the checkpoints?
Will police unions be open to having private security patrol city streets?
Who will pay for these private security forces? At eight hours a night (between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m.) for two to five nights a week all summer, the costs of staff and equipment will quickly add up.
Then there’s the flawed logistics of the plan.
There are numerous side streets, parking lots, alleys and private entrances to buildings that visitors can use to access Caroline Street in just the small stretch between Broadway and Henry Street. Is the city going to post security guards and set up metal detectors at each of those points along the road?
People can easily walk around sawhorse barriers, so will the city have to put up fencing across the street? What if people refuse to provide ID and just walk on the street? Will they be arrested?
And what’s the point of requiring IDs anyway? Are they going to record the names of all those who enter? If it’s to stop underage drinking, are they going to require people to be 21 before using the street?
Wherever they set up these checkpoints, there will be lines. Are these guards prepared to deal with the disgruntled visitors? That alone could lead to more violence.
Will these officers also be making arrests for public intoxication as people enter and exit the checkpoints?
In addition to all that, the plan punishes businesses that adequately police their customers and treats non-bar merchants the same as trouble-causing bars. It targets residents who live above the bars with searches and ID checks just to get to where they live.
And blocking off the street severely limits access to emergency vehicles, potentially impeding responses.
Many cities with vibrant entertainment areas manage their crowds without resorting to these extreme, potentially unconstitutional, questionably effective measures.
This plan is just inviting more trouble. And it still won’t address the problems caused by bars overserving and not providing enough security to manage their patrons. It still won’t stop people, once inside the bubble, from getting overly intoxicated and getting into fights. You’re still going to have large crowds of intoxicated individuals crammed into a small space at late hours.
The city can’t make Caroline Street’s problems go away by treating it like an airport terminal.
There are more direct, effective ways to deal with this problem.
City officials need to continue to work with other public officials, law enforcement, businesses, patrons and others to find a more workable, effective solution to the problems.
This plan isn’t it.