Bar, nightclub owners claim police harassment, but unclear if gay spots singled out
Some gay bar owners in Chelsea are charging that the 10th Precinct, the police precinct that patrols that neighborhood, is unfairly targeting them for inspections and citations.
“Almost everything is either exaggerated or fabricated,” said Rick Schmutzler, a co-owner of Gym Sportsbar, which opened on Eighth Avenue on March 25.
Since opening, Schmutzler said, the bar has received 12 or 13 citations for violations such as overcrowding, serving alcohol to underage people, or excessive noise. He was particularly angered by the accusations of serving people who are under 21 because Schmutzler said his employees are rigorous about demanding identification.
“Because they’ve been hitting us so hard, you can’t get in here without an ID,” he said. “We were carding even before they started stinging us.”
The apparent police practice in these investigations is that an undercover officer, male or female, accompanies an underage auxiliary police officer, also in plainclothes, who orders liquor. The undercover officer observes the transaction to see if the auxiliary officer is required to produce ID. If no ID is required, the bar is cited for serving someone underage.
One citation against Gym, for having a doorman who was not a licensed security guard, was dismissed on June 13, according to Schmutzler.
“We went into court on Monday and the judge threw it out,” he said.
In April, Gym was visited by a task force of government agencies that included the police cabaret unit and the fire, health and buildings departments, and what Schmutzler thought was the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The bar was briefly closed while the task force conducted inspections.
“They shut us down for about 35 minutes,” Schmutzler said. “Lights on, nobody allowed to enter or leave… I’m still not sure what that was about.”
Schmutzler estimated that, to date, fighting the citations has cost him $10,000 in attorney’s fees and fines. He said that the laws were not being enforced equally.
“It certainly doesn’t seem like its being applied fairly,” Schmutzler said. “We run a clean business. You’re not going to find underage drinking here, you’re not going to find drugs here, you’re not going to find prostitution here.”
Other Chelsea gay bar owners and managers registered complaints that were similar to those offered by Schmutzler though they would not be quoted or identified. Some said they had no problems with the police while others declined to speak with Gay City News, with some saying they feared retribution by the police.
Deputy Inspector Dennis
De Quatro, the 10th Precinct’s commanding officer, said his officers are policing all the clubs and bars in the precinct.
“The police department and the 10th Precinct specifically has taken a very strong approach to quality of life issues,” he said. “All of the licensed establishments are subject to inspection… This past weekend we checked 10 places for underage drinking.”
The officers are responding to violations that they see as well as to complaints about businesses made through the city’s 311 phone system, according to De Quatro.
“The enforcement activity taken by the police department is the direct result of observation and direct complaints received from the community,” he said.
De Quatro said that the most aggressive efforts have not been against gay bars. Five straight clubs or bars have been closed either temporarily or permanently using the city’s nuisance abatement law.
“If you look at the spectrum, we’ve not exercised the nuisance abatement laws against any of the gay bars as opposed to the straight bars,” De Quatro said.
Using the nuisance abatement law, the city closed the Blue Store on June 17 after detectives were twice solicited by male prostitutes outside of the establishment for sex they were proposing to have inside the Eighth Avenue porn shop. One of the alleged solicitations happened this year, the other last year.
De Quatro said that some of the citations issued to Gym resulted from 15 to 20 noise complaints made through the 311 system about the bar.
“How do I not respond to that?” he said.
The bar, which has a legal occupancy of roughly 75 people, was cited once for overcrowding.
“The night in question, when he received the citation, there were in excess of 200 people in there and the rear exit was gated and locked,” De Quatro said.
Robert S. Bookman, a partner at Pesetsky and Bookman, a law firm, and the counsel for the New York Nightlife Association, which represents bars, clubs and lounges, said the gay bars were being treated like any other bar or club.
“I hate to say it, but it’s not a gay issue, it’s a 10th Precinct issue,” Bookman said and he cited De Quatro as the reason for the intensive enforcement efforts.
“He’s anti-nightlife, period,” Bookman said. “Pretty much across the board people will tell you that this guy does not like nightlife and is pretty much antagonistic toward nightlife… This is not Gramercy Park and he seems to want to have a Gramercy Park-type district.”
Bookman represented two of the five businesses—The Park, on Tenth Ave. and the Lotus Restaurant, on W. 14th St.—that were temporarily closed by the city using the nuisance abatement law.
“In general, there seems to be an overuse of the nuisance abatement laws in this precinct as compared to other precincts in the city,” Bookman said.
Chelsea is among a number of New York City neighborhoods that has to balance the competing demands of taxpayers who are looking for a good night’s sleep, those who want to party and others who see clubs as a major employers in the city.
Perhaps reflecting those conflicting interests, State Sen. Thomas K. Duane, a gay Democrat who represents Chelsea, at first had no comment, but later, a spokesperson called the newspaper to say, “Our office has not received any calls regarding these allegations and if there is any merit to these allegations we would hope that people would come forward.”
Similarly, Democratic City Councilwoman Christine Quinn, a lesbian who represents Chelsea, did not respond to repeated calls seeking comment.
Calls to City Hall seeking comment were referred to the police department press office, which did not respond. At a June 21 campaign event, Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not take questions from the press.