Violence Around Bars

November brings what is arguably the biggest drinking night of the year. The night before Thanksgiving has achieved that dubious status in drinking establishments throughout the country. And it usually leads to violence around bars.

Joseph Petrocelli Headshot

November brings what is arguably the biggest drinking night of the year. The night before Thanksgiving has achieved that dubious status in drinking establishments throughout the country.

On Thanksgiving, schools are closed and most of America is off work. That makes the night before Thanksgiving a perfect night to go out and catch up with friends in local bars. For most people this leads to good times, seeing old friends, and maybe hearing a live band. For police it leads to multitudes of imbibers drinking beyond their tolerance in overcrowded bars. That equation adds up to two things: intoxicated drivers and violence around bars. This article will address the latter.

Contributing Factors

It is no secret that alcohol lowers inhibitions. Under the influence of alcohol, people feel more powerful, feel closer allegiance to a group, and are less concerned about the consequences of their actions. Those who drink too much are more likely to get into a fight and ultimately get hurt in a fight.

Some drinkers fight because alcohol lowers their ability to use verbal skills to end conflicts; others fight because they seek peer approval within a culture that accepts anti-social behavior. In law enforcement, we must properly handle fights that occur in close quarters among intoxicated individuals or such situations can escalate out of control.

A number of factors contribute to violent incidents. Certain establishments cater to crowds with violent inclinations. A relatively small number of locations account for the majority of violent incidents. Some bars tolerate disorderly conduct, yelling, and profanity. Bars whose clientele include drug users, drug sellers, and prostitutes see an uptick in violence, as do bars that host "aggressive entertainment." Violence is also common in bars that do not sell food, are overcrowded, don't have enough seats, and are poorly ventilated.

Crunching Numbers

True statistics regarding bar fights are hard to come by. Much of the violence goes unreported by either the victim or the drinking establishment. Bar owners are hesitant to call the police for fear that negative official records may come to light during licensing proceedings. Victims—often drunk, ashamed, and feeling somewhat responsible for the incident—do not welcome police involvement, either. For whatever reason, it is unlikely that any police department is aware of 100 percent of violent incidents that occur in drinking establishments within its jurisdiction.

To get a clearer picture of the amount of violence around taverns, you may want to consult sources other than official reports. Interview bar patrons and employees. Ask bar owners to complete anonymous surveys. Establish contact with the local emergency room to receive reports of injuries due to violence around bars. Getting a better picture of the extent of the problem will help formulate the proper response.

Getting Answers

Prior to formulating a response to a localized problem, you will need answers to certain questions: What event precipitated the fight? Have strangers exchanged verbal jabs and insults? Have groups with long-standing conflicts patronized the same bar? Are the fights between individuals or groups? Was the attacker or victim accompanied by a date? Were there weapons involved? Were the participants drunk? Are there chronic offenders? Are there chronic victims?

When you investigate the violence, establish whether it was a spontaneous event or a planned attack. Did the violence occur in the bar or in alleys around the bar? Were these crimes masked as drunken brawls? Did the attackers take advantage of inadequate lighting? Did the attackers take advantage of the physical environment to isolate and attack intoxicated individuals? Differentiate between a fight entered into by mutual consent and the age old crime of "rolling a drunk."

Working Together

Any effective response to violence around drinking establishments will require the cooperation of the service industry. Bar owners have traditionally operated within an independent community. You can take advantage of this familiarity and rally the owners behind the necessary changes. If a bar owners association does not exist in your area, facilitate the creation of one. If one exists, make sure there is a constant and positive presence at all meetings.

Arrange for police presence at bar owners association meetings to offer positive input. Ensure that any actions taken by the association will alleviate the problem, not merely move it from one place to another. Also have a police representative present at any alcohol licensing procedures. Arm yourself with objective criteria for re-licensing, the parameters of which have been agreed upon by the police and the bar owners. Optimally, drinking establishments would police themselves through the owners association.

The bars can work with police to identify habitual troublemakers and create a database that is accessible to all members of the service industry. The database would list troublemakers along with the time, date, and type of transgression. This will allow you to track rowdy patrons who have not come in formal contact with the criminal justice system. It may also lay the groundwork for obtaining restraining orders against certain repeat offenders from entering bars.

Make sure that drink servers are trained properly to identify the elements of over-drinking and precursive aggressive behavior. Many servers are apprehensive about cutting off patrons because it may reflect negatively on their tips. Demonstrate for them how one aggressive patron can start a fight that will close the bar for that night, thereby deterring other patrons from returning in the future. Train bar workers to handle aggressive patrons and know the appropriate time to call police.

Much of the violence around bars occurs at closing time when many patrons are not ready to go home. They are forced into the street where they co-mingle with other patrons from different drinking settings. This mixed group is forced to compete over limited access to eateries and transportation.

You can address this problem by adding supplemental patrols to trouble spots during the relatively brief time surrounding bar closings. Work with the governing body to allow bars to serve non-alcoholic drinks and food for an hour after the normal closing time. With the music off and the lights up, a 60-minute "cooling off" period will stagger the exodus from bars and alleviate the rush onto the street.

In many communities, the service industry is a vital part of the local economy. There is no reason that good citizens should not be able to enjoy themselves without the specter of violence.

Det. Joseph Petrocelli is a 20-year veteran of New Jersey law enforcement. He can be contacted through

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Detective (Ret.)
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