Staying safe at Indianapolis bars and clubs: What students can do to protect themselves

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A recent investigation from the Indianapolis Star—in conjunction with Fox 59—found that there have been “more than 600 reports of violence at Indianapolis bars, clubs and event centers since 2016.” These crimes include shootings, stabbings, assaults and rapes, according to the IndyStar

Senior criminal justice major Jessica Esparza said she has experienced crime and violence firsthand at downtown Indianapolis bars and clubs. Esparza said she was drugged at a downtown bar on her birthday in November of last year.

“…I remember getting there,” Esparza said. “And we had drunk a little bit before, but we got there, and I knew some people who were working there. So they just started giving us free drinks. And I wasn’t paying attention to any of my drinks or anyone pouring any of my drinks. And I remember being there for not even an hour. I didn’t remember literally anything from that point on.”

One of her friends had to carry her to an Uber and then back to her apartment at the University of Indianapolis because she was unconscious after drinking at the bar, according to Esparza.

“She [My friend] said that I was telling her that I was gonna die and that I felt like I was overdosing…,” Esparza said. “The next thing I remember, I was at the hospital.”

Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Scott Hessong, who has been stationed in the downtown bar district for two years, said that violence at the bars and clubs in downtown Indianapolis has decreased in the past year.

“I think it’s [calling downtown bars and clubs violent is] somewhat of a misrepresentation,” Hessong said. “We really started tackling the problems and what was going on and meeting with those bar owners and managers, to the point where IMPD remonstrated against a few bars and started citing different experiences that were going on. We were successful. . . In the past even six months to a year, we’ve seen a huge difference in our bar crowd for the better.”

Esparza said that in September 2021, she was assaulted at a party at a downtown club. According to Esparza, a man who she thought appeared to be under the influence of drugs tried several times to inappropriately touch her and her friend. After her friend confronted the man, he became aggressive, she said. 

“She told him… ‘You need to go away; you need to stop touching her,’ and he pushed her,” Esparza said. “I had a drink in my hand, so I threw it at him. And he punched me in my face….”

Esparza said the man kept fighting her and her friend until they rushed to their car and headed to a hospital. She said she sustained several injuries from the encounter. 

“It was a bad, bad time,” Esparza said. “And nothing ever came of it because no one knew who he was.”

Hessong said IMPD has seen a reduction in fights at bars and clubs downtown after increasing police presence. He said that an additional 16 officers and two supervisors are employed—alongside the typical IMPD presence—every Friday and Saturday night to patrol the bar and club district downtown. Additionally, the police monitor city surveillance cameras to prevent crime before it happens. An individual watches the camera footage remotely and alerts the police if suspicious activity is occurring, according to Hessong. He said the cameras recently aided in identifying a suspect in a shooting incident outside of a downtown bar.

Esparza said that people who do want to go to bars and clubs should stay close to their friends, travel in numbers, watch their drinks and remove themselves from the situation or get a security guard if they become uncomfortable. 

“Everyone should just look out for each other as much as they can,” Esparza said, “especially because we’re all in college. We’re all so young. Everybody’s just trying to have a good time. No one wants bad things like that happening to them.”

Hessong said people going to the bars and clubs downtown should have a buddy system, plan trusted pickup rides before drinking and say something if they see something suspicious. To stay safe, he said, people should not drink to excess or bring their weapons when going out for entertainment. 

“In my opinion, downtown is safe,” Hessong said. “Downtown Indianapolis consists of 5% of the crime [in the city]…. I would beg to differ that most large cities across our nation can’t even come close to that. We want people to come downtown [and] have a good time. Spend money of course, but also be safe and responsible at the same time. Everybody’s in this together—the community’s in with the police.”

Esparza said her experiences with the downtown Indianapolis clubs and bars have left her afraid to go out for entertainment.

“I don’t go out anymore,” Esparza said. “I don’t drink anymore… I just don’t feel safe anymore.”

Crimes can be reported to IMPD by calling 911 or the department’s non-emergency number at 317-327-3811, according to IMPD. People can also report crimes anonymously by calling Crime Stoppers at 317-262-TIPS (8477) or by downloading the Crime Stoppers app.

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