Last May, St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon predicted an increase in police calls to bars if the City Council approved expanding closing time to 3 a.m. This was less of a case of prescience on the part of the chief as it was common sense. Allowing bar patrons more time to drink more alcohol is an obvious cocktail of potential law enforcement issues — and now that Harmon has been proved right, the bar owners need to help deal with the problem.
The additional one hour of imbibing time came at the urging of St. Petersburg bar owners, who argued they were losing business to Tampa bars, which have been permitted to remain open until 3 a.m. since 2003. In short order, the Pinellas County Commission and other cities like Clearwater and Dunedin followed suit and extended drinking hours.
Since the expanded closing time went into effect eight months ago in St. Petersburg, Harmon's concerns have proved to be well founded. From May though the end of 2010, police calls to bars increased 70 percent. Compared with the same period in 2009, the number of calls from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m., as the last patrons departed their stools, has risen 210 percent.
The later last calls also come with a cost. Police estimate that overtime for officers to deal with the increased bar traffic is about 150 additional hours a month, requiring Harmon to juggle work schedules. In May, as the council pondered the expanded bar closing time, Harmon estimated assigning an additional 12 officers to patrol during the later hours would cost taxpayers as much as $1 million. Since the expanded tippling hours were approved for the financial benefit of St. Petersburg's bar owners, it is only proper these proprietors should help defray law enforcement costs directly related to enhancing their businesses.
Mayor Bill Foster recently convened a meeting of prominent club owners to discuss the situation and ask for help, and the reaction to that meeting was encouraging. Now there needs to be some concrete action. Extending bar closing times by an hour was aimed at eliminating a competitive disadvantage for particular business owners, but taxpayers should not have to shoulder the entire cost. If too many patrons conduct themselves irresponsibly, the nightclub owners have a civic responsibility to belly up to the bar and pay their fair share of the law enforcement tab.