PG Ordinance Cracks Down on Clubs Beset by Violence; New Permit Process Targets Worst for Closure

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrea Noble, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

They're not all nightclubs. Some are bars, some are strip joints, restaurants and even banquet halls. But they all host dancing in Prince George's County.

Something else they have in common: Police have blamed them collectively for more than 60 homicides in the past six years.

Clustered in neighborhoods mostly inside the Capital Beltway near the D.C. border, the clubs cater to an urban, largely black clientele and have been persistent problems for police in a county plagued by homicides and violent crime. But because no single category encompasses them all, the problems they attract have defied a regulatory solution.

Until now.

One by one, Prince George's County authorities in recent months have visited and inspected clubs they hold accountable for excessive violence. And one by one, the clubs have been padlocked shut.

The mechanism for the inspections and subsequent closures is a county law enacted in July that requires any facility that allows dancing to obtain a newly defined dance-hall permit.

In the days after the legislation was passed, policeinternally circulated a list of clubs with a history of violence and quietly targeted them for closure.

According to the list, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, all of the targeted clubs have since either been closed or ordered not to permit dancing - a directive that by and large also prohibits them from hosting musical acts. As of this month, four of the clubs remain shuttered and one of them remains under the dancing prohibition.

The reasons cited for the targeted clubs' closures have varied, but seem almost trivial compared with the loss of life attributed to them. One club was closed for operating outside the scope of its use-and-occupancy permit, another for the lack of a dance-hall permit, another for allowing alcohol on the premises despite not having a liquor license.

Police say the clubs on the list have other issues.

They are just meeting spots for bad people, said Maj. Joseph McCann, commander of the police department's Special Operations Division.

The clubs' owners have objected to the scrutiny, charging that the new law is a thinly veiled excuse for police to drive them out of business. This week, a Prince George's judge will hear cases in the first criminal charges brought against owners related to the crackdown. The ruling could go a long way in determining the success or failure of the crime-reduction initiative.

Persistent problems

The police department's list of club-related homicides includes incidents involving hotels, bars, liquor stores, strip clubs, restaurants and a Knights of Columbus hall. The variety of venues has been one of the county's problems in trying to quell violence.

The problematic clubs legally can be classified as auditoriums, restaurants or banquet halls, with owners of each allowed unique use of their property. Promoters often rent the facilities to stage parties or showcase go-go bands. Some clubs have liquor licenses and bars, while others go dry or host bring-your-own-bottle events.

As a result, there has been no single law or regulation that could be used to crack down on them. And responsibilities for the regulations governing club operations have been divided over a host of county agencies.

The fire department inspects for fire hazards and occupancy limits, the county liquor board monitors alcohol sales, and compliance with zoning and usage regulations falls to the Department of Environmental Resources.

Each individual use-and-occupancy permit is specific to the license they have, said Gary Cunningham, deputy director of the Department of Environmental Resources.

Police in the past have tried to prepare for violent outbreaks, deploying to strategic corridors such as Central Avenue and Marlboro Pike to assure a quick response when clubs let out. …