AUSTIN (AP) – Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission officials defended the crackdown on public intoxication that sent undercover officers into bars and drew a public outcry, but also said they believed the agency could refine the program.
“We are about public safety,” Commissioner Gail Madden said Monday. “If you’ve had too much to drink and are mentally and physically impaired, you could be a danger to yourself.”
Madden and other TABC officials appeared before a hearing with Senate and House members to explain the program, which was suspended last week in the wake of the criticism.
Alan Steen, TABC administrator, said the agency plans to continue the program once it has finished re-evaluating how officers enforce the public intoxication law.
“We shut (it) down not because we think we’ve done anything wrong. We think it’s a good program,” Steen said. “We want to be strong in this and we want to use good common sense.”
Under the program, undercover officers have visited bars to ticket or arrest bar patrons who are deemed exceedingly drunk.
More than 2,200 bar patrons or workers have been arrested or issued citations since August. The purpose is to stop the sale of alcoholic beverages to people who are drunk and, as a result, cut down on the number of drunken drivers.
Public intoxication is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.
But media reports about the program after a sting last month in the Dallas suburb of Irving prompted criticism that law enforcement was being too aggressive and that the arrests could prove bad for business if they drive away conventions and other tourists.
Tracie Detamore, 34, of Oklahoma City, told lawmakers she had been drinking but was not drunk when she was pulled out of a bar by an undercover officer who showed her his gun when she questioned whether his badge was fake.
“I don’t see how I was a danger to others when I was just sitting on a bar stool,” she said.
She is contesting her arrest. “It was harassment.”
The commission has been doing stings in bars since 2001, but began doing more over the summer after getting additional funding from the Legislature for about 100 more employees.
TABC officials have emphasized that those targeted by undercover officers have been quite drunk, clocking on average a blood alcohol level of .17, twice the legal limit.
Participating officers are instructed to a look for a collection of behaviors, including stumbling, an inability to stand or being inappropriately loud.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has lauded the effort to stop the over-service of drunken people. In 2004, 1,642 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes in Texas, according to MADD.
Sen. John Whitmire noted reports of a woman who was arrested in the bar of her hotel.
“The fact y’all arrested someone at the hotel where they were staying made this a front page story,” Whitmire said.
Steen said the woman had taken off her top and was dancing on a table. Arresting her was the only option, Steen said, because the woman did not have a friend or family to turn her over to.
Bar owners also objected to the program as heavy-handed. Steen said TABC officials could have better cooperation with bar management.
“We ought to slow down,” he said. “Bar and restaurant management need to work with us …. the only thing we are guilty of is trying to go too fast. I think we can find good judgment and middle ground.”