CABARET LOUNGE has a rap sheet that runs six pages: thefts, assaults, fights, cocaine sales in the bathroom. Over the past 26 months, Portland police and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) have recorded 36 "serious" incidents there. And yet the strip club at NW 5th and Burnside perseveres.
The city and OLCC's fight with Cabaret is a crime-laced case study in how public officials attempt to go after "problem bars." The two-year fight shows just how difficult it is to shut down a bar even when it's in the city's crosshairs.
Last week, two Portland lawmakers introduced a statewide bill that would make it much easier to shutter bars. Under the proposed law, called the Public Safety and Liquor Control Act, local law enforcement officers or city government would be able to immediately close a bar—for up to 72 hours—if it's deemed a threat to public safety.
"We kept hearing community members say we don't have an effective way for the OLCC to clamp down on problem establishments," says Tina Kotek, North and Northeast Portland's state representative, who is sponsoring the bill along with Senator Jackie Dingfelder. "Ninety, 95 percent of bars are good neighbors. But for the bad ones, we need more ways to police them."
The state bar and restaurant lobby opposes the bill, calling it unnecessary because bars already volunteer to close for several days at police request.
The bill isn't perfect: Police powers granted under the law could lead to abuse, allowing any cop or city official with an ax to grind to target specific bars. But the OLCC's recent case files on threatened Portland bars show that, if anything, current laws offer perhaps too much leeway when it comes to keeping patrons safe.
Over the past two years, city officials have petitioned the OLCC to nix only four bars' liquor licenses. The most infamous is Club 915, the downtown bar involved in the deaths of two people since last fall.
Before 22-year-old clubgoer Mike Ellis froze to death after being denied reentry to the club to grab his coat last November and before bouncer Ruben Mata was shot to death after a New Year's party, police documented 15 serious incidents at the bar. Portland police applied successfully to suspend Club 915's liquor license after the New Year's shooting, and even then the process took six days.
Luckily the city's fight with Cabaret has been free of fatalities, so far. The crimes reported at the club since 2008 are material for the juiciest of tabloids: multiple sexual assaults of dancers; a patron caught selling cocaine in the bathroom who then pulled a knife and threatened employees; and eight incidents in which security guards caused serious injuries by punching, pushing, or pepper-spraying patrons.
The city first targeted Cabaret in September 2008, when Liquor Licensing Specialist Theresa Marchetti met with club owner David Kiraz to work out an "abatement plan" for Cabaret's problems. Three months later, the city asked the OLCC to pull Cabaret's license.
In a city auditor's hearing in June 2009, the club's attorney Brett Hall argued that the city's requests of the bar were "unreasonable."
"Cabaret is located on 5th and Burnside, a notorious drug zone and crime zone," Hall told the city auditor's office. "Cabaret has been there for five years and has cleaned up that corner."
Kiraz, who owns Cabaret and Cabaret II out on SE 175th and Stark, says the city is unfairly singling him out. The OLCC letter is the first he heard about most of the incidents in the club, says Kiraz, who adds that most of the 36 violations are standard problems that could happen in any bar.
"It's silly stuff and I don't understand what any place is supposed to do about that," says Kiraz. "I think they don't want an adult club on that corner. If it was a tavern or a sports bar, I don't think they'd have any problem."
The OLCC officially decided to cancel Cabaret's liquor license in October 2009, but the club won a stay of enforcement. A year later, new Portland Police Chief Mike Reese petitioned the OLCC to yank Cabaret's license once again. And this Valentine's Day, the OLCC served the strip club its final notice that its license would be cancelled.
The OLCC cancelled the licenses of nine bars statewide last year. The other Portland bars whose liquor licenses were canceled last year are 720 Room and strip club Exotica.
To cut down on the potential for abuse, the state bill spells out what sort of incidents would justify the police shuttering a bar: homicide, assault, kidnapping, rape, unlawful use or possession of a firearm, or manufacturing or selling heroin, meth, cocaine, ecstasy, or pot.
After two years of back and forth, Cabaret plans to again appeal the OLCC's plan to pull their license. Under the new law, Portland police could have shut down Cabaret temporarily for at least five of the 36 incidents.