Jan. 10, 2012 — -- Cops in Alaska have started enforcing a statute that makes it illegal to be drunk in a bar, and have been sending plainclothes officers into bars to identify and arrest suspects.
"It's fairly logical, but it does sound fairly comical at the outset," Anchorage Police Department Lt. Dave Parker told ABCNews.com. "Alaska has a huge, huge alcohol problem. Most people in jail, whatever they did, their decision making process was affected by alcohol."
"There are three problems in Alaska: alcohol, alcohol and alcohol," Parker said.
Though the law prohibiting a drunken person from being on licensed premises has been in existence for years, it is only in the past month that police have been aggressively enforcing it.
Plainclothes police officers enter bars and look for people who are what they call "drunk-plus."
"We're not dealing with a person who's simply mildly intoxicated or out having a good time. We're dealing with people who are so intoxicated that they can't care for themselves," Parker said. "The bartender or person selling is making money off of them and they either become the victim or the perpetrator of a crime."
In Alaska, It's Illegal to Be Drunk in a Bar
If the plainclothes officers spot someone excessively intoxicated—falling off their barstool, vomiting or engaging on overly rowdy behavior, for example—they call in uniformed officers to make an arrest. After the sobering experience of being arrested, the suspects are cited and then released.
After checking 26 Anchorage bars recently, four had employees that were out of compliance and 19 "highly intoxicated" patrons were cited.
"If it's not blatant, they don't intervene by citing or making an arrest," Parker said. "They might warn a person. It's not a 'gotcha' thing. We're trying to modify behavior of bars that are over-serving and make the clientele aware."
Alaska rates number one in the United States in sexual assault reports per capita, Parker said. In about 86 percent of those assaults, alcohol is a factor. In Anchorage, a town of roughly 270,000 people, almost one percent of the population is arrested every year for driving while intoxicated.
"Alcohol is fueling. It's not the cause, but it's fueling most of the crime we're dealing with," Parker said. "If you're at home, you go to bed and get up with a bad hangover. If you're at a bar, you've got to get home and you could be a sexual assault victim, get in a car to drive drunk or get in a fight."
Parker said that it is too soon to tell whether the strategy is working to reduce other crimes.
"It's a little early to tell, but we anticipate it will," he said. "Anytime we start aggressively enforcing alcohol laws, we see a reduction in crime. People are being more responsible because they know they can get in trouble."
Bar owners have mixed feeling about the police action.
Darwin Biwer is the owner of downtown Anchorage bar Darwin's Theory. He is also the board chairman of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailer's Association.
"None of us bar owners have a problem with the police coming through. We've encouraged that for years," Biwer said. "But you can't tell me the cops know better who's drunk on premises [than we do]."
Alaska requires servers to be trained to recognize people who have too much to drink and stop serving them. Under the law, servers and bartenders can also be arrested and cited for over-serving.
Alaska Arrests Drunks in Bars
While most states have laws against over-serving and public intoxication, Parker said he did not know of any other states that enforced sobriety rules inside bars.
"I've never heard of that in any state," said Pasadena, Calif. attorney Okorie Okorocha who is a DUI, drug and alcohol expert witness who consults for cases across the country.
"I've had clients who have been sent home or left the bar in a cab and passed out in the cab and the cab driver called the cops on them and they were cited for drunkenness in public, but not just for sitting in the bar," he said incredulously. "I'm really floored."