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Editorial: Report troubling for some Northampton bars, enforcers of alcohol laws

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A report by the Boston Globe about where convicted drunken drivers reported having their last drink before they were arrested raises troubling questions for a small number of bars in Northampton and enforcers of alcohol laws in the city.

The Globe reported Jan. 1 on its analysis of 8,364 so-called “place-of-last-drink” reports compiled in the state’s courts between January 2012 and September 2016. Judges are required to ask defendants convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol where they had their last drink before they were arrested. There is no independent verification of those reports and, by themselves, they are not direct evidence of a violation.

The Globe’s analysis showed that just 48 of the thousands of establishments in Massachusetts licensed to serve alcohol were named in more than 1,000 reports, which is about 12 percent of the total cases reviewed. Among those with the highest number of reports are Bishop’s Lounge, at 41 Strong Ave., with 29 (tied for sixth most in the state), and Packards Bar, at 14 Masonic St., with 24 (tied for 12th highest).

Moreover, according to the Globe’s analysis, the total number of last drinks reported in Northampton bars and restaurants during that period was 207, third highest in Massachusetts, eclipsed only by the state’s two most populous cities, Boston (586 reports) and Worcester (237). By contrast, Springfield, with a population more than five times that of Northampton, had 178 last-drink reports at its establishments.

The numbers in Northampton are all the more disturbing when calculated per 1,000 residents. Again, based on the Globe’s analysis, Northampton had one of the highest per capita rates in Massachusetts at 7.2 percent, far more than Worcester (1.3 percent) and Boston (0.9 percent).

Those are red flags that demand action by city agencies, starting with the Northampton Police Department and License Commission. We don’t doubt that police conduct regular, random checks “to make sure all establishments are complying with the local and state rules regarding alcohol,” as Capt. John Cartledge told the Gazette last week.

But police and the License Commission need to reevaluate their enforcement strategies and devote more surveillance to those bars identified by drunk drivers as repeat offenders. That process should start when the License Commission next meets at 4 p.m. Feb. 1 in the City Council chambers. Its chairman, Brian Campedelli, said last week he is aware of the Globe’s report, and “I think there’s a few conversations that need to be had. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of questions.”

We hope that the owners of the bars named as the most egregious offenders respond more responsibly than their initial reactions last week suggest. Volkan Polatol, who owns Bishop’s Lounge, told the Gazette that despite the Globe’s report, he does not see a need for changes, estimating that his bar served as many as 120,000 patrons between 2012 and 2016. “It’s not like we did something wrong,” Polatol said.

And Robert McGovern, owner of Packards, also largely dismissed the Globe’s findings. “We are pretty diligent about not letting people in that have had too much (to drink), and the bartenders are more than vigilant about over-serving people. So, we don’t pay too much attention to a report like that.”

McGovern, like owners of other establishments in the state with a high number of reports, pointed out that drunken drivers may lie in identifying where they had their last drink.

Still, investigators say that owners of bars named multiple times by drunken drivers should take those accusations seriously. “Some individuals in court may have not told the truth,” Ted Mahony, the chief investigator for the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, told the Globe. “But if you look at the bars that have high numbers compared to the nine thousand other bars in the commonwealth, that’s an indication there’s a problem. You don’t get on the top of the list by accident.”

Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill at the Patriot Place shopping complex outside Gillette Stadium in Foxborough is the top offender with 46 last-drink reports, according to the Globe’s analysis. “Frankly we’re embarrassed,” Barry Birks, vice president of CRGE Foxborough LLC, which owns the bar, told the Globe. “It’s something we’re going to attack very aggressively. The numbers have to come down, and we won’t be satisfied until they’re zero.”

That’s a goal — and an attitude — that bar owners and enforcement officials in Northampton also should strive to adopt.