Some business leaders disagree. “It’s the chief’s obligation to maintain public safety,” said Robin Eve Jasper, president of the NoMA
Business Improvement District. “Unhappily, a number of the club operators are not sufficiently attuned to the safety of their establishments.”
The ABC Board’s role
Ruthanne Miller, who chairs the ABC Board, declined through a spokesman to comment on Lanier’s use of the closure law or on how the board deals with bars and clubs the chief targets.
Enforcement related to police action is a small part of the board’s role. Each year, it acts on hundreds of reports concerning liquor-selling establishments, generally striking deals to improve security or correct other problems.
Since 2009, the board has revoked the license of only one establishment — a bar in Northwest Washington tied to cocaine sales — that Lanier had closed temporarily. A club that Lanier ordered closed twice in two years, once after a machete attack, remains open with no additional sanctions imposed. Lanier had recommended that the owners lose their liquor license.
The Emergency Suspension of Liquor Licenses Act, enacted two years before Lanier became chief, gives the police chief power to close an establishment for up to four days, after which the ABC Board decides what will be done.
Other jurisdictions, such as Baltimore, have similar laws, but few, if any, grant such far-reaching discretion. In Baltimore, for example, the police commissioner can padlock a club only after a public hearing.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents the U Street corridor, said he wrote the bill to be strong.
“We don’t want crimes committed in bars, and we don’t want after-hours activity,” Graham said. Graham said he has “no reason to question” Lanier’s closure orders.
Inside and outside
Bar and club owners, however, say it is unfair to hold them accountable for incidents that occur outside their clubs. Police say that many incidents start inside the clubs and that shoving people outside doesn’t excuse the clubs.
The nightclub Fur, in NoMa, was shuttered in 2011 after the machete attack and, again, in November after a patron and a security guard were stabbed during a fight. The owner, who did not respond to a request for comment, had told police that the guard was hurt when he slipped and fell on broken glass, according to an investigator’s report to the ABC Board.
Fur holds more than 1,200 people, and on busy nights hires 47 security guards. The ABC Board opened 16 case files against the club last year; it fined the owner once, for $3,250, and suspended the license for four days for violating an agreement to improve security.
The other cases — which included incidents of robbery, gun possession and assault, according to police reports — received no action.
NoMa is home to several large nightclubs, which were there before the area sprouted new condominium developments, stores and restaurants. Police have noted tension between club owners and the new arrivals.
“We love night life in the city,” Jasper said. “But there has been a deafness to the issue that has been created in the way some clubs are licensed and in the way some operators are allowed to run them. . . . I don’t know why it’s only Chief Lanier who is paying attention.”