- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2011

They’re not all nightclubs. Some are bars, some are strip joints, restaurants and even banquet halls. But they all host dancing in Prince George’s County.

Something else they have in common: Police have blamed them collectively for more than 60 homicides in the past six years.

Clustered in neighborhoods mostly inside the Capital Beltway near the D.C. border, the clubs cater to an urban, largely black clientele and have been persistent problems for police in a county plagued by homicides and violent crime. But because no single category encompasses them all, the problems they attract have defied a regulatory solution.

Until now.

One by one, Prince George’s County authorities in recent months have visited and inspected clubs they hold accountable for excessive violence. And one by one, the clubs have been padlocked shut.

The mechanism for the inspections and subsequent closures is a county law enacted in July that requires any facility that allows dancing to obtain a newly defined “dance-hall permit.”

In the days after the legislation was passed, police internally circulated a list of clubs with a history of violence and quietly targeted them for closure.

According to the list, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, all of the targeted clubs have since either been closed or ordered not to permit dancing — a directive that by and large also prohibits them from hosting musical acts. As of this month, four of the clubs remain shuttered and one of them remains under the dancing prohibition.

The reasons cited for the targeted clubs’ closures have varied, but seem almost trivial compared with the loss of life attributed to them. One club was closed for operating outside the scope of its use-and-occupancy permit, another for the lack of a dance-hall permit, another for allowing alcohol on the premises despite not having a liquor license.

Police say the clubs on the list have other issues.

“They are just meeting spots for bad people,” said Maj. Joseph McCann, commander of the police department’s Special Operations Division.

The clubs’ owners have objected to the scrutiny, charging that the new law is a thinly veiled excuse for police to drive them out of business. This week, a Prince George’s judge will hear cases in the first criminal charges brought against owners related to the crackdown. The ruling could go a long way in determining the success or failure of the crime-reduction initiative.

Persistent problems

The police department’s list of club-related homicides includes incidents involving hotels, bars, liquor stores, strip clubs, restaurants and a Knights of Columbus hall. The variety of venues has been one of the county’s problems in trying to quell violence.

The problematic clubs legally can be classified as auditoriums, restaurants or banquet halls, with owners of each allowed unique use of their property. Promoters often rent the facilities to stage parties or showcase go-go bands. Some clubs have liquor licenses and bars, while others go dry or host “bring-your-own-bottle” events.

As a result, there has been no single law or regulation that could be used to crack down on them. And responsibilities for the regulations governing club operations have been divided over a host of county agencies.

The fire department inspects for fire hazards and occupancy limits, the county liquor board monitors alcohol sales, and compliance with zoning and usage regulations falls to the Department of Environmental Resources.

“Each individual use-and-occupancy permit is specific to the license they have,” said Gary Cunningham, deputy director of the Department of Environmental Resources.

Police in the past have tried to prepare for violent outbreaks, deploying to strategic corridors such as Central Avenue and Marlboro Pike to assure a quick response when clubs let out. Specific bands have a tendency to attract rival gang members to their shows, many times leading to explosive confrontations, county police Capt. Raphael Grant said.

Jack B. Johnson, as county executive, attempted a heavy-handed approach to the problem in 2007, unilaterally closing nine clubs as part of a high-profile crackdown on club violence. Each club was cited as “an imminent danger” and shuttered. After the move was challenged in court, and five clubs were allowed to reopen, club owners came to an agreement with county officials to devise new security plans.

Even after the clubs made the supposed security upgrades, they continued to be sources of violence. Since 2008, county police have deemed 26 homicides “club-related” — meaning they occurred at or stemmed from an incident at a club — including six that occurred at clubs closed as part of the 2007 enforcement wave.

In August 2010, George Cooper, 25, was fatally stabbed during a concert inside the CFE Event Center in Forestville, one of the clubs briefly shuttered in 2007 and told to beef up security. The slain man’s mother contends that county officials never held clubs accountable for the upgrades.

A security camera inside the club — one of the new stipulations — was taping when Cooper was stabbed, but it was pointed at the band on stage, not the crowd, and provided no assistance identifying Cooper’s attacker, Tracy Cooper said. No arrests have been made in the case.

“I don’t understand how they reopened. They didn’t have any oversight from the county,” said Ms. Cooper, who has since filed a lawsuit against both CFE and the county.

On Sept. 16, CFE was padlocked. The closure was a relief for Ms. Cooper.

“We’ve been fighting since my son passed to get it closed down,” she said. “I’m glad they finally did shut that club down.”

Political will

The momentum behind the bill passed in July has strong ties to the November 2010 elections, officials said.

“It’s a different administration, a different focus,” said Prince George’s County Police Chief Mark L. Magaw, who was appointed in December after County Executive Rushern L. Baker III was sworn into office.

County Council member Karen R. Toles, who represents inner-Beltway communities including Capitol Heights, Suitland, Temple Hills, Forestville and Oxon Hill, where many of the clubs are clustered, also was elected in November 2010. She said the crackdown stems from residents’ desire for a safer community and a need for economic development.

“We want to attract more business inside the Beltway like they have in other parts of the area,” Ms. Toles said. “I can’t get the businesses that District 7 residents ask me for without making the area safe.”

Mr. Cunningham retired as a deputy chief from the county police department in order to take the job of deputy director in environmental resources. He said his career change is part of a strategy to jointly address problems that were previously attacked piecemeal.

“[The Department of Environment Resources] and the police department are working more closely than they ever have in the past,” he said.

That is where CB-18, the dance-hall bill, comes into play.

Introduced in June by Ms. Toles, passed by the council in July and signed by Mr. Baker, the legislation requires any club that offers public dancing for profit to obtain a dance-hall license. The broadly written statute specifies that the county “shall have the right to take all immediate and necessary action … when an activity is found to pose a threat to the health, safety and welfare of the public.”

The previous regulations required clubs to be licensed, but were aimed mostly at spelling out the handling of public-nuisance concerns such as excessive noise. The stricter stipulations in place now require background checks for license seekers, proof of insurance and the submission of plans detailing security, traffic management, lighting and evacuation procedures.

The provisions also make it easier for the county government to reject permit applications from previously problematic club owners and to shut down violence-prone clubs — which they did almost immediately.

The closures

The law’s passage — and its stringent requirements — set off a flurry of inspections that closed five clubs within two weeks in July and August.

The closed clubs were among the seven that police described in internal documents as “targeted locations.” Some of the clubs were targeted because police were frequently called for violent outbreaks. For instance, officers responded to calls for service at Gee’s in Hyattsville 153 times and to Music Sports and Games, or MSG, in Capitol Heights 215 times from January 2010 to July of this year, police data show.

• Gee’s was closed July 29 for operating without a valid use and occupancy permit.

• Upscale Ballroom in Suitland was closed the same day for operating outside of its use-and-occupancy permit, when inspectors discovered that the club featured nude female dancers.

• Puzzles in Suitland closed Aug. 4 for operating outside of its use-and-occupancy permit, but reopened the next day after an appeal.

• MSG was closed Aug. 10 for operating without a dance-hall license — three days after a woman was fatally shot outside the club.

• Stardust Lounge in District Heights was shuttered Aug. 12 after the fire marshal reported violations.

• CFE — where George Cooper was fatally stabbed in September 2010 — was closed in September for violating its use-and-occupancy permit.

• Plaza 23 Event Center in Temple Hills was cited in November for not having a dance-hall permit. The club remains open, but its owners have been ordered not to host dance-related events while authorities consider the club’s application for a permit.

“As we looked at several of these establishments, they were clearly violating [their permits], and we approached agencies to look at opportunities to get them in line,” Chief Magaw said, when asked about the flurry of enforcement activity.

Two clubs, Puzzles and Upscale Ballroom, reopened with warnings not to allow adult entertainment, police said.

Police said they are beginning to notice a decrease in violent crime in the district where MSG and CFE are located. Of 83 shootings and homicides reported in that district from January through the middle of last month, 24 have occurred since Aug. 11 — the day MSG was closed. That amounts to a 29 percent drop in incidents this year over the same period in 2010, Capt. Grant said.

“We used to pull every resource to these two streets, which was leaving the rest of the district with no officers,” Capt. Grant said of the 30 officers regularly deployed to areas around the clubs as they let out after concerts. “Now those officers can stay in their beats to concentrate on the neighborhoods they are assigned to.”

Unfair enforcement?

Club owners have criticized the wave of enforcement. They note that no new dance-hall license has been granted since the county began accepting applications in October.

Employees of MSG are fighting the law.

After the club was padlocked in August, four men were charged with operating a dance hall without a license — a crime punishable by six months jail or a $1,000 fine under the new law.

Lawyer William A. Sherman II, who is representing MSG owner Darryl Robinson, said he hopes to get the case dismissed at a hearing Tuesday on the grounds that enforcement of the law violated his client’s rights to due process.

“We would argue there was not a reasonable notice in terms of opportunity to comply,” Mr. Sherman said. “The legislation was enacted … and a mere 17 days later, the law was enforced against my client.”

Mr. Sherman argues that there is no way MSG could have obtained a license by the time the club was shut down for not having it.

“Compliance was impossible, yet enforcement took place,” he said.

Club owners also have long argued that it’s unfair to hold them accountable for incidents that happen when patrons leave their clubs. The killing of 20-year-old Jasmine Banks outside MSG in August was the result of a drive-by shooting that owners suspect was committed by people they declined to let into the club that night.

Dan Richardson, owner of Plaza 23, appealed a citation issued to his club because it did not have the new dance-hall license. Mr. Richardson, who previously obtained yearlong licenses in 2009 and 2010, told a county administrative board last week that he went to renew his license on July 6, but was told the county was no longer renewing them because of the pending legislation. The council approved the dance-hall bill 13 days later.

Plaza 23 was cited in November for not having the permit, even though he said he had applied for the license and was in the process of presenting the county with supporting information. The board rejected his appeal.

“All we wanted to do was operate our business while our application pended,” Mr. Richardson said. “If you say no, we’ll stop. But don’t stop my business until the new law starts. It doesn’t make sense.”

Daniel Irving, owner of Upscale Ballroom, was allowed to reopen it after making concessions to the concerns of authorities.

“I don’t have time to make problems with PG County,” Mr. Irving said. “I’m good right now. I don’t need to fight.”

Still, he said, he thinks club owners are being held accountable for larger issues the county faces.

“It’s always easy to pass the blame to the clubs,” he said. “These damn kids have lost their damn minds. That’s the problem.”

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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