Tuscaloosa Weighs Moratorium on New Bars As It Struggles to Maintain Police Force
Leaders in Tuscaloosa will begin weighing the idea of a moratorium on any new bars in the city as they struggle to maintain a functional police force.
The extreme measure was floated Monday afternoon during a briefing of the Tuscaloosa City Council before their weekly meeting as they questioned whether a new restaurant, bar and hookah lounge should be allowed to open off Highway 69 South.
The council spent almost no time discussing the merits of the application, but instead heard concerns from the Tuscaloosa Police Department's Heath Clark, who painted a stark picture of a understaffed department.
"From a public safety aspect, from what we have looked at, as a whole, we don't feel like we can sustain additional -- bringing folks in for another club," Clark said.
He said on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, a hugely disproportionate percent of the city's police force has to be dedicated to preserving order and responding to calls on the Strip and in bar-heavy areas downtown.
"We're pulling our officer corps out of the neighborhoods and off of businesses to basically chase down entertainment-related disturbances and problems that go on for the majority of the morning," he said.
The proposed restaurant, bar and lounge would hold fewer than 70 patrons, but Clark said the police department cannot in good conscience recommend issuing conditional use approvals and liquor licenses for new bars.
"It's not just this particular location but overall, the late-night entertainment industry is at a breaking point with us as far as being able to provide a level of security at large that we really feel comfortable with," Clark said.
"We've tried to become as efficient as we can with the manpower we have and targeting things as well as we can, but as far as the old days of being able to say, 'Hey, we got a traffic complaint, can a car go and sit in this area for a couple hours?' It's not a service we can provide any more, regretfully," he said.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox weighed in, and said he is losing sleep over unfilled vacancies in the police department. He said fewer people than ever want to be police officers and nearby competitors including the Northport Police Department and Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Department will use TPD's bar details and Gameday shifts as a recruiting tool to draw good police away from Tuscaloosa.
"We are force-depleted and I am very worried we are stretching our police department way too thin on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night," Maddox said. "We're becoming a de facto security company for [bars] and it's taking its toll."
District 4 City Councilman Lee Busby was the first to propose slamming the brakes and not issuing any new permits or licenses for a while.
"As we did on mega-developments, do we need to adopt a moratorium on any additional places?" Busby said. "I would actually prefer a blanket policy because it gets tricky dealing with this one and that one, but not this one because it's got more, but OK for this one -- that's a problem I foresee."
Busby said if the council continues to hear proposals for new bars and expansions on a case-by-case basis, they could be perceived as playing favorites when they grant some but deny others.
Council President Kip Tyner agreed something must be done to get officers back into currently underserved parts of the city. He said he was recently at a town hall meeting where citizens said they never see TPD in residential areas anymore.
"Part of the complaints from the neighbors who were there [...] was that we're putting all our resources on the Strip and not being seen on Crescent Ridge Road, for example. That's the perception," Tyner said.
"It's not actually perception, it's reality," Maddox added.
The mayor and council said they were not entirely sure what legal avenues are available to the city or if a moratorium would even be possible, but city attorney Scott Holmes said his team would examine the issue and aim to present their findings at a meeting of the council's Public Safety Committee later this month.
"I think we need to have a further discussion of this, because we have grown tremendously as a city, which is a good thing, but we are struggling to maintain a police force with this number of vacancies," Maddox said.
A TPD spokesperson said there are 35 vacancies as of Tuesday and the department employs 289 sworn officers at full staffing, so they are operating at roughly 88 percent capacity.
Tyner said the council would table a vote on granting the liquor license to the restaurant, bar and hookah lounge in question until they could consider the wider problem further.
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