The morning walk to work along Halifax’s Barrington Street tells the story of the night before. Pools of vomit, broken beer bottles and cigarette butts line the sidewalk, detritus of a booze- and testosterone-soaked scene. On a typical night, a few drunken 20-something guys caught fighting would have ended their evening in handcuffs.
As Halifax’s Chief of Police, Frank Beazley locks up about 4,000 drunks a year, trying to sober them up for the night, protect them from harming themselves or someone else, or to keep them on charges of assault. Worried about the often-violent consequences of over-consumption, Chief Beazley has adopted a philosophy of zero-tolerance policing when it comes to drinking downtown.
“Alcohol is a factor in almost everything we deal with,” says Chief Beazley, who announced earlier this week that he will retire at the end of September after 42 years on the force, nine as chief. “Alcohol is a huge factor.”
That point was brought home this week in the starkest of terms with the death of gay activist Raymond Taavel, who by many accounts was trying to break up a drunken fight outside a Gottingen Street bar just after 2 a.m. One of the men turned on him, and Mr. Taavel was found bloodied and beatenon the sidewalk.
Andre Noel Denny, a 32-year-old mentally ill man out on an unescorted one-hour pass from the East Coast Forensic Unit in Dartmouth, has been charged with second-degree murder.
Although the circumstances in Mr. Taavel’s death are far more complex than just alcohol, intoxication has become a recurring theme in the broader narrative of crime in Halifax. Just before Christmas, 2011, a 23-year-old Dartmouth man died outside a downtown bar after an alcohol-fuelled fight. And, in a situation eerily similar to the Taavel murder, a U.S. sailor was stabbed to death in 2006 attempting to break up a bar fight.
Halifax had the fifth-highest homicide rate in Canada in 2010, and last year saw 19 homicides, a record for the city. While Chief Beazley says he has had some success in other matters, including race relations and anti-gang measures, alcohol-fuelled violence has proven a bigger challenge.
As a port and military town, Halifax has grown up with booze, brawls and a strong tradition of hard drinking and partying. Yet the problems extend across the province and the region. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, alcohol-related harm – crimes related to alcohol and lost productivity through illness and death due to alcohol – is costing the province $419-million a year.
“It’s not just Halifax. There is a culture of over-consumption in Nova Scotia,” says Robert Strang, the province’s chief public health officer. He notes that the province’s rate of heavy drinking, defined as five drinks or more on one occasion for a man, and four or more for a woman, is higher than the national average (20.6 per cent in Nova Scotia, versus 17.3 per cent nationally). Dr. Strang says he is “very much on the same page” as Chief Beazley in the belief that over-consumption creates a risk to public health and public safety.
How to contain the risk to public safety is another matter, however. “You struggle as a police chief and police officers to talk about this,” Chief Beazley says. “What can you do when somebody is out-of-control drunk and at the spur of the moment picks a fight with somebody? The odds of all the prevention programs in the world are not going to prevent something like that.”
Chief Beazley says he has been trying to lobby the province to move the bar-closing hours from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m.
With 274 licensed establishments within a very concentrated downtown area, he believes an earlier closing time would help decrease some of the violence.
“You get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that are out on the street [when the bars all close]drunk, jostling and fighting with each other,” he says. “If you read the history of Halifax, it’s the same stuff that has been happening ... that’s our history.”