At the behest of Mayor Svante Myrick, the Public Safety and Information Commission voted Monday night to form a working group called the NightLife Safety Team to combat issues with alcohol and nightlife in downtown Ithaca.
The full list of goals for the group aren’t yet known, but generally speaking, they will be assessing the downtown nightlife situation and generating ideas to make it safer and more comfortable for all different kinds of patrons. Presenters at the meeting included local DJ Ben Ortiz, Naomi Barry of the Advocacy Center, Lindsey LeBlanc of the Watershed bar, hospitality manager and paralegal Aleshia Akers and local event organizer Johnny Tunnel, all of whom will serve in some sort of advisory role to the commission’s working group or will work with the group itself.
The problems mentioned Monday night aren’t necessarily new, such as overserving, overcrowding of bars and often lackluster bar security, as well as the effort against them, but the situation reached perhaps a new level of urgency after several people reported to the Ithaca police that they feared they had been drugged at undisclosed downtown Ithaca bars during late March. The police are still investigating the incidents. There was also an incident in April that involved a fight on the Ithaca Commons allegedly after a woman was inappropriately touched, though that story has taken on a different tone due to questions about the police’s conduct while making arrests after the fight.
Barry, who helped create the Barstander program along with Watershed owner Ashley Cake, said she often sees problematic behaviors perpetrated at bars in the downtown area, yet the ways to deal with them aren’t widespread yet, so the problems manifest themselves throughout the night. What starts with buying an unwanted shot could turn into a forced hug, then something more sinister like following someone out of the bar, etc.
“The frequency where I’m seeing those risky behaviors is incredibly high, but culturally our ability to recognize those behaviors is incredibly low,” she said. “When people don’t actively call out their friends or their colleagues or people that they’re with, the underlying message that they’re getting is that this behavior is okay.”
Lieutenant Scott Garin of the Ithaca Police Department also attended the meeting. He suggested that someone who works the overnight shift be included on the working group in an advisory role, adding that alcohol is easily the most likely culprit for a situation that requires a police response, particularly at certain times of night, in certain locations (like the Commons), and during certain times of the year.
“We’ve had some reported incidents of people using substances to intoxicate people in bars that we’ve been looking into as well, that’s something that’s not usual that has happened lately that has attracted a lot of attention in terms of investigations,” Garin said. “Alcohol and sexual assault and fights are definitely linked, and a lot of the injuries that occur.”
The Watershed is widely thought of as one of the leaders in this type of bar monitoring locally; they strictly adhere to occupancy limits, and they only serve liquor in cocktails, not shots.
Commission chair Aryeal Jackson explained that to begin, one potential idea would be for the working group to evaluate bars around the area and ask if they’d want to opt into a safety program run by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, which would require regular evaluations by the working group. For joining the program, the bar would receive some sort of label or recognition that could be used in advertising or elsewhere. Jackson said that is just a preliminary idea, but that the group could rely on a peer-pressure type of system to get other bars to join.
There was also some sentiment from commission member Mike Comella that other local involved parties should be involved with the working group, such as someone from one of the local colleges and someone from the Tompkins County District Attorney’s office. Jackson said she’s heard concerns from the public about aspects of the city’s downtown late-night hours, and hoped the working group could yield some results for those people.
“We want to give them a voice that’s official,” Jackson said. “The community is very much in favor of this. They’re basically demanding it.”