Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Under the Gun

Under the gun

By going after Park 6’s liquor license, the city is putting its own actions up for review

The same group of city officials that decided to try and take a Sixth Street bar’s liquor license will now act as jury to take that license.

The city’s Public Safety and Licensing Committee will stand in judgment of Thomas Holmes and his Park 6 bar at the corner of Park and Sixth streets in Downtown Racine. This is the same five-member committee that unanimously voted to send Park 6 to a “due-process hearing” to possibly take the bar’s liquor license. Their decision is finalized by the entire City Council, but only the committee considers testimony presented for and against the bar.

Think about that for a second. It’s like the District Attorney’s office filing charges against someone and then acting as the person’s jury. If you build the case against someone, you’re going to be inclined to believe that case. Holmes and Park 6, like several other city bars that have had their licenses revoked, are facing a stacked deck.

The case against Holmes is suspect. The city alleges the Park 6 owner has a difficult time controlling his large crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, particularly at bar-closing time. A large number of people gather at the intersection of Park and Sixth streets and police are routinely called to move the crowd along. (Heaven forbid too many people, or at least people of color, spend money in Downtown Racine.)

The situation turned dangerous on May 20 when a stray bullet struck a security officer outside of Park 6. While initial reports suggested suspects were arrested in a car stopped in Kenosha after the incident, the shooting remains under investigation and no charges have been filed. In short, police don’t know what happened that night.

Meanwhile, Holmes has taken extraordinary steps to address city concerns about his crowds. He’s raised his minimum age to 25 years old, installed an extensive video camera system and implemented ID checkers at the door. He also has changed how he lets his crowds out at night to minimize the number of people gathering on Sixth Street. He’s done everything the city asks, but apparently it’s not enough.

The Insider New, the local branch of the NAACP and supporters of the bar believe the city is placing unreasonable demands on Park 6. They want the bar to not only take care of their customers inside their premises, but outside on the street, as well. That’s an unfair burden and expense to place on any business.

Holmes himself expressed frustration at the difficulty of controlling crowds on the sidewalks outside of his bar. The Park 6 security staff may turn away a customer for being too young or rowdy, but the person then hangs out on the street causing problems. Holmes said he would like to give police the authority to ticket people who are turned away from a bar, but still hang out on the street outside of the bar. If the Public Safety and Licensing Committee should use its valuable time to research solutions like this instead of attacking a local business.

Racine is not alone in dealing with problems outside of bars at closing times. Cities across the country have worked out solutions that allow bars and clubs to remain open, while also protecting the public’s safety.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson is planning a closed-door meeting with Cleveland NAACP president George Forbes to fashion an agreement regarding crowd control near a controversial night club. Jackson said he would continue a heavy police presence near the Lust nightclub on Saturday and Sunday mornings so patrons feel safe. He also said he will accept Forbes' suggestion to bring in officials from a federal prosecutor's office to improve business owners' and employees' awareness of anti-discrimination laws. Such training would enable bar owners to properly intervene with patrons before police need to become involved.

New Haven, Conn.’s City Hall is trying to sell a new entertainment district “surcharge” to make downtown safer on busy bar nights, but not all restaurants and bars are ready to buy in. The fee would double the number of officers assigned to keep the peace and clear streets on Crown Street and surrounding roads.

To do that, clubs and restaurants would be asked to contribute roughly $300,000 per year divided among 40 or so businesses. But how to equitably determine each one’s share — and the inability to compel participation — leave questions unanswered.

In an effort to crack down on some of the late-night rowdiness in Wilmington, N.C., a downtown bar owner has installed a halogen light to illuminate the over-crowded, and sometimes dangerous bar-goers who congregate at the intersection of Market and Second streets at closing time It was a suggestion made by Wilmington Police.

"It's safer for the pedestrians. It's also safer for the police. That way they can actually see what's going on because it can be dark in that corner because there's not a lot of city lighting over there," said a bar owner.

Holmes would like the opportunity to implement these reasonable solutions outside of Park 6. He has no intention of walking away, at least not without a fight. Park 6 is a successful business and on that reason alone Holmes is compelled to keep its doors open. But he also senses a deeper issue. Park 6 draws a large African-American crowd to a Downtown area not used to seeing minorities on its streets. Holmes wonders if that works against his bar.

A lot of effort is going into making a case to close the bar. On one occasion the Racine Police Department’s surveillance van was parked near Park 6 filming patrons as they went in and out of the bar. Also, several people have been observed recording the crowd near Park and Sixth streets from a parked vehicle. When asked who they are recording for, the individuals refuse to answers. In July a video crew was spotted on top of a nearby building. These actions have Holmes feeling like the city is out to get him.

He may be right. The city seems convinced they have a case against Park 6 and is moving ahead with the intention of shutting the bar down. Unfortunately for Holmes he’s not facing a jury of his peers. He’s up against the very people who decided his bar was a problem in the first place. No matter how strong his arguments, he’ll have to overcome the inherent bias that comes with being the accuser.

That said, Holmes may be able to do it. He’s hired an attorney is building his own case against the city and for Park 6. He’s already caused trouble by requesting city emails about his bar. That forced the committee to put off the due-process hearing to address his request. Expect a few more tricks up Holmes’ sleeves before the due-process hearing is over. The city has opened a dangerous door to review of its past and current actions. By the end of the due-process hearing it may be the city, and not Park 6, that’s under the gun.