Volume 16 • Issue 46 | April 9 - 15, 2004

Are off-duty police officers the solution for noisy bars?

By Lincoln Anderson

Young bar patrons flooded the sidewalk on St. Mark’s near Avenue A last summer.

In its ongoing effort to try to control noise associated with nightlife, Community Board 3 has voted in favor of allowing bars and nightclubs to hire off-duty police officers for security and noise control. Officers performing “paid detail,” as it is known, would be in uniform and carry guns and, of course, be able to make arrests.

Board 3, which covers the East Village and Lower East Side, had a lively discussion on the issue of paid detail at its March 23 full board meeting before voting to recommend approval.

“They think there needs to be another tool to deal with the noise in the neighborhood,” said Harvey Epstein, the board’s chairperson, regarding the members’ vote. “And they feel that if a group of bar owners want to get together to pay for an officer, they should be able to. You could have six bars on a block, and they could hire one officer to walk up the block and monitor noise.”

During the board’s discussion, potential downsides of paid detail that were raised included the question — how will police officers on duty react if they are responding to a complaint or incident at a scene where a fellow officer is working off-duty?

In fact, Epstein personally voted against the resolution. “I actually didn’t think it was a good idea,” he said. “But it’s something the board supports, and I support the board’s position, and that’s my responsibility.”

In January, Community Board 4, which covers Chelsea and Clinton and is the district with the overwhelming preponderance of the city’s cabaret licenses — which permit dance clubs — voted to support paid detail. Board 5, representing the middle of Manhattan from Union Sq. to Central Park S., also supports paid detail for liquor-licensed premises.

The New York Nightlife Association, which represents many of the city’s larger nightclubs, as well as bars, is a strong supporter of paid detail.

Under Police Department regulations, officers are allowed to work off-duty, but not at bars or other nightspots, where alcohol is served. However, they are allowed to work at Shea and Yankee Stadiums and Madison Sq. Garden, all of which sell alcohol.

Paid detail is just the latest component of the East Side’s board’s campaign to crack down on nighttime bar noise. In February, frustrated that whenever it voted to deny liquor license applications, the State Liquor Authority approved them anyway, the board passed a resolution to issue a blanket denial to new liquor license applications in areas the board branded oversaturated by bars and clubs. These areas include sections of Ludlow, Orchard, Rivington and Clinton Sts., St. Mark’s Pl. and Avenues A and C. That resolution formally went into effect last Thursday.

Community board resolutions are advisory only, but — by representing the community’s sentiment — can influence policy.

In addition, on April 29, the board will be holding a special forum on “Nighttime Noise” at 6:30 p.m. (location to be assigned). There was a need for the oversaturation resolution and the noise forum, Epstein said, “Because the State Liquor Authority is unresponsive with us. So we tried to deal with it locally — so that people don’t just yell at the bars or at the police or call the board.”

The forum will attempt to find out who is causing the noise, and what should be done. “Is it the bar? Is it the people in the street? Is it the ambulances?” said Epstein.

But the support for paid detail goes beyond the community boards. Councilmember David Yassky of Brooklyn has introduced legislation to legalize paid detail for bars. The same day as Board 3’s noise forum, April 29, there will be a public hearing before the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Yassky’s legislation and the issue of paid detail for bars. The legislation will then go before the full Council, probably the following Wednesday, May 3, when the Council will debate it and vote.

A spokesperson for Yassky, who could not be reached for comment because he was en route to Florida for the holiday, said that the legislation was prompted primarily by the mayor’s new smoking ban. Yassky’s district includes Greenpoint and Williamsburg, where smoking on the sidewalk has generated noise complaints, the spokesperson said. The two Brooklyn neighborhoods are similar to the Village and other Downtown neighborhoods, mixed-use areas where residents live above bars, the spokesperson noted.

Community Board 2, which includes Greenwich Village, Soho and the Meat Market, hasn’t considered the issue of paid detail and has no immediate plans to do so. But Jim Smith, the board’s chairperson, said that, as opposed to Boards 3, 4 and 5, his personal gut reaction was that it’s not a good idea.

“In other cities where it goes on I don’t know that it works out,” Smith said. “Those guys have been on their feet eight hours and then they’re going to do this? They need eight hours in front of the TV and eight hours of sleep. This would be sapping their energy. I fear for the deleterious effect on our police and their tour of duty.”

Smith added that by being employed by bars and clubs the police would be working in a milieu where illegal activity is sometimes occurring.

“There is the fear of being corrupted,” he said bluntly. Smith said New Orleans, for example, has paid detail and the problems involved with it have been well documented. He said he believed Atlanta may have had similar incidents involving paid detail.

However, David Rabin, president of NYNA, said paid detail works in Miami and Boston and there should be no reason to think New York police are inherently more corruptible.

“I’m glad to hear Board 3 approved it,” said Rabin, himself a member of Board 5. “I think it’s indicative of a growing momentum of forward-thinking people of finding a solution.”

Rabin said the nightspots just want to be better neighbors and that paid detail will help.

“Since the smoking law, it’s almost impossible” to keep noise down, he said. “NYNA has been asking for this for six years, and only because of the smoking law and the bouncer who was killed in the East Village are people now considering this.” He was referring to Dana Blake, nicknamed Shazam, who was killed at Guernica on Avenue B last April after telling a patron to stop smoking inside.

The legislation calls for police to be posted outside the bars, not inside, “because the beat cops are gone, for all intents and purposes, outside,” Rabin said. “On these very residential blocks like Bleecker St. and Avenue A, wouldn’t it be great to have a police officer walking up and down asking people to be quiet?” he added.

Rabin said they just hope more community boards will come aboard to increase the pressure to change the regulations.

Bob Zuckerman, NYNA’s executive director, said 19 councilmembers currently back Yassky’s legislation, including Councilmembers Alan Gerson and Chris Quinn and Speaker Gifford Miller, who said he supports paid detail for bars in his State of the City speech a month ago. And they’re working on getting more. Concilmember Margarita Lopez did not return a call for comment, but Zuckerman said he recently spoke to her chief of staff and feels confident she will come on board in a few days as they continue to try to round up support before April 29. He also plans to talk to Manhattan Councilmembers Eva Moskowitz, Gale Brewer and Phil Reed.

However, a Police Department spokesperson said Commissioner Ray Kelly opposes paid detail for bars. Off-duty cops at Yankee Stadium are one thing, but bars are an “entirely different animal,” he said. “Alcohol brings out the best and the worst in people,” he noted.

Under the legislation, the bars would request the off-duty officer from the Paid Detail Unit. Kelly would then O.K. whether an officer would be allowed to be posted at the site.

Zuckerman said that what is currently being used to justify prohibiting paid detail for bars is a section of the state’s liquor laws, which date from Prohibition, stating that “no police officer can have an interest in the distribution or sale of alcohol.” Zuckerman said the S.L.A.’s counsel recently sent issued a letter, after NYNA’s query on the matter, stating that paid detail outside bars does not violate the state’s liquor laws.

However, Susan Howard, an anti-bar watchdog on Norfolk St., is strongly against the plan and says there is another solution for sidewalk noise that is being ignored.

“These places are supposed to provide waiting space inside,” she said. “They’re not doing that. It’s a violation of the Building Code, which states that there has to be an adequate amount of space for each patron.”

“If you’re getting paid by the bars to police the bars, there’d be a huge public conflict of interest,” she said. “I’m surprised that Board 3 would pass it. The real problem is the oversaturation of bars.”



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