Casper Police Chief Nixes Idea To Relax Open Container Ordinance
Casper City Council, without making a tentative decision at a work session Tuesday, seemed to agree that the city's policy should stay put regarding open containers of alcohol allowed only for special events.
The most rare special event occurred a year ago when thousands gathered downtown and in the Old Yellowstone District to watch the moon cover the sun for 2 minutes 28 seconds during the total eclipse on Monday, Aug. 21.
That weekend, the city blocked East Second Street downtown for vendors and visitors, with the north-south streets through downtown open for traffic. The barricades also marked the boundaries where people who bought beer in one block to not cross the north-south streets, otherwise they could be cited.
But after a day, the police department realized enforcement would be a nightmare.
So it announced people would be allowed to carry open containers on East Second Street from South Oak to South Kimball streets and not need to stay in previously designated areas. No open containers weren't allowed outside that area.
After the eclipse, Interim Police Chief Steve Schulz said officers arrested only three or four people for public intoxication, and half of those weren't related to the eclipse.
So with a success like that, city officials asked Police Chief Keith McPheeters about loosening the restrictions on open containers.
McPheeters just said no.
He reinforced his position with a battery of data and a lot of personal experience as a street cop.
"Small changes like this can have big consequences," McPheeters said.
To begin with, 59 percent of all people arrested by the Casper Police Department are intoxicated, he said.
McPheeters cited studies that showed increased enforcement of alcohol laws in Salinas, Calif., and Oregon dramatically reduced traffic crashes.
He also recounted the unusual case of Barrow, Alaska, from 1993 to 1997.
In 1993, the city got so fed up with alcohol-fueled crimes mostly from oil field workers that it banned the possession, sale and importation (the only way to get to Barrow is by plane or sea) of alcohol, he said.
Domestic violence, child abuse and suicide attempts dropped sharply; and school attendance skyrocketed.
A couple years later, the ban was briefly overturned after a lawsuit over a technicality. It was reinstated, and then repealed in 1997.
In the first week after repeal, there were two alcohol-related deaths and 36 admissions to the emergency room for alcohol-related health matters, McPheeters said.
In Casper, he said the Police Department tracked alcohol related arrests and found most were concentrated around the area between the Nicolaysen Art Museum and the Public Library.
Families don't want to take their children there because of the litter, empty alcohol containers, piles of cigarette butts and other debris, McPheeters said.
During a recent walk through the area, McPheeters said a "street inebriate" pointed to a bush when asked where he would go to the bathroom.
McPheeters said he had no problem with special events with open containers in a limited area because such events make Casper an attractive place. The eclipse was the most special because of more than a year of planning and a heavy law enforcement presence downtown, added said.
But relaxing the open container prohibition would lead to the "street inebriates" -- some are homeless, but many are not -- migrating to the open container areas and ruin the vibrancy and fun of downtown events.
Council member Jesse Morgan said he didn't see that much of a problem with downtown events such as Rock the Block, and thought a relaxed open container ordinance wouldn't change anything.
McPheeters responded how a seemingly minor change like that could have major consequences. "Although right now we don't have problems, and we want to keep it that way."