7th Precinct Crackdown Unpopular with Bar Owners

In the last couple of months, owners of Lower East Side bars and clubs say the 7th Precinct has gone on a major offensive — increasing their presence in the neighborhood’s party hot spots, shutting down numerous establishments and slapping fines on operators for a wide range of offenses.

Multiple bar owners, none of whom would allow their names to be used for this story, told us the crackdown is focusing on what they consider to be minor infractions, rather than more serious issues such as underage drinking, drugs or violence.

For example, they said, 7th Precinct officers are coming down on them for failing to use hand-held ID scanners and crowd counters — and for not having enough private security guards on duty. Take a look at the following account of what happened at Arlene’s Grocery November 19th (recounted by musician Kieren Sullivan of the band Cecelia Celeste):

The place was getting packed with fans and the line outside went around the corner. This seemed to grab the attention of some astute members of the NYPD. The officers began to question the doorman. They wanted to know how he was keeping track of the number of people he was letting in. This is usually done with a hand-held counter. The doorman did not have one. They then asked how he was checking IDs to assure only those over 21 were getting in to the bar. This is usually done with a hand-held ID scanner. The doorman did not have one. Inside the club, Kieran and crew were setting up their gear on stage when the house lights came up and the cops came in. It was now an official raid. The place was shut down due to being over capacity (of course how could they really be sure without that hand-held counter thingy) and everyone was told to leave.

The bar owners acknowledge that the police are fully within their rights to deal with “bad bars,” places with histories of ignoring community concerns and of not being “good neighbors.”  But from their perspective, officers are now indiscriminately targeting businesses, disregarding past behavior and treating all nightlife establishments in the same manner.

Most residents, of course, who have grown weary of late night noise and overcrowded sidewalks, are probably not all that sympathetic. But the owners said they fear deteriorating relations with the precinct could create an inhospitable environment for nightlife and, eventually, jeopardize their viability. That, they believe, would hurt everyone in a neighborhood in which nightlife is the number one industry.

In the past couple of years, most of the NYPD’s specialized nightlife teams (known as cabaret units) have been phased out, in favor of nighttime “conditions teams,” which deal with a broad range of “quality of life” issues.”  Dennis Schmidt, 7th precinct community affairs officer, told us last week nothing has changed in regards to nightlife enforcement.  But many bar owners say it’s apparent nightlife-specific squads have made a return on the Lower East Side.

Schmidt said officers are simply making sure bars and club owners know the ground rules. Before the Thanksgiving holiday, the precinct held a meeting with nightlife operators, going over procedures for dealing with crowds and noise. Those procedures appear to rely heavily on the New York Nightlife Association’s “best practices”  (see web site), which were drawn up in collaboration with the NYPD.  7th Precinct priorities are keeping the sidewalks clear and making sure everyone stays safe, Schmidt said.

The apparent change in tactics appears to have coincided with the arrival of Captain David Miller, the 7th precinct’s new executive officer under Deputy Inspector Nancy Barry. The Lo-Down has requested an interview with Captain Miller, which we’re told is working its way through the bureaucracy of the NYPD’s public affairs office.

Susan Stetzer, Community Board 3’s district manager, said she met with Miller recently, and was impressed with his determination to tackle nightlife issues head on, as well as his commitment to treating both business owners and residents fairly. CB3 is inundated with complaints from residents about bar-related problems. According to the city’s 311 records, CB3 (East Village, Lower East Side, Chinatown) logs more noise complaints than any other district in Manhattan (more than 3600 last year).

Just this past month, longtime Lower East Side resident Lillian Fernandez told members of CB3’s SLA Committee that she and her 12-year-old child were at wits’ end about incessant noise coming from patrons of Nurse Bettie, 106 Norfolk Street, the bar (and sometimes burlesque venue) beneath their apartment.

In the days following her complaint, the bar came under scrutiny from the community board, the Transportation Department and the 7th Precinct.  As a result, Fernandez reported it’s been a lot quieter on her block. Stetzer said some bar owners are responsive to complaints — others are not. In the most difficult cases, she believes, CB3’s three police precincts have an important role to play (the 7th Precinct covers the area below Houston and east of Allen).

The topic of bars did not come up directly at last week’s 7th Precinct Community Council meeting. But State Senator Daniel Squadron, in his remarks to residents, praised Deputy Inspector Barry and her staff for “responding to community concerns” and for “thinking creatively” to re-deploy resources.  In a brief interview afterward, Squadron told us he believes stronger enforcement is essential. But at the same time, he said, officers should look at bars in the “proper context,” evaluating whether each establishment has a good or a bad track record, rather than treating them all the same.

We asked Squadron whether the 7th Precinct crackdown could be the result of a new law he sponsored this past year. The legislation makes it easier to revoke a liquor license from bars receiving six or more police noise or disorder complaints in a 60-day period.  But he told us the NYPD is still working on coming up with guidelines for enforcing the law, so it is not a factor. Squadron spoke with police officials twice last week about their progress and continues to hope the guidelines will be in place sometime next month.

Last week’s precinct meeting was attended by at least two bar owners, including Dermot Burke of Arlene’s Grocery (who incidentally is not among the operators who spoke with us for this story).  Community Council President Don West praised Burke, as well as the owners of several other clubs, including Element, Pianos and Libation for contributing audio equipment, stages and other items to National Night Out, an event co-sponsored by the police council and the 7th Precinct.