Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Public safety

Discussions on security near downtown bars rev up in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — It has been two years to the month since the City Council pushed closing time back to 3 a.m. Two years since the later bar hours helped turn downtown into party central. Two years since the police chief warned that the later hours would drain police resources.

And it took two years to finally get everyone — the police, the fire department, code enforcement and the bar owners — together in the same room to figure out how to keep that lively downtown safe.

The City Council decided Thursday that it will await the recommendations from that meeting, then finally adopt a series of ordinances that will help the city recoup the expense of downtown security — and punish scofflaw bars that aren't doing their part to keep patrons safe.

"The longer we put this off," said council member Wengay Newton, "we put ourselves in danger of something else happening."

Newton was referring to the Feb. 8 shooting inside Scene Premium Night Club at 211 Third St. S that left two men wounded and sent hundreds stampeding for the exits.

City leaders already have been fretting about the extra police overtime and resources spent patrolling the overflowing crowds downtown. Calls for service have jumped since last call was pushed back to 3 a.m., along with an increase in brawls, scuffles and arrests. Meanwhile fewer officers are available around the city in the late afternoon, because they're being deployed downtown late at night.

Sgt. Randy Morton of the downtown deployment unit, which regularly patrols downtown, said 100 hours of police overtime a week are dedicated solely to patrolling the bar scene there.

The goal all along has been to get downtown establishments to hire off-duty officers to take some of the costs of security from the city. But a voluntary effort to hire extra officers fell apart, and the council has spent months mulling how to require bars to hire additional officers.

The council seemed to settle on a two-pronged solution:

• Create a special permit that would allow alcohol to be served up to 3 a.m. Then the city could revoke permits and shut down bars that don't cooperate and don't keep their patrons safe.

• Come up with criteria that would require bars that have special events, large crowds or a history of incidents to hire off-duty officers.

After the big meeting, the council said it would reconsider the matter in July.

Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, appeared at Thursday's meeting with several bar owners. He said the owners support a safe downtown and the hiring of extra security. But they don't want noise issues thrown in with security, and they want the city to start enforcing existing ordinances consistently before imposing new ones, such as rules for what bars can and can't do on the sidewalks.

He also said most of the bar owners are trying to help.

"Most of us are talking about one or two bad situations," Steinocher said. "Bad eggs in the basket."

He also said the chamber doesn't believe its members should bear all the costs of security.

"We just want to be careful about fees that won't solve the problems," Steinocher said. "All we're saying is you're trying to solve a police budget issue. All we're saying is let's be fair about the discussion."

But council members wanted to make it clear to the chamber and the bar owners that those establishments are attracting the crowds that need to be policed in the first place.

"Did we need extra officers before the shift (to 3 a.m.)?" said council member Steve Kornell.

"In my opinion we're using more officers and resources around the bars," said police Chief Chuck Harmon. "The crowds have changed. The dynamics have changed.

"It's not just an issue of budgets. It's a matter of resources. I have a finite number of officers who can work the downtown corridor. We need to bring in more officers from around the city. But we also don't want to tax those officers who work 50, 55 hours a week (downtown.)"

Mayor Bill Foster emphasized that the catalyst is the bars and the alcohol they serve. That's what attracts the biggest crowds after midnight, the mayor said, and leaves them in need of a police babysitter after 3 a.m.

"Crowds going out for burritos don't beat up each other," Foster said. "Crowds that are fueled by alcohol are what cause the issues.

"When these alcohol magnets are turned on at the same time, that's what causes problems."

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