December 19, 2012 | by Mark Lee
D.C. police chief Lanier missteps on bar closures

D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier is arguably the most popular city official in the District.

Her job approval is high, some have floated a run for the mayor’s office, and she’s the epitome of no-nonsense competent management. In a city experiencing ceaseless ethical lapses and serial scandals tainting the local public sector, she’s the town sheriff who saddles a noble steed. Lanier is personable, likable and her own best representative.

She has a straight-talking style and common-sense attitude. For that reason, Lanier’s often misguided and random utilization of special emergency powers granted the police chief under the District’s Emergency Suspension of Liquor Licenses Act of 2005 is an oddly uncharacteristic misstep.

The law allows closure for up to 96 hours of an establishment that poses an “additional imminent danger to the health and welfare of the public” with “no immediately available measure to ameliorate” and a finding “that there is a correlation between increased incidents of crime within 1,000 feet of the establishment and the operation of the establishment.” The law further provides that this latter “determination shall be based on objective criteria, including incident reports, arrests, and reported crime, occurring within the preceding 18 months.”

A license suspension under this provision remains in effect until the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board can expedite review as related to liquor permit rules.

Granting an extraordinary special ability to singlehandedly impose emergency closures was not intended as a regulatory penalty mechanism, but to protect the public from serious ongoing danger not achievable through standard actions.

Recent usage of this unique power illustrates the controversy over its increasingly irregular imposition.

Two weekends ago, following police response to an alleged after-hours sexual assault complaint at the long re-launched historic jazz venue Bohemian Caverns that first opened at the corner of 11th and U streets, N.W., in 1926, the decision to invoke an emergency closure was puzzling. While the accusation that a male employee assaulted a woman invited to the location for drinks after the business had closed and without the authorization or knowledge of the owner is certainly troubling if true, there was no resulting threat to public safety extending to the surrounding area.

Likewise, the emergency closure earlier that week of Indulj Restaurant and Lounge one block away, following the gunshot wounding on an adjoining street of three male patrons, perhaps from a passing vehicle, also fails to meet the legal criteria. This act of random violence without prior occurrence, as unsettling as it may be, does not establish a pattern of incident or likelihood of repetition related to the venue’s operation.

The ABC Board terminated or allowed expiration of these closures.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, a criminal act committed either on the street or on premise does not automatically constitute an actionable standard under the law. A reflexive reaction without collecting or understanding relevant facts potentially results in both inappropriate closure and unwarranted business harm.

Temporary emergency shutdowns – numbering nine in 2011 and 14 this year among nearly 1,600 alcohol-licensed businesses – do not represent a thoughtful or consistent policy benefiting public safety. Instead, the closures strike observers as unduly haphazard and capricious, and inconsistent with the goal of protecting the community from continuing danger. Employment of this extreme measure is oftentimes not reflective of either the intent or requirements of the law.

Of note, churning out closure citations appears a newly overused routine, as evidenced by the cut-and-paste error on the Bohemian Caverns police order. The document, later revised, cited a “brazen shooting on the streets of the District of Columbia” as cause, not the actual incident.

Misapplying this law does not provide public safety, fails to meet the defined standard and suggests only a desire to implement a shortsighted public relations strategy. Imposing closures without a justifiably legitimate rationale undermines its rare use when appropriate.

Rather than conveying confidence that an actual threat is being addressed in a relevant manner, misuse leads to a false sense of protection and unduly taints both neighborhood and business as dangerous locale or enterprise.

Community interests are poorly served by this propagating police practice.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

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