Truce talks

Pub date July 6, 2010
WriterAlex Emslie

All parties are hopeful for peace in the Guardian-labeled War on Fun after oppressive raids on SoMa clubs have stopped and the feuding sides — mainly the San Francisco Police Department and nightclub owners — are sitting down to truce talks brokered in part by the fledgling California Music and Culture Association (CMAC).

“I’m here to work with you,” Kitt Crenshaw, commander of SFPD’s new Entertainment Task Force, told the crowd at a Nightlife Safety Summit on June 30. “I’m not the enemy. I’m not the ‘War on Fun,’ as they call it. I’m not the Antichrist.” The summit was sponsored by the Mayor’s Office, Entertainment Commission, SFPD, Small Business Commission, and CMAC.

Club owners and the SFPD are attempting to find balance between stifling the entertainment industry with heavy-handed enforcement and doing something about the deadly gun violence plaguing neighborhoods around some San Francisco nightclubs. Owners and party promoters don’t want entertainment permitting power to go back to the SFPD, as Mayor Gavin Newsom has suggested. But recent shootings and the Entertainment Commission’s inability to immediately close problem clubs have city officials demanding change.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu introduced legislation in early June that would give the Entertainment Commission the authority to revoke the entertainment permits of noncompliant clubs that are consistently scenes of violence. Chiu’s legislation would further extend temporary suspension powers the board granted to the commission in 2009.

“There is strong consensus that the Entertainment Commission needs to do its job. And if this is what it takes to give it more tools, then so be it,” Chiu told the Guardian after the June 25 CMAC Insider Luncheon, where he participated in a forum with entertainment industry representatives. Chiu said he was feeling pressure from his constituents in North Beach to “come down like a hammer on the industry” following several shootings around the neighborhood’s nightclubs this year.

Terrance Alan, a longtime industry advocate and entertainment commissioner, told the Guardian he recently requested that the City Attorney’s Office help define when nightclub owners should be blamed for violence occurring near their business. “If we’re going to hold venues and security teams responsible, we have to tell them and make sure it’s legal,” he said. “The line of reasoning that blames the nearest business will force San Francisco to shut down. The first thing we have to do is stop blaming each other.”

Chiu, speaking to a crowd at the Nightlife Safety Summit, recounted a handful of incidents that pushed him to craft the new legislation. Since the last legislation was passed to strengthen the Entertainment Commission’s power to regulate nightclubs, eight people were shot outside the Regency night club Nov. 15, 2009; 44 rounds were fired outside club Suede, resulting in one death and four injuries Feb. 7; a shooting occurred on Broadway outside a strip club in mid-February; and a police officer was shot outside the Mission District’s El Rincon club on June 19. “And so on, and so on,” Chiu said.

Following the shooting at Club Suede, which had long been a site of violence prior to the gang-related carnage in February, officials were stunned to learn the commission did not have the power to revoke entertainment permits. The most it could do was suspend Suede’s permit to play music for 30 days.

“To hold the commission responsible for something it was never envisioned to do and never given the power to do is where the narrative has gone wrong recently,” Alan said of widespread criticism that the commission just didn’t simply “shut down” Club Suede.

Suede remains voluntarily closed as it bargains with the City Attorney’s Office, which filed a complaint against the club after the shootings. Alex Tse, the lead attorney for the city in the case, told the Guardian there was nothing he could legally do to prevent Suede from reopening before Aug. 10, when the court is scheduled to rule on a preliminary injunction (court mandated closing) the City Attorney’s Office filed. But he doesn’t expect them to reopen because Suede and the city are currently working toward settling the case.

If the incidents Chiu described represent a black eye for San Francisco’s entertainment industry, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and SFPD aren’t necessarily squeaky clean either. “I sat down with [ABC director] Steve Hardy and told him that where the state was focusing efforts in San Francisco was completely misguided,” Chiu said at the CMAC luncheon. “And I’ve spoken to [California Senator] Mark Leno to try to move them in the right direction.”

The break in the crackdowns of 2009, mostly attributed to severe tactics employed by SFPD Officer Larry Bertrand and ABC agent Michelle Ott, followed a widespread backlash to the sometimes brutal treatment legitimate business owners were receiving in the name of public safety. Back-to-back over stories in the Guardian (see “The new War on Fun,” March 23, 2010) and the SF Weekly, calls to the ABC from city officials, the formation of CMAC, and a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) suit filed against San Francisco and the rogue officers spurred officials to rein in Ott and Bertrand.

Hardy told the Guardian that Ott is no longer assigned to alcohol enforcement in San Francisco. Bertrand has traded in his plain-clothes for a uniform and hasn’t been seen busting into clubs, beating up the help, or confiscating DJ equipment for several months.

Mark Webb, plaintiff’s attorney in the RICO case, which was moved to the federal court by the City Attorney’s Office, said Bertrand is scheduled to give a deposition for the case July 26. Webb told the Guardian he plans to ask Bertrand questions relating to “a pattern of ongoing and repeated abuses” claimed in the complaint, which includes Newsom and ABC as defendants.

“We’re at a crossroads,” Chiu told the crowd at the Nightlife Safety Summit, adding that if the new power for the Entertainment Commission does not reduce club violence, stronger measures would be taken, whether it’s Newsom’s suggestion to scrap the commission entirely and give permitting power back to the police department or Chiu’s idea to create another “less politicized” body to issue entertainment permits made up of representatives from city department that are affected when nightlife entertainment goes wrong.

“There has been significant dissatisfaction with the Entertainment Commission due to many actual and apparent conflicts of interests,” Chiu said. “Frankly, this is why we may need to move to a different model of who actually makes decisions on permits, because often the people who want to make those decisions are the ones who stand to get the most benefit out of them.”

But club owners and party promoters argue that the police issuing entertainment permits, as they did prior to the Entertainment Commission’s creation in 2002, has a chilling effect on an important part of San Francisco’s economy.

Alan said a civil grand jury found the police department had a conflict of interest in being both the granter and enforcer of nightclub permits, a finding that spurred the creation of the Entertainment Commission.

“I’ve been in the industry long enough to remember when it was in the Police Department’s hands,” said Guy Carson, owner of Café Du Nord and director of CMAC. “Since the advent of the Entertainment Commission, more permits have been issued, which has vitalized the industry.”

Club owners and party promoters don’t want to be blamed for street violence over which they have no control, and they have some political support for that stance. “Clubs don’t create youth gun violence, society creates youth gun violence,” Sup. Bevan Dufty proclaimed to the crowd at the Nightlife Safety Summit, drawing thunderous applause from the room.

“There is a street scene and a club scene, and they do intersect. But a lot of the violence occurs in the street scene,” Carson said. “A lot of shootings that happen relate to people never inside the clubs. That’s a conversation CMAC looks forward to having — to have a little more accurate discussion.”

While he asserts that some nightclubs attract violence to the city from out of town, Crenshaw said he was pleased and surprised at the level of collaboration emerging between entertainment representatives and SFPD. “I got so much positive feedback from it [the Nightlife Safety Summit]. It was a bit overwhelming,” he told us. “I think the industry itself is tired of being labeled as a pariah. They want to change their image.”

Brit Hahn, owner of City Nights and SFClubs, agreed that working with district captains was in the best interest of any club looking to remain profitable. “When something bad happens at a nightclub anywhere in San Francisco, he said at the Nightlife Safety Summit, “it’s bad for all of our businesses.”