Standing under the overhang at Collins Irish Pub on Saturday night, a drunken man, 24, leaned in close to another man and blew cigarette smoke into his face, then flicked his ash at him.
Another Flagstaff man, 22, stepped in to stop the ensuing fight and was punched from behind by the smoker's friend, who promptly turned around and ran away.
Police arrested the intoxicated pair in the alley nearby on charges of assault and disorderly conduct, one of a half-dozen such fights last Saturday night and among the hundreds that police are called to break up or investigate each year.
And bar fights aren't the only bar incidents requiring a police response. Three years of data supplied by the Flagstaff Police Department showed that police responded to nearly 2,200 calls for service at five of the busiest downtown establishments. Officers also performed an additional 705 bar checks during the same period and took reports on 595 crimes.
"We've been saturating that downtown area," said Flagstaff Deputy Chief of Police Walt Miller. " We're dealing with people who are intoxicated, so their judgment lapses. We get people behaving out of character."
In the last six months, the Flagstaff Police Department has doubled the number of officers -- from three to as many as six -- that it assigns to patrol the downtown area at bar closing time. Officers are on the scene to break up fights almost immediately after they break out. They have even convinced bars to banish the biggest troublemakers, in part to protect their liquor licenses.
Many of the incidents involve intoxicated 20-something men who have to be taken to jail after they start fights with other intoxicated young men.
ILLEGAL TO OVERSERVE
Collins Irish Pub, possibly the busiest bar in downtown, required a police presence on 690 occasions, with 128 patrons being cited for disorderly conduct between 2010 and 2012.
The bars are required to report such incidents. Arizona state law makes it a liquor violation not to report a disturbance inside a liquor-serving establishment.
Although police say that overserving has been a problem at Flagstaff bars, it's a hard violation to enforce. Liquor laws prohibit bars from allowing intoxicated people inside. There is no law against being drunk in public in Arizona.
If an officer walks into a bar and notices someone is clearly intoxicated, the bar has 30 minutes to get the person off the premises, according to police officials. That time allows for staff to get someone a taxi or other safe ride home. If that officer actually witnesses a drunk person being sold a drink, then he can issue a citation.
Relatively few liquor law violations have been reported against Flagstaff bars in recent years, and officers say most bars are vigilant about checking IDs.
Besides assigning more officers, police launched Operation 86 last year to identify drunk people and get them to leave downtown voluntarily before there was a problem. The goal wasn't just to target any intoxicated person, but to single out those who might pose a threat to public safety.
Working with bar staff, the officers would ask the would-be troublemakers to leave downtown for the night.
And in 2011, after police realized that just a handful of troublemakers were responsible for a large number of the fights and assaults in downtown, they had those people banished from downtown.
But the efforts have not stopped the fighting or disorderly conduct. In fact, some bars, such as Collins Irish Pub, have actually gotten even rowdier.
And it isn't only those drinking in the bars who are affected.
Officials say that related crimes range from DUIs to sexual assaults, and from fights at after-hours parties to noise complaints.
A fresh federal grant has even funded four new walking beat officers to deal with violent crime along with other problems that have long plagued the Southside. When Flagstaff police officials applied for the grant several years ago, the neighborhood had a violent crime rate three times as high as the Flagstaff average.
"What we were seeing is most of that was tied to the bars in the downtown area," Flagstaff Chief of Police Kevin Treadway said at a recent meeting approving a Southside police substation.
Intoxicated people, many of them students walking home to areas surrounding the NAU campus, get involved in violent crime as they leave the bars.
Flagstaff police also believe that a large number of the fights can be traced to a very small number of people.
One Flagstaff police officer, Justin Brewer, noticed that the same group of young men were getting into fights and causing disturbances at the bars every weekend.
"We started to see a real problem with aggravated assaults in downtown after bar closing, so I decided to approach some of these bars and do education on compliance."
With the help of his fellow officers, he identified about six young men who were causing regular problems. The individuals were all prone to get drunk and pick fights, either inside the bars or nearby at afterparties. Often they were just assaulting people who weren't fighting back.
Brewer went around and convinced all the downtown bars to permanently banish the boozing troublemakers. He argued to the bar managers and owners that it was in their best interest to help avoid liquor law violations.
"Most of them were legitimately bummed out," Brewer said of the downtown drinkers.
One of the expelled men tested his luck in the first few nights and was arrested. His friends tried the same the following weekend and were met with the same result: a trespassing arrest.
"Once they got the word we were serious I think that was the last we dealt with them," he said, adding that many have now moved out of the area.
Miller says that more patrols at bar closing time in downtown have helped the decrease the number of assaults. But disorderly conduct calls, which include fights, are increasing at the bars analyzed by the Daily Sun.
"I think with our mere presence we've seen a decrease in crime," Miller said.
He added that in recent months, some bar patrons have been telling officers they're tired of always seeing them downtown.
Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or email@example.com.