Police ponder security tax

A new “weekend entertainment tax” proposed by New Haven Police Department Chief James Lewis has some local night club owners questioning not just their own approaches to security, but those of their peers.

Lewis’ proposed tax, described by the chief as an opportunity to “provide the [New Haven Police] Department more flexibility in deployment,” would provide funding to create a dedicated, stabilized force to patrol the downtown area on weekends, particularly around clubs on Crown Street. Though the issue of downtown security is a perpetual one, Lewis’ idea for a collective security force worries many club owners, who say they are more comfortable tailoring security to their individual needs.

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Currently, clubs hire police officers to patrol their clubs in case of a violent outburst and pay their salaries directly, with the going rate for an overtime officer set at about $225 per five hours of work. Club owners like Brian Phelps of Toad’s Place regularly hire as many as six officers per night, who work in conjunction with the venue’s own bouncers and security guards.

When thousands of people crowd the city’s bars and nightclubs on a given weekend, Lewis said, serious public safety problems are created — from street fights to noise pollution to vandalism. Because not all businesses open late on the weekends privately hire police protection, NHPD resources can be stretched thin, Lewis explained. An entertainment tax would force businesses to contribute to collective security.

Phelps said he believes a tax like the one Lewis proposes is not workable for a club like his, considering the fact that Toad’s Place is a music venue open seven days a week, and police officers are needed based on the size and demographic of the audience attracted from night to night. While Phelps said he believes Toad’s Place’s current arrangement is best for him, the NHPD and his patrons, he acknowledged that collective security efforts could be successful on the neighborhood level.

“It might be good for the Crown Street area, because you have a whole bunch of clubs that are close together and set up the same way and open the same nights, Thursday through Saturday,” Phelps said. “It would be easier for them, because the cops could patrol a whole bunch of them [at once]. But we’re not close enough. We’re four blocks away.”

Phelps’ concern — that his venue is not located close enough to the epicenter of New Haven’s nightlife to take advantage of a new NHPD deployment — is shared by other club managers, such as the Ivy Lounge’s Mike Grappone. The Ivy Lounge, like Toad’s Place, hires extra police security based upon the projected size of a crowd on a given night, “how the crowd’s going to be and if there could be any trouble,” Grappone said.

Grappone said no serious violence has erupted at Ivy Lounge since its opening in September, but he acknowledged that this is not the case for many other night clubs in New Haven. A patron’s appearance and attitude are often indicative of their behavior once inside the club, said Grappone, who credited his strict door-patrolling procedures for the relative peace he said Ivy Lounge has enjoyed.

“I tell my guys that if they see someone who looks like they’ll be a problem, keep them out,” Grappone said. “Because 90 percent of the time, they will be a problem.”

Two weeks ago, NHPD officer Krzysztof Ruszczyk was head butted while breaking up a fight outside Gotham Citi Cafe at Church and Crown streets and sustained a cut to the head that required medical attention. Phelps said this incident was symptomatic of a larger problem with club security in New Haven and with Lewis’ proposal.

If a club has understaffed its security forces or neglected to hire police officers altogether and violence erupts on their premises, a neighbor’s hired police forces will almost always intervene. When clubs see their hired officers stepping in elsewhere, owners are left feeling as though they are “paying for somebody else’s problems,” Phelps said. Even if Lewis’ plan is put into action, Phelps said he thought the new patrol would cluster around the Crown Street area and leave him more understaffed than before.

But Lewis said security is a citywide concern, not one confined to certain districts.

“It would mean that everyone that is benefitting from this service, and would pay their fair share,” Lewis said in an e-mail Monday.

Lewis acknowledged that the imposition of a weekend entertainment tax is beyond the scope of his authority as police chief, and that any action on this matter would be the responsibility of elected officials and business people. The topic of downtown security will always be on the table; a Night Life Safety Task Force, for example, was first convened in March to discuss how best to promote a “vibrant and safe” downtown scene.

Board of Alderman President Carl Goldfield agreed with Lewis’ judgment of the situation, but said that though the Board of Aldermen would be responsible for pursuing the tax, the final decision rests with the state legislature.

“As a city, we are restricted to taxing in accordance with the means established by the State of Connecticut,” Goldfield said. “It would take a lobbying effort at the state level to get permission to do this.”

Goldfield said the board’s last attempt to lobby state legislature for such permission began in late 2003, when the board began pushing for public funding of New Haven’s mayoral election. Three years later, the legislature granted the board permission.

The idea of taxing night clubs appealed to Goldfield, but he said the effects of such a proposal would be far-reaching.

“If New Haven gets to do this and every bar owner across the sate gets nervous, that’s an ‘uh-oh,’ ” Goldfield said. “I can just imagine the Bar Owners’ Association lobbying the legislature, saying that this is unfair.”

For now, at least, club owners and managers said they will continue to hire police officers on a night-to-night basis.

Said Grappone: “Managers and owners have been in the industry long enough to decide what they want for security based on the crowd they invite in.”

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