How would you feel about being fined $421 for showing up to work? That's what's been happening to security personnel in the downtown entertainment district over the last two weeks, amidst a continuing crackdown by Portland police.
The cops have been tightening their grip on the clubs since Commander Mike Reese took over Central Precinct in early July. He's been working with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) and state fire marshals over recent weeks to ensure their myriad of regulations are being met.
Both Ohm on NW 1st as well as Berbati's on SW 3rd have been cited for OLCC violations over the past three weeks, while the Voodoo Lounge on NW 1st has been subject to continued fire marshal scrutiny after allegedly exceeding its capacity by 100 on the weekend of June 17, according to police sources. Now the pressure has been stepped up—the police issued $6,315 in civil citations to club staff at Barracuda on NW 2nd two weekends ago.
Commander Reese stepped into his Central Precinct post amidst escalating violence in the Smart Park garage on the corner of SW Naito and SW Davis. After a thwarted gun attack and warnings from private security firm Portland Patrol Inc (PPI) about the link between problems in the garage and intoxicated downtown club goers [see "Fighting in The Streets," News, Jul 13], downtown crime prevention officer Walter Garcia agreed to arrange a summit between police and club owners to look for ways to ease the situation.
But the summit has yet to be arranged. Instead, on the night of Saturday July 22, Sergeant Chris Davis—who heads up the Downtown Street Crimes Unit—gave out 10 $421 citations to security staff at Barracuda—and five more at three other clubs—for not having official state certification to work as a security staffer.
The Barracuda citations were issued even though Dan Lenzen, vice president of Concept Entertainment Group, which owns Barracuda and seven other Portland clubs, had already arranged for 75 of his security staff to pay $165 and become certified over the coming months: "We had dates arranged. If [the Sergeant] would have waited just a couple of weeks, we would have been fine," Lenzen says.
Certification for private security staff, which includes a criminal background check, training and assessment, has been a technical requirement of the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) since 1995. But the statute has only been enforceable by police since January 2006, following a change by the legislature, and this is the first time Portland's cops have flexed their muscles with the ruling in the downtown area.
Berbati's owner Ted Papaioannou estimates "more than half" of his 15-member security team are certified, with the rest now planning to undergo training after the sting at Barracuda. (This move was predicted by the DPSST's Karen Evans: "I suspect other establishments will see what has happened and then get certified.")
While Papaioannou is glad the police, DPSST, and the OLCC are trying to boost safety downtown, he has reservations about the responsibility of club owners for what happens outside their doors. The public, as well as club owners, he thinks, should be educated about the dangers of drinking.
"If we're responsible for what happens in a parking garage, are we responsible for what happens under the Burnside Bridge and up the road and around the corner too? Let's be realistic," he says. "I think the OLCC and the police do a good job, it's just—what are our responsibilities? And $165 is an expensive necessity for the many who come to security only as a part-time or temporary job."
For his part, Lenzen says downtown's safety problems are created by "a few bad apples" and that the police, OLCC and the DPSST should work together for the benefit of club goers. But he's reluctant to criticize the recent enforcement actions.
Another club owner, who did not want to be named, isn't: To that owner, the agencies' crackdown seems too severe. "It's Fascism, but I don't want to be quoted. And there's the proof. I'm scared to speak out against it," the owner said.
Evans, of the DPSST, says the state law that covers certification of security staff was initially created by the service industry, to ensure that security providers met basic requirements. The measure, she says, is simply meant to raise the professionalism of the industry.
And Ken Palke, a spokesman for the OLCC, says the liquor agency has always done club walk-throughs with the downtown police. "Maybe it's a little more high-profile these days, but that's all," he says, adding, "We're concerned about over-service, which is one of the things we look for. We worry about putting 1,000 intoxicated people out on the street at two am."
Indeed, last Friday night, July 28, Sergeant Davis and two other officers had to stop a fight between 15 possible concert-goers and 10 security guards from a club off Burnside. One security guard was arrested for an outstanding warrant, and later that night, 12 shots were fired from a .40 caliber handgun on Couch between Broadway and 6th, according to police.
Sergeant Davis—who like Commander Reese is also new to Central Precinct—says his decision to enforce the certification statute came from meeting with the DPSST and realizing that if rules are in place and not being enforced, there could be negative consequences further down the line.
Davis says the public will ultimately benefit from enforcement of the law, because their safety is better guaranteed by having certified security, and club owners are also protected from liability should an incident occur.
"We picked five clubs at random, but only got to four because we ended up issuing a lot more citations than we had expected," he says. "If the staff show up certified for their court date, we'll ask the court to dismiss the citations. We're not in the business of racking up a load of fines, just of getting people to comply with the law."
As for accusations of dealing out overly harsh, Fascist enforcement, he adds: "Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but I'm sorry that club owner feels this way. This is not Fascism because it hardly reenacts the actions of Mr. Mussolini or Mr. Hitler. It is government enforcing the rules."