The allegation — a young woman sexually assaulted on a bar during an unsanctioned after-hours party — was as serious as the police department’s action was swift: Bohemian Caverns, a popular D.C. jazz club, was shuttered for 96 hours.
When D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier shut down the U Street NW bar last month, it was the 15th time that she had issued such a decree last year, four more than in 2011. It was the first time the chief’s power to close a club was exercised after anything other than a shooting, a stabbing or drug trafficking.
A 2005 District law affords Lanier unusually broad authority over the city’s bars and nightclubs, a responsibility generally left to the agency that regulates liquor licenses. Officials say the statute, which allows police to close establishments for days, is meant to be firm. But the chief’s use of that power has renewed discussion of the policy as the city’s growth spurs economic development but also causes worries about crowds and crime.
Lanier denied that she is embarking on a bar-closing binge. She said she uses her authority — which can cost establishments dearly in revenue and unwanted publicity — deliberately. The opinions of others — including elected officials and some in the business community — range from supportive to concerned.
The viewpoints of some key players remain unclear. Neither the city agency that regulates establishments that serve alcoholic beverages nor the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, which represents many of those establishments, responded to repeated requests for comment. Many bar and club operators expressed reluctance to speak frankly for fear of appearing to excuse crime.
Lanier called the latest incident to lead to a club’s closing — the early December sexual assault at Bohemian Caverns — “egregious.”
“We had management and employees who allowed people to drink inside a bar after it had been closed,” Lanier said. “That incident never should have happened.”
A co-owner of the club — located a block from Indulj, a club that Lanier closed after three men were shot outside — threw himself on the mercy of the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board during a December meeting.
“All of us are embarrassed and angry at the employees who violated our trust,” co-owner Omrao Brown said. “I apologize to everyone here.”
The ABC Board allowed Bohemian Caverns to reopen after Brown revised his security plan, ordered guards to stay until the staff had cleaned up after closing and fired a manager and two employees. By then, the club had been closed for six days, and two concerts had been canceled. No arrests have been made.
Lanier attributes the closings to the proliferation of new venues, a result of the growth of the city’s night life. She has targeted only a small fraction of the city’s more than 1,700 licensed establishments, a point her critics concede.
“I don’t always close a bar,” Lanier said. “To me, it has to be very clear that there has been some action that management did or didn’t do that resulted in an injury to the victim.”
Andrew J. Kline, a lobbyist who represents Bohemian Caverns and many other bars and clubs before the ABC Board, questioned what he called Lanier’s overuse of the law. “I am of the opinion that this is an emergency police power and should be used sparingly and thoughtfully when there is an actual imminent threat to public safety,” Kline said in an interview.
“Certainly public safety is paramount, but the reaction should not be knee-jerk,” Kline said. “There should be an actual ongoing threat to public safety. . . . We don’t close the bus system when there’s a killing aboard a Metrobus.”
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.”
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.
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.”