On at least two weekends last June, small riots erupted on Caroline Street in the early morning hours.
Extra police, including county sheriff’s deputies and state police, had to be called in to help quell the fighting among 200 to 300 people in the street.
There were minor injuries — five Saratoga Springs police officers were hurt — and a string of arrests.
The many bars and nightclubs on Caroline Street stay open until 4 a.m. on weekends. The street melees generally erupt when the bars close and the bar patrons, some of them inebriated, flood out onto the sidewalks and street.
“This is a big problem, it really is,” said Chris Mathiesen, who was elected public safety commissioner in November. “It’s out of control.”
Not everyone agrees, including people who own the businesses on Caroline Street.
Mathiesen has been meeting with the bar, restaurant and nightclub owners in recent days to outline his ideas to improve the Caroline Street scene and hear their opinions and ideas.
One of Mathiesen’s ideas is to change last call in the city — the hour at which alcohol sales stop — from the current 4 a.m. to 3 a.m.
The most publicized pre-dawn melee started as a brawl at Club Shadow early June 26 on the second floor of 30 Caroline St. and spilled out onto the street. But there was also an early morning street brawl on June 19. The state Liquor Authority revoked the club’s liquor license in early July.
John Baker, owner of Gaffney’s restaurant on Caroline Street, said the brawls were isolated incidents.
“Those were a couple of bad incidents; crime is down [as compared to] 2005,” said Baker, whose restaurant has been operating for 31 years.
Baker is the unofficial leader of the bar and restaurant owners on Caroline Street and has joined other business owners in meeting with Mathiesen.
He and other bar owners are against making the bars close at 3 a.m.
“Keep things status quo and come up with other ideas,” Baker said about an earlier closing time.
One of those other ideas may be the installation of video cameras on Caroline Street this spring or summer.
“It would be great to have them up before the summer,” Mathiesen said about the cameras.
The city’s 2012 capital budget includes money for the replacement of video cameras in Congress Park with newer ones and adding video cameras to Caroline Street, generally between Broadway and Henry Street.
Mathiesen said having the last call at the bars changed from 4 a.m. to 3 a.m. would be a good compromise.
Two years ago city officials proposed changing the closing time from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m. in the fall, winter and spring but keeping the 4 a.m. closing time for the summer tourism months. That measure was voted down by the City Council 2 to 2, with a majority voted needed.
Mayor Scott Johnson had to recuse himself from voting in 2010 because he is a part-owner of Sperry’s Restaurant on Caroline Street. He also said he could not comment about the closing time for this story because he remains a part-owner of Sperry’s.
For the city to change the closing time from 4 a.m. to 3 a.m., three approvals are needed: From the City Council, Saratoga County and the state Liquor Authority.
Mathiesen said no city in any other part of the state has a different closing time than the county surrounding it. He said, however, there is case law that indicates that the city could have an earlier bar closing hour than Saratoga County, where bars must close at 4 a.m., if the city, county and state approved it.
“I would like to have this happen this year,” Mathiesen said about the earlier closing time. He has not yet introduced the proposal to the City Council.
Open to ideas
James Stanley, owner of the Tin & Lint bar at 2 Caroline St., opposes the earlier closing time.
The Tin & Lint is one of the oldest establishments on Caroline Street, if not the oldest, after 40 years in business.
“I don’t like somebody telling me when to close. It should be my decision,” he said.
Stanley said there were problems at Club Shadow because they had live rap music that attracted young people from Albany, Schenectady and Troy. He said they get on a bus, “pay $1.50” and come to Saratoga for the night.
“A little incident like that is not a problem,” Stanley said.
“You have to put up with jerks. Some people can’t handle alcohol,” he said. “You need to weed out the bad ones.
“You book a rapper and you have to deal with the consequences,” Stanley added.
Mathiesen said he is encouraged by the attitude of the bar and restaurant owners in downtown Saratoga Springs.
He said they may be against an earlier closing but are open to other suggestions, such as informing each other if problems are developing in their establishment.
“I am very pleased to see that they are taking these things seriously,” Mathiesen said.
The state Liquor Authority will be holding an informational session early next month in Saratoga Springs for downtown bar and restaurant owners, he said. The SLA will review current regulations and answer questions.
Keeping eyes out
Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III is calling for a more comprehensive approach to the problems on Caroline Street.
“To me, it’s not as simple as just closing a bar one hour earlier,” Murphy said.
He said crime doesn’t just happen at 4 a.m. on weekend mornings.
Closing an hour earlier might help, he said, adding that a greater police presence on Caroline Street would help even more.
He said the city police department is at one of its lowest manpower levels in years.
“There are not enough officers out there,” Murphy said.
The city police department generally has between seven and 10 police officers on Caroline Street on summer weekends.
“A police officer on the street is a huge deterrent,” Murphy said.
Bartenders should also be better trained to spot problems and problem drinkers and “be vigilant about overserving,” Murphy said.
In many assault cases, he said, people are intoxicated with blood-alcohol levels beyond where they should have been served alcohol.
Murphy also endorsed video cameras on Caroline Street. He said when people know cameras are pointing at them, it acts as a deterrent to crime.
“The problem with assaults on Caroline Street is that one person says one thing and the other person says something different,” Murphy said. “With the [video] cameras you can see what actually happened.”
Working with bar owners to be on the lookout for fake identification so they don’t serve people under 21 is also important, Murphy said.
The district attorney noted, however, that Caroline Street bars and most bars in downtown Saratoga Springs have done well during the underage alcohol sales sting operations police conduct once or twice a year in the county.
“Saratoga is noted for its nightlife. They come [downtown] after the track,” Gaffney’s owner Baker said.
He said making bars and restaurants close an hour earlier is not good for any of the businesses downtown, including late-night dining spots.
Baker said the city police department does a fantastic job in policing Caroline Street but the department could use more officers. He said there are about the same number of police officers in the department now as there were in the 1980s. The police department currently has about 55 officers.