If treating customers and residents like would-be hijackers, terrorists, and bank robbers is the best plan Saratoga Springs officials can think of to deal with the Caroline Street party scene, then the city either needs a better plan or it needs officials with better ideas.
To curb drunkenness and crime emanating from the city’s popular bar scene, some in the city have proposed closing the popular party strip to foot traffic and installing security stations at each end that would include metal detectors and wands for personal body scans, ID checks and private security forces.
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 crowds, which can sometimes get large and unruly. They compared the security facility to Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, a popular entertainment district that has fallen victim to mass crime, and to Disney World, where this was not the case.
It’s true that many places restrict popular areas for vehicular traffic during rush hours. As recently as Saturday, the city closed several streets for the Chowder Fest.
But installing airport-like security on a public highway is a whole different beast, and opens up a whole host of problems — not the least of which is potential violations of the Constitution.
The First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, while the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure.
How can the city justify preventing citizens from gathering and how can it justify searching citizens and requiring identification to enter a public street when those individuals are not suspected of a crime?
Mayor Kim’s answer to that is, if you don’t want to be searched or show ID when you stop on this public road, just don’t go there.
It might not be that easy.
The American Civil Liberties Union has successfully gone to court to protect access to public roads, arguing that these have significance “as this nation’s archetypal space for public speech and association.”
The argument that these types of security measures are common in amusement parks and sports arenas ignores the fact that they are private companies that have the right and duty to protect their property and customers. Public roads belong to the people who use them.
Can the city legally or ethically ban people from using them for no reason?
Assuming the city overcomes the constitutional and legal barriers, the security protocols open up potential racial profiling for visitors and exacerbate a race relations issue that already plagues the city.
Requiring ID and strip-searching for no reason other than being on a public street is reminiscent of the now-discredited “stop and frisk” policy employed by many city police departments in the name of fighting gangs and drugs.
Imagine if the significant number of visitors who are denied access to the street turn out to be Black, Hispanic or some other ethnic group. Is the city ready to fight back against the coming civil rights lawsuits?
As for security officers themselves, what powers do they have to stop and detain private individuals and prevent them from entering a public sidewalk or street?
Will the city police be there to confiscate guns, drugs and weapons and make arrests at the checkpoints?
Will police unions be willing to have private security forces patrol city streets?
Who will pay these private security forces? With eight hours a night (between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m.) for two to five nights a week throughout the summer, the costs for staff and equipment 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 allow visitors to access Caroline Street in just the small section between Broadway and Henry Street. Will the city post security guards and metal detectors at each of these points along the road?
People can easily walk around sawhorse barriers, so the city needs to put up a fence across the street? What if people refuse to identify themselves and just take to the streets? Are they arrested?
And what’s the point of asking for ID anyway? Will they record the names of all who enter? When it comes to stopping underage drinking, are they going to require people to be 21 before using the street?
Wherever they put these checkpoints, there will be queues. Are these guards prepared to deal with the angry visitors? That alone could lead to more violence.
Will these officers also make arrests for public drunkenness as people enter and exit checkpoints?
In addition, the plan penalizes companies that adequately monitor their customers and treats non-cash dealers the same as problem-causing bars. It targets residents living above the bars, with searches and ID checks just to get to where they live.
And the road closure severely limits access to emergency vehicles and potentially hinders emergency responders.
Many cities with vibrant entertainment districts manage their crowds without resorting to these extreme, potentially unconstitutional, and questionably effective measures.
This plan only invites more trouble. And it still won’t solve the problems caused by bars serving too much and not providing enough security to manage their guests. It still won’t stop people, once in the bubble, from getting overly drunk and getting into fights. You will still have large crowds of drunk people crammed into a small space late at night.
The city cannot fix Caroline Street’s problems by treating it like an airport terminal.
There are more direct and effective ways to deal with this problem.
City officials must continue to work with other public officials, law enforcement, businesses, customers and others to find a more feasible and effective solution to the problems.
This plan is not.
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Categories: Editorial, Opinion