Tuscaloosa Police Chief Ramps Up War on Bars, City Eyes 5-Month Moratorium
The chief of the Tuscaloosa Police Department said the city "has enough" bars and should not allow any more to open in a series of meetings Tuesday.
In an afternoon briefing of the city council, Chief Brent Blankley vehemently opposed two alcohol-related agenda items - one that would allow a diner, bar and hookah lounge to open off Highway 69 South and another to allow a downtown restaurant to close its kitchen permanently and operate as a standalone bar.
The restaurant, the still-new Grandstand, is asking to become a bar only after the council voted to refuse them permission to operate as a gastropub, a municipal designation that allows a business to operate as a restaurant by day but close their kitchen and become a bar at night.
Without the flexibility of that designation, owners at Grandstand said it makes more financial sense for them to act 100 percent as a bar than 100 percent as a restaurant. They also said they would be willing to decrease their maximum occupancy if the council would allow them to make the switch.
Blankley briefly touched on potential problems both requests but generally spent his time decrying bars in general, which he said are an undue strain on police resources.
"The occupancy [at Grandstand] is 375 - we consider that a mega-bar and we are totally against it," he said. "It's been discussed back and forth about a 200 occupancy, but after reconsidering everything, we feel like there are enough bars. We have stretched our people enough and we can't do any more, so we are requesting you deny this based on we have enough bars in that area already."
Blankley said for the last two years, TPD has consistently been short-staffed by more than 30 officers. Even as new officers are hired and trained, others quit or retire and the needle has barely moved since 2021 and it's taking a toll.
The city's several dozen bars generate revenue, Blankley said, but they also lead to fights and other violence, disorderly conduct, driving under the influence and more, all of which require attention and resources law enforcement.
In speaking against the proposed restaurant, bar and hookah lounge off 69 South, Blankley said the specifics of the application were basically moot points - he was against seeing the council grant a liquor license to the would-be business.
"We strongly feel that we are spread thin as we can get and there are enough bars in Tuscaloosa," Chief Blankley said. "If we keep adding bars, I can't stress this enough, we are not going to be able to patrol any of your neighborhoods if we're sending four, five or six units to the bars when there's a fight or shots fired or something like that."
"I understand people wanna make business and make money but if these keep getting approved, their money and their business will be over the well-being of the rest of the citizens in Tuscaloosa," Blankley said. "I can't stand up here and say we're going to have enough officers to go into neighborhoods when I know they're going to be at these bars."
When the council asked Blankley why this has become such an issue for the police department - after all, the city is no newcomer to the bar scene - the police chief said TPD is struggling to handle a new "outside element."
"I've been here for 18 years and typically for the first 15, we dealt with Tuscaloosa residents," Blankley said. "We've always chased people around bars I don't want to act like we haven't but now we're getting crowds in from Bessemer, Birmingham, Greene County and Selma. Tuscaloosa has become a popular place, but the problem is it's become popular for the wrong reasons at these locations. People are coming in to have a good time and discharge their firearms in the parking lot."
"It's not the Tuscaloosa residents we deal with as much, it's clubs becoming more popular, people coming in for that entertainment," he continued. "While that's successful, what you're also dealing with is you're bringing more people in that don't care about the city of Tuscaloosa. They care about partying and going home. My thing is if we have less bars, maybe they gotta go to Birmingham to cause their problems."
At a meeting of the council's Public Safety Committee, city attorney Scott Holmes introduced a draft resolution that would declare a moratorium on approving any new bars or gastropubs for the rest of the calendar year. The council will consider it for two weeks before a possible vote on June 27th.
"What we have done is based upon the public safety issues that Chief has been pretty crystal clear over the last several months about, our inability to get up to the police numbers we need, the proliferation of alcohol establishments and the public safety issues we have seen growing -- particularly from citizens outside of Tuscaloosa who come into Tuscaloosa to have fun and some of them then cause trouble," Holmes said. "What this would do is suspend any applications for a conditional use to be a bar tavern or a gastropub."
Holmes said the moratorium, if approved, could be extended into 2024 if necessary, or rolled back early with a majority vote of the council if they test these waters and don't like the results.
For updates on the possible bar ban as they develop, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.