FARGO — After sit-down meetings with owners of what at least one city commissioner believes are troublesome bars in Fargo, Police Chief David Zibolski indicated to the liquor control board on Wednesday, March 24, that he was satisfied with steps being taken and didn't recommend any penalties.
In earlier statements, City Commissioner Tony Gehrig, who is also on the liquor board, suggested suspensions or even revocations of liquor licenses were in order for the Empire and Bismarck taverns downtown in light of a shooting that injured three people behind the Bismarck and the number of police calls to the two bars.
However, the five-member board took no action after listening to Zibolski, who said the meetings with the bar owners were "very productive."
The chief said he made suggestions to the bar owners about improving safety operations of the two downtown bars, as well as at the African International bar in southwest Fargo.
Zibolski and Liquor Board Chair Dave Piepkorn, who is also a city commissioner, said they also talked to the bar owners about improving working relationships with police to prevent disorder.
Among the safety measures discussed were identification scanners to cut down on fake IDs and underage drinking, more lighting, updating security cameras and increasing police patrols and officer bar walkthroughs.
These safety measures were something that all bars should consider, he said, adding he was planning meetings with a few more city bar owners.
Zibolski said the rather inexpensive ID scanners not only discover counterfeit IDs but also store a customer's name to see who was in a bar if a crime occurs. He said the technology has greatly improved.
The other top safety improvements would be more lighting in dark areas outside bars and newer digital security cameras.
The chief also talked at length and in a later interview about plans to beef up patrols citywide by making staffing changes.
Downtown resource officers, he said, will have hours changed from day shifts to cover more nights, when more people are out at the bars and restaurants. Those officers will be complemented by additional patrols, including bicycle patrols in the warmer months, he said.
As part of the effort, Zibolski said, more routine bar walkthroughs by officers to check with bar operators are underway.
Piepkorn said he "appreciated the chief's philosophy that if the bar owners are willing to work with the police and city and make changes to improve safety" they wouldn't pursue penalties.
"If someone is not willing to do that, there is the option to do some penalty," he said.
Piepkorn said Jim Swanek, who owns the Bismarck and Empire, and the owners of the African International bar were "proactive in making changes and that's a great thing."
He added criminal problems aren't just the fault of the bars.
"It's also the city's responsibility," he said. "Sometimes, I think bars get blamed for a lot of things that go on that all of us should be involved in in finding a solution. "
For example, he said, if the public sees something going on, they should alert police. One example could be sending video accounts to police, and Zibolski said a new body camera system that is likely to be in place by the end of May will have the capability to accept videos from the public.
The chief said the technology should be good for everyone, but there will be requirements to make sure videos aren't doctored.
Zibolski said bars also shouldn't be afraid to call police if something "bad is happening" and that it isn't a negative for the bar if they call.
The chief said in his later interview that after digging further into the police calls made during the past year to the Empire and Bismarck, they learned that "a large majority had nothing to do with the operations of the bar." He said they were often problems outside the bar.
Piepkorn said the overall goal of the new effort is to try to make people feel safer downtown.
Gehrig said he wanted checks down the road to see if the actions were working.
Pipekorn said he agreed and that this was "a critical time" as more people are out and about as the weather gets nicer.
The chief agreed and said implementing changes now "is an excellent time for us to be prepared for the summer."