In the past few months we’ve been reporting about the 7th Precinct’s crackdown on Lower East Side bars and clubs. Our requests for information about the enforcement sweeps have gone unanswered by the NYPD’s press office. But this week, Captain David Miller, the 7th Precinct’s executive officer, talked expansively about the tactics being used to curb underage drinking, late night noise and overcrowding.
His remarks came during Wednesday night’s Community Council meeting. Since last September, when he arrived as the precinct’s #2 officer (under Deputy Inspector Nancy Barry), more than 1100 summonses have been handed out for “quality of life” offenses. These include: 562 violations for carrying open alcohol containers and 351 instances of “disorderly conduct.” 274 of those charged with disorderly conduct were customers of LES nightlife establishments.
Since the crackdown began, numerous bar owners have complained (but almost never for attribution) that the precinct is “nitpicking,” coming after nightlife venues for minor violations and victimizing good operators who are just trying to make a go of it in a tough economy. Wednesday evening, Miller spelled out why the issue has become such a high priority for his officers and repeatedly drove home the point that the crackdown is focused on serious, rather than trivial, violations.
As an officer in Chelsea, Miller was involved in the aftermath of several violent crimes tied to that neighborhood’s large night clubs. He specifically pointed to the cases of Jennifer Moore (who was murdered in 2006 after a night of clubbing) and of Laura Garza who was killed in 2008, allegedly by a man she met at Club Marquee on 10th Avenue. While the violence inside Lower East Side clubs has so far been confined to fist fights, Miller said, the Chelsea murders “remind me why we all have to work as a community to make sure things like this don’t happen.” He explained the ideas behind the new strategy:
We’re looking to help improve these businesses by talking to them and starting a dialogue. Some businesses have been unreceptive and others have been extremely receptive.. Dealing with underage drinking, dealing with noise helps. it helps security realize they have to be more proactive to make sure things are being done properly… (If there were to be a diagram of the neighborhood) you have the community in one circle. You have the (nightlife) establishments in another circle. And we have ourselves, the Police Department, in the third circle. I like to see us right in the middle, making sure that everyone is happy. If we push too much to one side it becomes very harsh, where the community is unhappy because they can’t sleep at night.
On the other hand, Miller acknowledged that nightlife venues are a large part of the neighborhood’s economy. “They’re thriving, which is good. I like to see businesses making money. Bringing in money to this area helps everyone.”
In the last several months, some Lower East Side bars (including Gallery Bar, Los Feliz and Mason Dixon) have been shut down for underage drinking violations. Miller said doorman are not only taking money from underage drinkers to gain admittance to clubs — but bluntly asking for cash payments:
A bouncer is sitting there taking $20 from an individual shouldn’t be tolerated. When I tell you how many clubs there are out there where the bouncers, the security, will take money from individuals, it’s absurd, you wouldn’t believe it… We actually had an establishment where the bouncers would know the individuals were underage. They say, ‘come here, it’s okay. Give me $20 and you can come in.’ We don’t need to see that in this community.
Bar owners have said the precinct comes in on a Friday or Saturday night, shutting them down with no notice and costing them thousands of dollars. But Miller argued bars are only raided after he has personally gone to great lengths to work constructively with the owners:
No bar owner who’s ever had a problem can tell you I did not walk in there first and talk with them personally. It’s a two prong approach. I sit down and talk with them, to try to rectify the problems… We have one location now that was supposedly a restaurant. They decided to throw out their kitchen, for lack of a better term… They’re supposed to be closed at 12 o’clock… the SLA (State Liquor Authority) is now involved. They’re either going to change back to what they originally promised or they’re not going to be operating as a business anymore… I went there personally to talk to the owner and he basically told me, ‘write me a summons and get out.’ So I understand there are owners like that who are just going to try to make as much money as they can. That’s not the majority of the owners. It’s 3% at the most.
Miller had a message for residents frustrated by loud bars, for nightlife owners and for people visiting the Lower East Side from elsewhere:
I need you guys to be proactive. I need the bar owners to hire the right security. I need the community to talk to the bar owners and say, ‘hey we had a problem downstairs last night. I’d like you to help rectify it so I can sleep.’ Things like that… We need to work together… Patrons who are not from this area could help out tremendously by being respectful of the neighbors… more noise… We have more personnel out there (patrolling nightlife-heavy blocks) — to make (operators) realize there are neighbors, there are people trying to sleep at 4 o’clock in the morning, at 2 o’clock in the morning, at 1 o’clock in the morning. It’s not a free-for-all. it’s not a Mardi Gras situation down here.
Quite a few residents came to the meeting, peppering Miller about specific problem locations. One woman who lives above a bar on Norfolk Street said, “I have a young child. She goes to school. I go to work and we hardly get any sleep, hardly ever, just about every night. it’s really bad.” Another woman added:
I live on Ludlow between Stanton and Rivington. I have not been to sleep before 4:30 in the morning on a weekend in years. The problem is not any specific bar. It’s just that there are too many bars and there are too many people in the street. The ambiant noise is deafening until 4:30 and then by 5 it’s silent… Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart for the increased police presence. I have noticed a big difference in the violence just that’s been visible from my own window. There was a fight breaking out just the other night. The police were there instantaneously.
But other residents were skeptical that the crackdown will make much difference. One woman said she’s sick of spending her life on the phone with 311 operators, calling the Community Board and complaining to the State Liquor Authority, to no avail. “I feel a little stupid,” she said.
Miller urged residents to keep trying to work with bars and to call the precinct when they failed to resolve problems on their own. Saying he’s only been on the job since September, Miller suggested the precinct is weighing new strategies to deal with nightlife issues. While he’s already been working closely with CB3, Miller indicated the police department might begin participating directly in the community board’s license renewal process. “We’re looking at possibility of working with (CB3) to say to (problem) bars up for renewal maybe you shouldn’t be renewed,” he said.
At the end of the evening, Community Council President Don West said, “we haven’t had a meeting like this one,” adding the open dialogue between Miller and residents was a positive development.