Downtown police stay busy with later bar hours, First Friday

St. Petersburg police Officer Liem Mach keeps a watch out in  downtown, the first Friday night with longer bar hours.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

St. Petersburg police Officer Liem Mach keeps a watch out in downtown, the first Friday night with longer bar hours.

ST. PETERSBURG — This is downtown at its best: dinner on Beach Drive; a family ride on a horse-drawn carriage; bar hopping with friends; live music on First Friday, when the city closes Central Avenue once a month.

This is downtown at its not-so-best: transients asking for money, or what's on your plate; women in heels drunkenly stumbling into traffic; men yelling, shouting, using profanity; fisticuffs, then handcuffs.

The city has long desired a vibrant downtown. Now it has one, along with all the good and bad that comes with being a destination spot.

It is a downtown on the verge of major change. Last month, the City Council voted to extend bar hours from 2 to 3 a.m., putting St. Petersburg on an equal entertainment footing with Tampa.

This past Friday, on a suffocatingly hot night, a St. Petersburg Times reporter and photographer shadowed the officers who patrol downtown. Are they busier? Are the bars busier? How much bad comes with the good?

"We're still analyzing the effects," said Mayor Bill Foster. "It's definitely a more lively downtown. We just need to make sure people are safe."

It's 1 a.m., three hours past his bedtime. He is in a world of short skirts and tight T-shirts; spray-on tans and hair gel; people talking and texting on their phones.

The mayor shook his head and smiled.

"This isn't your grandmother's St. Pete," he said.

• • •

St. Petersburg police Officer Liem Mach works from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. — if he's lucky.

The first part of his day is consumed with managing downtown's homeless population. Later, his job will be unruly bar patrons.

Most transients are well known to the police. There's a familiarity that comes with numerous arrests. "Some officers even know their Social Security numbers," Mach said.

The officer slowly drove along 15th Street, past rows of homeless people camped outside the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's food center.

"Leroy," he called out to a regular. "Pull up your pants. Your underwear's showing."

Leroy did as asked. "Thank you," Mach said.

Next stop: a home at 15th Street and Seventh Avenue. The alley behind the house is the quickest path to buy beer and bring it back to St. Vincent's.

Mach spotted two men with beers sitting on someone's garden wall. He cited one, a 55-year-old he observed drinking a can of Hurricane High Gravity malt liquor.

"Go back to St. Vinny's," Mach told them. "Dinner's at 7. Don't miss out."

• • •

Angie's Cafe is at the corner of First Avenue N and Second Street. Here, patrons can get a drink at the bar inside or grab a sandwich from the takeout window.

Owner Andi Budo likes the later hours.

"Good for business," he said. "But it's too early to tell."

Farther down First Avenue, Billy Hughes, the 32-year-old manager of the recently renovated Bishop Tavern, said business is up, too.

He said he doesn't think the later hours have led to more trouble outside the bar, which has become one of downtown's top attractions.

Whatever mayhem took place at 2 a.m. just happens at 3 a.m. now, he said.

Sgt. Karl Lounge doesn't agree. "Without a doubt, there has been an increase in alcohol-related incidents," he said.

Why might that be? Are more patrons staying put in St. Petersburg because of the later hours? Do they no longer feel the need to go across the bridge to South Tampa or Ybor City?

Lounge offers a simpler explanation:

"You have an extra hour to drink."

• • •

The police said their focus is on the crowds emptying out of Jannus Live and the Bishop Tavern along First Avenue N and Second Street.

The scene on the other side of downtown — near newer bars like Push and Vintage Ultra Lounges on Third Street S — is far calmer. Though police said they had to use Tasers on two men outside Red Mesa Cantina last week.

Officer Mach, standing outside Jannus Live, said it's a simple formula: "The equation of a lot of people in a small area equals a lot of potential problems."

Here, the problems start at 2 a.m.

Case in point: a 6-foot-8, sweat-soaked, shirtless man police said drunkenly stumbled into traffic on First Avenue N. He seemed unable to speak or obey police commands.

Three officers couldn't bring him down without using their Tasers. Then it took three sets of handcuffs to restrain him. Then he started making guttural noises.

Some were appalled by the police tactics. Others enjoyed the show. Sgt. Lounge tried to explain the Taser's effects to an angry young woman, to no avail.

The man is from New York. He was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence. But before jail, the hog-tied man was lifted onto a stretcher and taken to a hospital. And he regained the ability to speak.

What are you on, the officers asked?

"Nothing," he said, his arms handcuffed to the gurney. "I've had too much to drink."

The ambulance took him away. But the officers are already moving toward the Bishop. A man accused of throwing a punch was facedown on the ground, in handcuffs. It's 2:43 a.m.

The night gets quieter. The crowd thins.

The last stragglers line up for pizza outside Joey Brooklyn's. By 3:30 a.m., downtown is quiet.

"People need an entertainment outlet," said Mayor Foster, who is long gone by this time. "Not everybody goes to bed at 10 like I do."

Downtown police stay busy with later bar hours, First Friday 06/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 5, 2010 11:09pm]

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