Council Moves on Clubs

Council Moves on Clubs

Four new laws will set tighter regs for nightclubs

Activists and civil libertarians had mixed reactions to proposed city laws that would require nightclubs to install video cameras and use scanners to check patron’s identifications.

“We’ve got concerns about these proposals no matter how you frame it,” said Robert A. Perry, legislative director at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). “There’s little evidence that these cameras deter crime, but policymakers are somewhat fixated with them.”

The package of laws, four altogether, would require clubs and dance halls to install video cameras at all entrances and exits. The businesses would be required to keep any tapes for 15 days and then destroy or tape over them. The tapes can only be used for training or “a law enforcement purpose.” Violating these provisions, including using the tapes for a non-law enforcement purpose, could result in the business losing its license and paying up to a $1,000 fine.

Following her appearance at a Queens gay marriage rally, City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, an out lesbian who represents Chelsea, home to many of the clubs, said that under her bill the video images may only be retained “for a brief period of time” and may only be used by government agencies.

“If you use them for an activity outside of law enforcement that would be considered a crime,” Quinn said.

A second law requires that these businesses use “identification scanners” to check driver’s licenses and other types of identification. The law specifically bars the use of scanners that retain any information from the identification. In the proposed law, there are no penalties for violating this provision.

“That bill stipulates that scanners can only scan for the validity of the ID and that they cannot retain the name, address or any other identifying information on the ID,” Quinn said. “If it becomes law, if you’re not using the stipulated machine that would be a violation.”

Two other laws were introduced in the City Council on September 27 as part of the package of four. One would require such businesses to hire independent monitors to oversee their operations if they violate state or local laws and the second requires training for club employees.

The NYCLU and gay activists previously objected to the proposals charging that they violated the privacy of club patrons. The scanner bill eased some concerns.

“That’s a little more promising,” William K. Dobbs, a gay civil libertarian, said of the scanners. “There is some promise that that respects privacy.”

Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club and a longtime gay activist, agreed.

“I don’t have a problem with the scanners if the scanners don’t keep records,” he said. The video cameras remain a serious concern.

“We don’t want them used by law enforcement because law enforcement has been the problem with nightlife,” Roskoff said. “Having the cameras still takes away one’s anonymity.”

The NYCLU wants far tighter controls on the use of scanners and cameras including a required paper trail of who used a video image and why.

“There’s no constraint on retention by cops or other government authorities,” Perry said “We want documentation of the use of the image. How else can you ensure the image has been used appropriately?”

The NYCLU also wants tougher penalties and clearer rules for the misuse of the scanners and the video images.

“There should be an explicit prohibition on the part of the owner or the proprietor from disseminating a recording,” Perry said. “There’s got to be an explicit prohibition and there’s got to be a penalty…You can get very sensitive personal information off these scanners and right now I don’t think they’ve locked down the concerns.”

On September 28, Quinn convened a meeting of nightclub owners, elected officials, police and regulatory agencies, and community groups to discuss improving security at clubs.

“As we all know, right now there is a problem as it relates to nightlife in this city,” Quinn said at a press conference prior to the meeting. “We are the safest big city in the world. We do not have the safest nightlife in the world. I believe that is a possibility. I know that we can make nightlife safer in the city of New York.”

Later that same day in Queens, Quinn said of the summit, “I think it went very well. We had a very open and frank dialogue on a number of different issues…The most important thing about today’s summit was that I heard from club owner after club owner after club owner and elected official after elected official about a real hunger for clarity from the police and the State Liquor Authority about what the rules are and what the regulations are.”

John Blair, executive director of Spirit, a nightclub that the city closed in August, said of the meeting “It was incredible…We were so well represented, the police department was well represented, City Council members were there, state senators were. All the people who make decisions were there…There were some heated moments. I was able to confront two [police] chiefs with the abuses they are doing using the nuisance abatement law. They, of course, did not agree with me.”

The city uses its nuisance abatement law to shutter businesses that violate city and state laws. Some club owners charge the city is too aggressive in its use of that law.