For good or ill, alcohol is the drug that adults can legally use to alter how they see the world. In a college town like New Paltz, that fact brings with it tremendous opportunity and no small amount of problems. Local bars are hot spots of economic activity, providing numerous jobs as well as livelihoods for their owners. The same establishments can attract trouble, such as the infamous Easter shooting at Murphy’s in 2014. Mindful that booze brings with it both good and bad, business owners and police officers have been collaborating for many years to navigate a middle road between boom and bust.
A considerable police presence is maintained on Main Street in the wee hours of the morning when college is in session, but according to Chief Joseph Snyder, the key to minimizing alcohol-fueled incidents is communication with the business owners themselves. Much of that is accomplished thanks to the Tavern Owners’ Association, a group of downtown proprietors who meet with each other and police representatives to discuss trends and problems. That group has been in existence since the 1990s, and its informal leader is Mike Beck, owner of P&G’s.
“Mike’s my go-to guy,” said Snyder, “and facilitates smooth communication.”
Like Snyder, Beck was also one of the first people in town to be certified as an instructor for TIPs, which is short for “training in intervention procedures.” Bartenders, door monitors and other employees receiving the training learn important skills such as how to recognize fake IDs (New York licenses are difficult to counterfeit, but many students come from out of state), spot behavioral cues that indicate someone has had too much to drink and use the proper etiquette when it’s time to cut someone off. Funding for the program has most recently been provided by the Community Partnership for a Safer New Paltz.
Those fake IDs can be tricky: Snyder said that some of them can even show up as valid when they’re scanned. However, he finds that the checkers do a good job, and that when they find someone underage inside, it’s usually because they know someone who works there. When that’s discovered, he said, “The owners fire that person.” The legal penalties can also be stiff for serving someone who is underage: liquor licenses can be suspended or revoked, and citations can be issued to the manager on duty and the bartender; the person with the counterfeit ID could be charged with a felony in some cases, even if they aren’t there to drink.
According to Beck, it’s within his rights to deny entry to anyone he or his employees feel could cause a problem. To make it easier to enforce that policy, a sign goes up at the door of P&G’s after 9 p.m. indicating that only residents of nearby towns and students at SUNY New Paltz are welcome inside. That gives the door person something to point to when someone is turned away, but it’s still the employee’s instincts which are the guide as to who should be admitted. Basheem Bennett, the man who shot and killed another patron at Murphy’s, was let in through a fire door by a friend, and may well have been turned away by the employee at the door had he tried to enter legally.
“It’s a fine line,” Beck acknowledged. “You can’t be racist.” He takes pains to make sure that no one on his staff profiles potential patrons in such a way, but said that the sign makes enforcement easier. Sometimes, “there’s an element in town for no good reason,” he said, but for anyone else he wants to send the message that “New Paltz is open for business,” and an alternative to the riverfront locales in Newburgh and Poughkeepsie. “It’s not tied to color of skin, not at all,” he said, noting that in the past other tavern owners have had problems with enforcement that appeared racially biased, “but it’s not hard to tell who the bad guys are.”
Snyder said that he supports the concept of a local-only policy. Patrons with “no vested interest in the community could be more of a challenge,” he said. “I believe it works.” If he or any of his officers see a trend that’s specifically concerning, such as a large number of people from a specific community that appear to be engaged in the illegal drug trade, it’s shared with the tavern owners. Even then, he emphasized, it’s not precisely about where the visitors are from: “you don’t focus on the place, but on the behavior.”
While it can appear that Main Street after dark is a powder keg, police officials don’t support curtailing the hours that bars are open, as is occasionally proposed. “If you close the bars,” said Snyder, “it means parties and driving.”
Lieutenant Robert Lucchesi agreed, saying, “There are privacy and other issues with house parties. Bar owners have a vested interest in controlling their clientele. It’s a different dynamic.” Both men continue to reinforce the position that it’s better to involve the police sooner in any situation, rather than giving it the opportunity to escalate.
From the police perspective, what’s more difficult to manage is what happens at the businesses serving food to the bar crowd, where there’s no established organization to help the owners learn how to respond. “We’re trying to get some of them to close earlier,” Snyder said, so that after last call the patrons don’t have the motivation to stick around.
Alcohol leads to its users being louder and generally exercising poorer judgment; Snyder characterized them as “little tornadoes” in the community who think everything they do is quite funny. However, “most are good kids who just make poor decisions.” Those poor decisions will continue to be made so long as booze is the drug of choice, but tavern owners and police officers are intent on continuing to contain those tornadoes so that the economic benefits of them imbibing don’t get eclipsed by the social problems which always lurk nearby.