A key Indiana lawmaker expressed concern about the findings of an IndyStar investigation into violence at Indianapolis bars and nightclubs, saying regulatory changes and legislation may be needed to address the problem.
State Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, joined safe-drinking advocates and Mayor Joe Hogsett in calling for change after IndyStar identified more than 600 reports of violence at Indianapolis bars, clubs and event centers since 2016 - including 49 homicides and more than 150 people injured in shootings and stabbings.
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"Not all of these bar owners are non-credible people," said Alting, who leads the Indiana Senate committee responsible for alcohol issues. "But let there be no mistake about it, these ones that continue to get these calls and these shootings and so forth, that is just absolutely poor, poor management, and putting the almighty dollar over safety of their customers."
Alting, who once ran nightclubs in New Orleans, said responsible owners can take steps to prevent many of the problems documented in IndyStar's investigation.
"You don't have to serve them that next drink," he said. "It's greed and poor management."
IndyStar's investigation, produced in cooperation with Fox59, found that a decades-old state law - unique among Indiana's neighboring states - prohibits cities or local police from regulating bars. As a result, IMPD and the city of Indianapolis can't shut down bars despite lengthy histories of problems.
Instead, that authority resides the Indiana Alcohol & Tobacco Commission. But IndyStar found a pattern of poor oversight, lax enforcement and understaffing at the state agency has allowed crime at Indianapolis bars to fester. Even after dozens of police runs, multiple shootings and the arrest of the owner, the ATC often allows bars to remain open.
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Alting said Wednesday many of the ATC's policies are outdated and that successive governors have resisted granting more authority to local governments. At the same time, lawmakers continue to loosen alcohol restrictions without making investments in enforcement, he said. He said the ATC is "very much understaffed and their budget is nothing."
"Lawmakers can be part of the problem here, too, because they don't take any of that consideration," he said. "All they want to do is pass more alcohol expansion … You cannot treat alcohol as a total free enterprise … It will kill you. And that's not old fashioned. That's just the facts."
A search for solutions
Alting said he has reached out to the ATC to find a solution to the violence plaguing Indianapolis bars. He also plans to reach out to IMPD to learn "how their hands are tied and what we can do to help." Any fixes will have to be collaborative, he said, and he may bring legislation before the end of the General Assembly's current session if necessary.
"Do we need to give the Indianapolis police department more power and authority to help to enforce these areas?" he said. "We need to address it because it's putting a black eye on everything we're trying to do in convention and tourism, but more importantly, it's putting a black eye on this great city and people's lives."
The ATC did not respond to questions from IndyStar about what improvements, if any, they have in the works.
IndyStar's investigation found alcohol enforcement actions have fallen steeply at the agency over the past decade. The number of violations issued, for example, has declined by about 80% since 2014.
City officials said the ATC has made some recent changes.
First, the agency detailed two officers from its enforcement arm, the Indiana State Excise Police, to IMPD's Nuisance Abatement Task Force. The excise officers will work out of the unit's offices on Keystone Avenue and will receive IMPD laptops and radios. The hope is that closer coordination will help tamp down on the violence.
Second, the ATC has changed its policy regarding what had been virtually automatic 90-day extensions on liquor licenses. Details about of the new policy are unclear, but it is already facing pushback from attorneys who represent bar owners.
"We have raised due process issues with this," said Mark Webb, a former ATC executive secretary who represents Club Kalakutah, a west side bar where multiple shootings - one of them fatal - have been reported since 2020.
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Indianapolis officials have welcomed the changes, but say they don't go far enough. The city "still supports a legislative change to grant more local authority to regulate and hold problem licensees accountable," said Mark Bode, a spokesman for Mayor Hogsett.
The Indiana Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking is also calling for better enforcement after the IndyStar investigation, which documented multiple acts of violence involving underage patrons who never should have been inside bars and clubs in the first place.
"Minors should never be allowed in restricted alcohol environments," said Lisa Hutcheson, the group's director.
"The ATC needs additional officers and resources to be able to engage in alcohol compliance checks for all licenses more than once a year," she said. "There is currently not one officer per county and most officers have multiple counties in their jurisdiction."
She said deputizing local law enforcement to conduct alcohol compliance could alleviate some of the burden on the ATC's 73 excise officers, who are responsible for 15,000 bars, restaurants and stores that sell alcohol.
A tax increase on alcohol, which she said hasn't been raised since 1981, could also support enforcement efforts, she said.
Resistance to reforms
Any efforts to change Indiana's alcohol laws is likely to face stiff resistance. Lawmakers didn't legalize alcohol sales at stores until 2018, largely because of the potential financial impact on liquor stores that feared shoppers would turn to grocery stores instead.
In a sign that any effort at reform could face an uphill challenge, Indiana's top legislative leaders showed no interest in entertaining any changes on Thursday.
"I just always kinda struggle when the city of Indianapolis automatically always turns and blames the state," House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said. "At the end of the day, they should think about investing more in policing and being more rigorous prosecuting instead of blaming a state agency."
IMPD has spent nearly $2.9 million on overtime from 2019 to 2022 just for extra patrols in a two-block area on South Meridian Street, home to several busy bars and clubs.
When asked if legislative action is needed, Senate leader Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, said he doesn't think preventing violence is the ATC's job.
"I think if you look at the ATC, that is an administrative agency that makes sure that underage drinking doesn't happen in those establishments and they make sure that the alcohol laws are being followed," he said. "They're not there to enforce or prevent murders or fights or violence. You know if the city is serious about that they'll put a law enforcement officer outside of those bars and the prosecutor will take those very seriously."
Even when it comes to underage drinking, though, IndyStar found a dramatic decrease in the ATC's enforcement efforts. Last year, the agency conducted just one-fifth of the underage drinking checks it conducted in 2014.
IndyStar also found multiple cases of violence involving underage patrons:
A 19-year-old patron at El Chila Sports Bar on the city's west side was shot by police in 2020 after they say he pointed a handgun at a group of patrons near the front door.
A 19-year-old woman who was at Club Kalakutah, in the Lafayette Square area, reported to police in 2020 that a man ripped her shirt, scratched her chest and kicked her after she rejected his advances.
A 17-year-old was injured when her throat was slashed during a fight at the former Taps & Dolls on South Meridian Street in 2021, police said.
Two 20-year-old men who said they were at Tiki Bob's Cantina, next door to Taps & Dolls, were shot a couple blocks away on South Street in 2021. One of them will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, a family member told IndyStar.
A 19-year-old man was shot and killed in his car last year outside a party at a bar called Pollo Los Reyes on the city's south side. Police said alcohol was accessible to guests as young as 14.
Two 17-year-old girls were arrested in November after a fight inside Tiki Bob's spilled onto the sidewalk. One girl was 5 weeks pregnant and had been kicked several times in the stomach, police said.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Eric Holcomb, who appoints the ATC's leaders, said he had no comment following the publication of IndyStar's investigation.
Contact IndyStar reporter Tony Cook at 317-444-6081 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @IndyStarTony.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Calls for change follow IndyStar investigation of violence at bars
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