Lawmakers Question Regular Reporting between Police and ABC following Mass Shooting

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Two months after shots rang out at a Little Rock nightclub, the effects are still ricocheting at the state capitol. 

Lawmakers have not forgotten about the 25 victims caught in the crossfire at Power Ultra Lounge, asking the question, "Could the mass shooting have been avoided?"
 
Sen. Eddie Joe Williams referenced how police responded to more than three dozen problems there from civil to criminal in the last four years but only one was referred to ABC. 
 
That's what his interim study proposal hopes to target.
 
"There's two things at play," Williams told his colleagues during a meeting of the joint Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Tuesday. "One is revenue. The other is safety."
 
According to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, the Natural State is home to more than 4,000 places licensed to serve alcohol, including restaurants, liquor stores and private clubs. More than 700 are mixed drink permits, including Power Ultra Lounge. 
 
When bad things happen there, law enforcement can respond while ABC can revoke the license. However, there's currently no law that requires the two entities to share police reports. 
 
"There's literally a gap in the law," Mike Feehan, a senior staff attorney for the Bureau of Legislative Research, told lawmakers. "Whether that gap is a good one or not, that's a legislative issue."
 
Sen. Williams requested the legislative committee to look at establishing a formal system.
 
"It is possible that it could have changed the way we looked at the club if we had more reports," said Boyce Hamlet, the director of ABC Enforcement.
 
Hamlet told lawmakers his investigators knew there was a problem at the nightclub. They even met with the Little Rock Police Department's Vice Unit about it.
 
However, Hamlet said there wasn't enough to ever pull the nightclub's permit. 
 
"It is a difficult balancing act," he said. "We've pulled some other permits that the board gave back." 
 
In his two years as enforcement director, Hamlet said ABC has pulled ten permits. Prior to that, the agency didn't pull any in about 15 years.  
 
"We don't do a lot the way it used to be done," he said. 
 
Hamlet believes his 18 enforcement officers can keep up with the workload, and law enforcement agencies are willing to chime in. 
 
"Most, if not all, law enforcement has an outstanding relationship with the ABC," said Mike Godfrey, the executive director of the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association. 
 
The former sheriff said there's already regular information sharing between ABC and the state's more than 550 law enforcement agencies. 
 
"We should really look at what you want us to turn over because it's going to be an overwhelming amount of information," Godfrey told lawmakers. 
 
He said not every police report at a bar becomes an ABC problem, citing domestic calls. 
 
Gary Sipes, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police, said nuisance abatement has helped solve issues at certain establishments. A police department puts together a file, presents it to a prosecutor and notifies ABC. 
 
"We always use ABC as a tool when we have a recurring problem," he said. 
 
ABC told lawmakers another issue is the current punishment for permit holders. The maximum fine the agency can hand down is $1,000. 
 
"That is not dissuading them from doing anything," said Mary Robin Casteel, the director of the ABC Division. "We fall short in the tools at our disposal. They are just obviously not effective."
 
Casteel said the maximum amount ABC could fine an establishment in a year would be about $3,000. She said punishments like suspensions would hurt them more. 
 
Lawmakers would have to introduce new legislation to make changes to ABC rules and regulations. 
 
Sen. Williams said the next two meetings of the committee will determine what action, if any, lawmakers will take. 
 

 


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