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Town wants to record drinkers to curb brawls

Authorities in a small North Dakota coal mining town want bar owners to install surveillance systems after a rash of brawls that some people liken to those seen in John Wayne's Western movies.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Authorities in a small North Dakota coal mining town want bar owners to install surveillance systems after a rash of brawls that some people liken to those seen in John Wayne's Western movies.

Bar owners say the cameras would infringe on their patrons' rights.

Oliver County State's Attorney Mike Liffrig said he made the request to officials in the town of Center after one man suffered severe facial injuries in an early January assault in the community of fewer than 700, about 40 miles northwest of Bismarck.

"I'll bet there have been a half-dozen similar cases in the past two years," Liffrig said.

Bar fights tough to prosecute
City attorney John Mahoney and Liffrig said the bar fights make Center seem like the wild West, and are tough to prosecute.

"One of the problems is that fights don't get reported, or they don't get reported until several days later, and by then the evidence is stale and the trail is cool," said Mahoney.

Liffrig's proposal includes requiring owners to report fights immediately.

Having fights recorded as evidence would help prove cases, Liffrig said. Mahoney said no charges have been filed in the January brawl and no one has been arrested.

The town has broad discretion over the enforcement of liquor licenses, Mahoney said, adding that the fights were making some people question the need for the town to have three bars. Licenses can be suspended or revoked for failing to report a fight or if already intoxicated patrons are served alcohol.

Some bar owners oppose the surveillance, saying it would violate their patrons' rights to speak freely.

"There are a lot of people who come to bars to talk about other people," said Perry Wolf, owner of the Lonewolf Saloon, who said he's seen fights similar to ones in Wayne's movies. "I like to drink my beer, too, and my mouth might get a little loose."

Fights between union and nonunion workers
Mahoney said many of the fights have been between union and nonunion workers from power plant and wind farm projects in the county.

"Add alcohol to the mix — that's when you have a powder keg," Mahoney said.

"There are a couple of local construction workers who are laid off and like to pick fights," Wolf said. "They're a couple of troublemakers who get drunk and get stupid.

But Mahoney called Center — the county's only incorporated town — a quiet, friendly place and said local officials want to keep it that way.

"This is a good place to raise a family and we're trying to draw people here," Mahoney said. "This fighting gives us a black eye and we don't need it."

Wolf said bar owners are policing themselves. He installed a video surveillance system after his bar was burglarized, but said he won't allow audio recording.

"A lot of this has been cleaned up pretty good already," Wolf said. "I've owned this bar six years and I've only had to call 911 three or four times."

Surveillance systems are common
Rudie Martinson, executive director of the North Dakota Hospitality Association, said electronic surveillance systems are common in the state.

"From the standpoint of bars that are our members, it's a security issue," said Martinson, whose group represents about 450 restaurants, bars and hotels.

Susan Cahoon, owner of Cahoon's Bar & Grill, said her business also has a security camera but that bar fights already have been curbed by banishing people with a history of fighting.

Even patrons who've been injured in bar fights don't like the idea of recordings.

Dean Windhorst said he was beaten up in two bar fights, the most recently in August.

"It took about two weeks for my black eyes to go away, and I had my bottom teeth coming through my lip," he said. But the proposed surveillance, he said: "It's an invasion of privacy."