Ninth Precinct Commander Struggles to Balance Nightlife and Neighbors

Photo by Patrick Hedlund, DNA Info

This morning we made reference to last night’s packed 9th Precinct community meeting, which focused mainly on the murder and mayhem taking place outside the 2nd Avenue bar Sin Sin. Patrick Hedlund of DNA Info has a good summary of the evening’s events, including a tense confrontation between the bar’s owner and the sister of a man shot and killed outside the club last month.

We’re going to take a look at one of the big questions coming out of the meeting: is there more police could be doing to deal not just with Sin Sin but with all problem night spots?

Last night, it’s fair to say, the 9th Precinct’s commanding officer was put on the defensive about the August 22nd shooting. Deputy Inspector Kenneth Lehr acknowledged that “it was a horrible thing that happened.”  Officers in the precinct, located just up the street from Sin Sin, heard the gun shots and responded immediately. But he strongly disputed suggestions from residents that early warning signs (months and years before the incident) were ignored. Lehr said there have been about 25 noise complaints at Sin Sin in the past year, and around 2500 in the precinct as a whole. “Nightlife is thriving (in this neighborhood). It is bustling,” he said, adding later, “given the volume of people in the East Village on weekend nights, it is amazingly safe.”

Last month’s shooting happened just a few weeks after the precinct organized a meeting in which Sin Sin owner Phillip Quilter and concerned residents attempted to work out their differences. Some speakers last night said the scene outside Sin Sin has not improved since the shooting (this past Saturday night was particularly bad).  Officers countered that they are keeping a close eye on the bar and doing everything in their power to make sure there’s no more trouble.

But, speaking more generally, Lehr said, “we can’t just make crowds disappear. Enforcement is not the answer to everything.” A short time later, he elaborated, saying his job is to balance the concerns of residents with the rights of bar owners. “People have the right to live the American dream, to try to make a go of it. I can’t decide who belongs here and who doesn’t,” he stressed. Responding to a resident who wanted Sin Sin shut down, Lehr said there’s no “just cause” to take that kind of drastic action.  “We have a measured response, Lehr explained. “Licensing is not a police department function. We are here to enforce the laws.”

What about the state’s liquor laws? It just so happens, the lawmaker at the forefront of trying to reform New York’s antiquated licensing rules was on hand last night, for at least part of the meeting. State Senator Daniel Squadron underscored the intent of a bill he sponsored last session specifically designed to deal with problem night spots.  For many years, the SLA has in theory anyway had the power to:

…revoke, cancel or suspend a liquor license due to a ‘sustained and continuing pattern of noise, disturbance, misconduct or disorder’ i.e., the premises have become a focal point of police attention.

But as a practical matter, they were forced to prove that bar management had knowledge of each incident. The Squadron bill (now law) allows the SLA to revoke a liquor license from any nightlife operator receiving six or more police noise or disorder complaints in a 60-day period. It removes the burden on the state to prove culpability.

Community activists hope the legislation will give both the State Liquor Authority and the NYPD more tools to confront problem establishments. They speak fondly of Deputy Inspector Lehr’s predecessor in the 9th Precinct, Dennis De Quatro,  who they believe used all of the “tools” at his disposal to cope with neighborhood trouble spots.  It remains to be seen how the new precinct commander will respond as he interacts with more establishments and more exasperated residents.

A handout from Squadron’s office may have summed up the situation best. At the bottom of the page under the heading “current status” (of the legislation) a single line reads, “NYPD is currently working on developing enforcement guidelines.”