Saturday, January 20, 2018
Public safety

St. Petersburg weighs new night club rules

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council seems to agree that the city's teeming nightlife should help pay to police itself.

What the council hasn't decided yet is how much businesses should pay — and how stringent any new security measures should be.

Council member Jim Kennedy said the city shouldn't try to pass off all of its police overtime costs onto the bars and clubs that have helped transform downtown into a popular nighttime destination.

Council member Charlie Gerdes questioned whether the city should require clubs to hire even more off-duty officers and bouncers than the two proposed. He speaks from experience: as a bouncer in college, he needed four stitches after a drunk hit him with a bottle.

Council member Wengay Newton suggested that the city should require all clubs to start searching patrons with metal detectors. Most don't, Newton said, but he did it when he ran security for a club a few years back.

And council member Jeff Danner reignited one of the city's oldest debates: does St. Petersburg have enough police officers?

"When we decided we needed 545 police officers we were a 12-hour city with no downtown," Danner said. "Now we're a 20-hour city with a downtown. At some point, we can't keep moving people around.

"What's it going to take to provide the protection for the city we have now?"

The council discussed what measures the bars should take and how much they should pay at a committee meeting Thursday. Members also got their first look at a proposed ordinance that would force businesses downtown and around Tropicana Field to hire off-duty police officers and punish those that don't.

Mayor Bill Foster warned the council Thursday that the city needs to strike a balance between the bars' prosperity and the city's security. The goal is not to gouge the bars, he said, just to make sure they pay their part.

"We've got this great thriving nightlife that is laying golden eggs," Foster said. "My goal is to protect the goose."

The proposed ordinance offers these options: charge every bar a flat security fee; make the biggest clubs hire off-duty officers; and give police the power to fine and eventually shut down the worst offenders.

But the council's discussions also touched on new ideas like requiring every club to use metal detectors and applying the new security requirements citywide, not just downtown.

The city pushed closing time back to 3 a.m. in 2010, feeding a downtown revival. The bars profited, but the city paid. Calls for service after midnight shot up, and the Police Department had to rearrange schedules to bring in enough officers to secure downtown at night. But that left fewer officers to work in the late afternoon.

The ideal solution would be for bars to voluntarily hire their own off-duty officers. But few bars have. The result, police officials say, is that a small segment of businesses are using up a disproportionate share of police resources.

"We don't want to make money," Foster said. "We just want to generate enough revenue to help offset the cost associated with providing a safe environment."

As for the size of the force, police Chief Chuck Harmon said Thursday that the city can't afford more officers in this budget climate. It takes $100,000 to hire, train and equip each new officer. As of last month, St. Petersburg had 525 officers and 13 new ones about to hit the streets.

The council discussed one example of a club that has disappointed police: Scene Premium Night Club at 211 Third St. S. That's where two men were shot and wounded on Feb. 8. Police complained that the club reeked of marijuana — and still does. The club's promises to bolster security are as yet unfulfilled.

Newton said he can't imagine why any owner would ignore security: "They could get shot, too."

Foster cautioned the council not to go overboard on security demands. Violence isn't restricted to just bars and clubs, the mayor said, or their patrons.

"It's a balance," the mayor said, "and you guys have to figure out that balance."

The ordinance unveiled Thursday was a "kitchen sink" compilation of possible remedies. The council will have to decide what the final ordinance will look like, and will invite the owners of the bars and clubs to weigh in.

"Before we do anything, I definitely want to hear from the bar owners," Kennedy said. "I want to be careful about doing something here in the ivory tower that concerns something on the streets."

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