No, it was not The Onion that reported last week that all eight of Baltimore's full-time liquor license inspectors signed a letter saying they are afraid to go to bars at night. That actually happened. It seems that the new sheriffs at the Baltimore Liquor Board have the crazy idea that liquor inspectors ought to inspect bars when there are actually patrons there, and at the times of day when violations typically occur. But the inspectors complain that many of these bars are rough places in bad neighborhoods, making them "constantly in fear for [their] safety." Which begs two questions. 1) If these establishments are so dangerous for the inspectors, might they not also be a danger to the general public and, thus, in need of some action from the liquor board? And 2) If these eight men and women are scared to be in "crowded bars late on a Saturday night," why did they pick this occupation? What next, animal control officers who are afraid of dogs?
Liquor inspectors check for some types of violations that would be evident no matter the time of day, like whether an establishment's liquor license is on display. But others — one might argue, the important ones — such as whether a bar is serving underage patrons or those who are clearly drunk, staging unlicensed live entertainment or violating noise rules, would only really be apparent at night. There's no way to know whether hundreds of patrons are spilling out of a neighborhood bar at closing time shouting, breaking things, urinating or vomiting on people's stoops and causing any other sorts of mayhem unless you're there at closing time. If safety is really the concern, there are steps the agency can take to help, like equipping inspectors with radios and direct contacts at local police districts, but as Liquor Board Chairman Thomas Ward put it in an interview, "The job doesn't occur at 10 o'clock in the morning on Tuesdays."
Granted, nobody who had been working the 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. shift would be excited about the news that their schedules were being changed to end at 11 p.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends. The inspectors complain that the change is disruptive to their family lives, and that's no doubt true. But problem bars have such a negative impact on quality of life, community health and crime that liquor inspectors' work schedules can't be set purely for their comfort and convenience. As Mr. Ward intimated, if these eight inspectors don't like what doing their jobs properly entails, they're welcome to find new ones.
And there can be little doubt that the inspectors' jobs weren't being done properly before a new leadership team took over the board last year. A beyond-scathing 2013 state audit of the agency found that two inspectors had managed to inspect a bit less than one bar a week during an entire calendar year. Only three of the 12 inspectors whose work the auditors were able to document logged even so much as half the inspections they were supposed to. Record keeping was a shambles. Nothing was computerized, and there was no documentation that inspectors set foot in more than 200 of the city's 1,400 licensed establishments during the year in question, or that the agency did anything to respond to half of the 311 complaints it received.
The problems went on and on, and in fairness, it wasn't just the inspectors' fault. The board itself failed to assess fees on dozens of business owners who were late in renewing their licenses. It lacked written guidelines for inspections or systems to evaluate inspectors' performance. Some cases were resolved behind closed doors by the agency's director without involving the board.
Under the leadership of Mr. Ward, a former judge, and new Executive Secretary Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth, the board has not only sought to step up the pace of inspections but to take a much harder line on violations. In his first three months on the job, Mr. Ward's board cited more bars for violations than the previous board did in an entire year. The board has been imposing tougher penalties and has staked out new policy by revoking licenses that have been dormant for more than 180 days. Meanwhile, the agency is working to streamline its procedures, ensure a minimum of four visits per year to each licensee, and upgrade its technology to a tablet-based system rather than paper reports. Not everything has gone as smoothly or as quickly as we (or they) might like, but the agency is clearly headed in the right direction.
The question is whether the current eight inspectors want to be a part of that new direction. Their work is crucial for the health and welfare of hundreds of thousands of city residents. If they aren't willing to do it properly, we're confident that someone else will.