Chris Mathiesen, Past Public Safety Commissioner, On the Continuing Crisis of Violence in Downtown Saratoga Springs

One of the problematic aspects of allowing bars in Saratoga Springs to stay open until 4AM that has not been focused on is the impact this has on the city’s police department. In addition to the verbal abuse police suffer, officers are routinely placed in a volatile and dangerous situation as they try to cope with crowds of drunks in the downtown bar area. It is only a matter of time before more people, including police officers are hurt. In addition, officers who must routinely respond to the eruptions on Caroline Street are not available to quickly respond to other incidents that may occur simultaneously in other areas of the city. If this situation is not addressed, the city will find it increasingly difficult to attract and keep officers.

Chris Mathiesen served as the Public Safety Commissioner in Saratoga Springs from January 2012 to December 2017. During his time in office Chris visited Caroline Street at three in the morning to observe firsthand what was going on there. Here is a recent interview I did with him where he describes this experience.

Below is a piece Chris wrote for this blog.

Caroline Street Nightclub Scene

It is much too early to make any definitive pronouncements regarding the November 20 shooting in the Caroline Street Nightclub District.  As this incident is fully investigated by law enforcement professionals, there will be more details to consider.  It is hoped that all injuries sustained will not be too serious and will allow for a full recovery.

It was just a matter of time.  Gun violence has become commonplace in the cities surrounding Saratoga Springs.  There was an incident in June of 2021 where a gun was discharged multiple times on Caroline, though it was assumed that no one was injured.  Other forms of violence have gotten worse in this district, with ubiquitous fist fights giving way to knives.  A stabbing took place this past summer on Phila Street.  Two fatalities occurred when individuals were punched and then suffered fatal head injuries as they hit the ground, once in 2014 and again in 2021.  There was a death in 2010 when a brawl turned into an assault by a motor vehicle.

Over the years, there have been relatively frequent incidents of altercations between police and inebriated patrons of the many drinking establishments in the nightclub district.  Usually, the incidents have occurred on weekends after midnight.  Some have resulted in injuries to police officers.  Due to the over-consumption of alcohol and other excessive behavior, Caroline Street has been out of control during late-night weekend hours for years.  It has to be observed to be believed.

The success of Saratoga Springs is stunning.  It has become a year-round destination City for weddings, conventions, meetings, and other less formal occasions.  Skidmore College attracts resident students from all over the world.  Downtown continues to thrive with numerous successful stores, offices, and businesses, while inner City condos and apartments have high occupancy rates.  Our good fortune is the result of many years of efforts on the part of those both in government and the private sector.

Success is fragile.  The success of a city like Saratoga Springs depends upon a reputation as a safe, fun place in which to live and work or to visit.  That all-important reputation is being undermined each and every weekend by the late-night bad behavior in our nightclub district.  

Some improvement took place in 2012 when, after a horrific incident in the summer of 2011, the pressure was brought to bear on all parties, which resulted in better cooperation between police and the establishments.  There was more focus on the problem of over-serving alcohol to inebriated patrons and on required background checks for bartenders.  Training standards for ‘bouncers’ were enforced.  The increased presence of police officers on the street helped to significantly subdue those engaging in openly aggressive behavior. 

Unfortunately, other measures proposed to help tame the nightlife problems were met with fierce resistance.  The most obvious issue has been the 4 AM last call for serving alcohol.   While the NYS SLA was supportive of our efforts in 2012 to limit the hours of alcohol sales, and the City Council did vote 3-2 to support these changes, the Chamber of Commerce and the owners of the nightclub district bars were adamantly opposed.   The County Board of Supervisors has the final say on this issue.   Our attempt to change the last call to a compromise driven 3 AM failed when that board failed to provide any support for our efforts.

Since then, both Warren County and Essex County have passed legislation shortening the hours of alcohol sales to 3 AM.  Police officials in Glens Falls and Lake Placid reported an immediate reduction in weekend calls for service.  The police officials in Lake Placid were so pleased that they were seeking a further reduction to 2 AM to reflect the last call hour in neighboring Clinton County.

It should be noted that Saratoga County is in the minority in New York State.  Most counties have last call hours of 3 AM or 2 AM, with some as early as 1 AM with more severe restrictions Sunday through Thursday.  As anyone who travels knows, alcohol in most other states cannot be served as late as in New York.  The 4 AM last call is extremely late.  In fact, the best solution to this problem would be for New York State to revisit this issue.  There is no good reason to continue granting permission statewide for bars and clubs to be serving alcohol until 4 AM.

Members of the previous City Council supported efforts to change the last call to 2 AM.  Mayor Kim and Commissioner Montagnino now seem poised to seek ways of doing so.  We should all support their efforts.

Chris Mathiesen   

6 thoughts on “Chris Mathiesen, Past Public Safety Commissioner, On the Continuing Crisis of Violence in Downtown Saratoga Springs”

  1. In response to CM:
    Well said and I support any measure that makes the city safer, including earlier closing times and metal detectors. I could not agree more that the city is fragile, especially since we rely so heavily on tourism (sales tax) for city revenue. If the tourists do not feel safe, they will not come.
    Tim Coll

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In August 2021 the City Council voted unanimously in support of a 2am closing time. We had hoped that the county board of supervisors would then take up the issue and vote in the affirmative for a 2 AM closing time to move the process along to the state – but there was no appetite to do so from our supervisors or the county board of supervisors and it went nowhere. It was extremely frustrating and I hope this council is able to work more successfully with the county to make it happen.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Sadly I need to point this out in local politics, but here is a bipartisan issue for sure. I hope the county and city can work together with our state officials as well.

    What bartender is equipped to stop a brawl, stabbing, or shooting?

    I’m not in the know, but I have wondered how much it costs a bar owner to stay open past 2pm, vs. income produced.

    Anywho – it strikes me there will be 3-2, 4-1, or 5-0 support from the council to advance this discussion.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Few people benefit from bars being open after 1:00am. The few are the owners of the few businesses offering such services. Some, as an example, are not even residents of the area, such as the owners of Gaffney’s.

    The people who suffer are all citizens of the community, through the violence and increased need for policing. And as we know, police tend to escalate violence, not subdue it.

    It is preposterous that the community does not trounce the Chamber of Commerce, and demand changing the laws to make the community a better environment for both residents and visitors,

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Our blogger, JK, calls Caroline Street the “nightclub district”.

    The media calls it the “entertainment district”.

    Neither descriptions apply to this street-of-many-bars.

    Its a cornicopia of puke, discarded paper plates that once held slices of pizza, broken bottles, broken hearts, bouncers, drugs, blood and urine on the sidewalks.

    There have been prison sentences as a result of beat-downs, stabbings, shootings, unsolved murders of young women who frequented the bar scene. Families who have been torn apart by never having closure. There is no other street in Saratoga Springs that has had as many crimes committed, or unsolved crimes.

    Yet, the reputation of Caroline Street, where anything goes, has attracted nefarious individuals/groups from surrounding towns and cities. This attraction has negatively impacted the reputation of the “city in the country” that our leaders have been promoting to the media for many years, with great success.

    It’s time to do the right thing. Our leaders need to personally visit with the County Supervisors and plead their case. Shut the bars down at 1 pm. As our parents told us, nothing good happens after midnight.

    Liked by 2 people

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