Former Public Safety Commissioner Lew Benton Reflects on Violence in Downtown Saratoga Springs

Lew Benton served for eight years as Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner from 1988 to 1995. Here are his observations about the downtown bar scene then and now.


I doubt that Gideon Putnam ever imagined when he platted the hamlet’s streets that the one he lent his daughter Caroline’s name to would become a modern day version of Deadwood’s Lower Main or Dodge City’s Front streets.

But the November 20 early morning gunfight on Broadway, reportedly prompted by a dispute in a Caroline Street bar, presents as a 19th century Dodge City shootout. Like Caroline Street, Front Street in Dodge was host to several ‘watering holes’ including the famous Long Branch Saloon.

There one night in 1879 the ironically named Frank Loving shot and killed Levi Richardson over a dispute involving Loving’s wife. Loving was wounded in the exchange.

Of course such gun play in that time was not unusual, but it is specifically referenced because it may prove to be characteristic of what happened here a week ago Sunday in the wee small hours.

Now, as then, carrying a hand gun, legally or not, in public places where alcohol is consumed in excess, inhibitions diminished and rational thought trumped by bravado and irresistible impulse, present as ripe for trouble and unintended consequences.

Indeed, some would argue that today’s faster, lighter, higher capacity, more powerful, semi-automatic hand guns only increase the danger of an accidental shooting, the killing or wounding of innocence or a disproportionate response to a perceived slight.

The November 20 shooting was not an aberration, not a one and done. And we had been warned.

In June of 2021, a Caroline Street brawl, reportedly involving 15 to 20, resulted in the stabbing of a 26 year-old, the discharge of a “ghost” gun and the suggestion of possible “gang” involvement. Serious stuff and fraught with serious consequences, including potential injuries to police officers and bystanders, the risk of escalation, unwarranted allegations of police misconduct and the attended risk of municipal liability.

This is to say nothing of the municipal costs of such incidents.

Following that incident the then deputy chief of police urged the development and support of a comprehensive community based plan designed to stem growing violent downtown episodes.

Then it was suggested that following the 2021 summer season, with the benefit of recent experience, the type and number of incidents compared to corresponding data from previous years and knowledge of any changing influences driving outbreaks of violence, would seem the best time to develop such a plan.

To my knowledge, no such comprehensive plan was developed.

Over the years, as previous public safety commissioners have attested, there have been many, many violent incidents on Caroline Street and environs, several resulting in serious injury and, in at least three cases, deaths. The most recent a 2021 homicide resulting from a bar fight.

Different City administrations have attempted to keep the lid on the Caroline Street pressure cooker. Many years ago I implemented a 8 PM to 4 AM overlapping special patrol which, I recall, helped tamp down violent outbreaks. Such initiatives, however, do not address the root causes of the problem.

Other strategies were considered. A Public Safety initiative to close bars at 2 AM rather than 4 AM, strenuously resisted by some bar operators and the Chamber of Commerce, was ultimately dismissed by an indifferent, mulish County Board of Supervisors perhaps still cultivating some past pique.

Pre-peak season meetings with the police, bar operators, private security and the SLA, sponsored by public safety, sought to lessen the occasions of violent and other criminal behavior. And this year Public Safety and the SLA intervened to sanction Gaffney’s following yet another street brawl reportedly provoked by its “patrons.”

I recall riding, over 26 plus years ago, on patrol with late at night on Caroline Street during the height of the summer season. Then, as now, the goal was to roll back, calm dicey situations before they got out of hand. What I experienced then was good, ethical policing conducted with discretion, common sense and a cool demeanor.

And as far back as the late 1960s, as a young probation officer, I occasionally rode on night patrol with my father, a city police officer.

Still, even a greater police presence designed to deter such street crime begs the more fundamental question of cause and effect and how to prevent, or at least reduce, it.

What really drives the too frequent downtown lawlessness and occasion of violence? Booze, street drug use, diminished inhibition, alcohol fueled bravado, mob mentality, less fear of potential legal and social consequences, simple peer pressure. A “What Happens in Las Vegas, Stays in Las Vegas” mentality.

Now a new dynamic to consider and one I have not seen discussed: the carrying of concealed weapons in public.

On June 23, 2022, in a 6-3 ruling, the US Supreme Court struck down part of New York’s concealed carry gun law, a provision requiring an applicant to show “proper cause” in order to obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun outside their home. (New York does not allow handguns to be carried openly at all, and that restriction was not challenged in the case.) The Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen removed a key element of New York’s gun laws, making it easier to obtain a license to carry a firearm in New York’s public spaces.

The Court ruled that the 109-year-old provision violated the Second Amendment, holding that States may not require otherwise responsible and law-abiding citizens to show “a special need for self-defense” in order to qualify for a license to carry a handgun outside the home. A license to carry a handgun may be denied for other reasons specific to an applicant’s background, character, or ability to use a firearm properly, but not for lack of a special need for self-defense.

The Court’s opinion focused primarily on history, relying on its view that there was no precedent for similarly restrictive laws limiting people’s ability to carry handguns in public for the purpose of self-defense when the Second Amendment was ratified. Consequently, the Court ruled that New York’s proper-cause requirement was not part of a “historical tradition” defining the “outer bounds of the right to keep and bear arms.”

Of course most thinking people know that the Second Amended conferred no such right, but for now communities and the police are left to deal with the irrational decisions of a compromised, activist court.

In the wake of the Court’s decision in Bruen, New York’s lawmakers were called back to Albany for a special session to pass new legislation clarifying and enhancing New York’s many public-safety-oriented protections for handgun licensing in a manner consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision. On July 1, 2022, the governor signed legislation expanding restrictions on access to guns in the state.

In relevant part the legislation made carrying a concealed hand gun, even if licensed, illegal in certain public places, including bars.

That state July action, which prohibits and criminalizes a licensed concealed carrier from bringing a gun into a bar, was, of course, almost immediately challenged but, at least for now, I believe, stands.

The insanity of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Bruen case is made evident by the November 20 gun fight on Broadway and untenable burden it places on the police.

If, as has been suggested, one of the young men shot that morning, was licensed to carry his concealed hand gun in public, but may have violated the penal law by possessing the gun in a bar, how will the DA proceed? The other gunman, reportedly an off duty Vermont deputy sheriff, was carrying a concealed non-issue hand gun in the same bar. Did he legally carry that gun into the Caroline Street bar?

Hey, two armed guys in a bar at about 3 AM get into a dispute. What could possibly go wrong?

It will be interesting to learn how the DA deals with all this. If, in fact, the two involved legally possessed their weapons, will she prosecute them for violating the stricture against carrying them in a bar? Will they claim self defense in the response to a self created threat? What if one legally possessed and carried is weapon and the other did not?

Will she even enforce the state prohibition against concealed weapons in bars? We will recall that the county sheriff vowed not enforce the state’s SAFE law regulating certain semi-automatic assault weapons.

Presumably these and other questions will be answered in the course of the reported State Police investigation. Hopefully the findings of that investigation and any corresponding one conducted by SSPD will also serve to prevent future similar violent outbursts.

In the meantime the police are again left to keep the piece and babysit the Caroline Street crowd, not knowing who is carrying a concealed weapon, legally or illegally, but surely aware that guns, bars and alcohol are a toxic mix. Their lot cannot be a happy one.

The federal courts have predicated recent gun decisions on a contrived right of self defense in public places. But the November 30 gun play protected no one and placed police officers and others in grave danger.

If the Board of Supervisors, including are own representative, again negate an earlier closing time, let the city council ask for a Home Rule message to amend the pertinent state law. And every bar in the Caroline Street area should be required, as a condition of city licensing, to display a door sign reminding all that under current state law it is a crime to bring a concealed weapon prohibiting into the premises.

Local elected officials have suggested other steps. Perhaps now is finally the time to develop the community based strategic plan that Deputy Chief Catone advocated well over a year ago. For now the priority should be gaining control of bar closing times, developing a definitive policy regarding enforcement and prosecution of concealed carry laws and exposing the myth that carry a weapon in public makes anyone safer.

If not, the Dodge City analogy may just stick and the city will suffer for it.


6 thoughts on “Former Public Safety Commissioner Lew Benton Reflects on Violence in Downtown Saratoga Springs”

  1. I have a general question directed at all the prior Public Safety Commissioners on this blog. Is there a policy in place to have the Police Chief conduct the presser rather than the PSC and Mayor? Much appreciated!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Repeating my earlier post: What I meant was that in all the media coverage, and discussions with the DA and the PS Commissioner and Mayor Kim, it was as if we had no Police Chief. And I see now that our Chief is resigning.

    November 27, 2022 at 6:12 pm

    Nowhere in this back and forth have I seen the words: Police Chief.


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