Editorial: Legislature needs to fix poor oversight of problem bars

Keywords Editorials

It’s disturbing just how much work needs to be done to improve safety on the Indianapolis bar scene.

The Indianapolis Star and WXIN-TV Channel 59 laid out the glaring problems in shocking detail last week.

They identified more than 600 reports of violence at Indianapolis bars and event centers since 2016, including 49 homicides and more than 150 people injured in shootings and stabbings.

And they found a regulatory system unable or unwilling to shut down problem bars even after multiple shootings and dozens of police runs.

There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Owners of the trouble spots certainly share some responsibility for allowing problems to fester, out of either greed or indifference.

But much of the focus for reform has to be on state government and the political environment that has led to its unwillingness to provide the resources necessary for the Indiana Alcohol & Tobacco Commission to properly regulate alcohol permit holders.

As The Star and Fox 59 reported, the ATC is woefully understaffed and underfunded, a situation that has led to poor oversight of Indiana bars and lax enforcement of existing alcohol laws. The number of alcohol permit violations issued by the agency has fallen 80% in the past decade, their investigation found.

Furthermore, bad-actor owners on the bar scene are sometimes protected by local politicians who step in to preserve their alcohol permits. And the influence of the alcohol industry at the Statehouse seems to be able to maintain the status quo.

Further complicating the situation is a unique state law that prohibits cities and local police from regulating bars or shutting them down even if they have been the scene of repeated violence.

Most disturbing is the blind eye Republican leaders at the Statehouse have turned to the need for change, even after being presented with mounds of evidence gathered by The Star’s investigative team.

“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.”

Senate President Pro Tem Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, also showed little interest in pursuing state reforms, telling The Star that preventing violence is not the ATC’s job.

Perhaps the city of Indianapolis could do more to police and prosecute violence at bars. But there’s also no question it needs more authority to do so, and the Legislature should provide it.

Indianapolis has been working to tackle the problem, spending $2.9 million on police overtime over the past three years to patrol the rowdy bar scene on South Meridian Street.

Now the Legislature needs to give local officials the authority they need to deal with the problems and properly fund and staff the ATC so it can regulate the 15,000 outlets that sell alcohol.

If lawmakers need a funding source for the improvements, we suggest they raise the tax on alcohol.•


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