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When a fight broke out at Solly’s U Street Tavern on Jan. 7, 2007, owner John Solomon immediately rushed down from the bar’s second floor and instructed his staff to call the police. They didn’t have to. “They were already here,” Solomon says. Amid the 80 or so patrons at the bar that night, 14 were off-duty police officers.
The altercation began around 1:30 a.m. The victim, who asked not to be identified, says he was at the bar, located at 1942 11th St. NW, to celebrate a friend’s engagement. “It was a really low-key evening,” he says.
Low-key, that is, until he and his friends tried to leave. The victim doesn’t remember how the fight began, but there was “some shoving,” he says. It ended with him being clobbered on the head by a beer bottle. “I didn’t think it was a big problem at first,” he says. Then he felt blood trickle down the back of his neck. At that point, “I realized it was a big problem.”
According to Solomon, cops often visit the bar, which he and his wife opened a year ago. “Before we took over, this was a really bad corner,” he says. “We’ve kind of worked with the police to make this a much safer corner.” On-duty officers stop by Solly’s, which is close to the Third District police headquarters, approximately twice a week to check on the place, he says. They sometimes stop by when they’re off duty as well. The night of the fight, for example, two of the area’s Police Service Area (PSA) officers had come by with a batch of new recruits to celebrate the end of training. “They brought ’em in and bought ’em each a beer. It was just a nice thing to do for new recruits,” Solomon says.
It was lucky for the bar owner, too. By the time Solomon arrived at the scene, the cops already had the situation under control. One of the officers was administering first aid to the victim, he says, while the other was tending to the assailant. “They had the person who committed the assault subdued and then waved down a cruiser,” he says. The victim was transported to Howard University Hospital.
Solomon, who lives about a block from his business, says that he and his wife strive to foster an environment where neighbors feel comfortable, so “that sort of thing really, really upsets me.” He became even more upset when, more than eight months after the incident, he received a letter from the Alcoholic Beverage Control board summoning him to discuss it at a hearing. The letter, dated Sept. 20, said the board would consider whether to suspend or revoke his license, a prospect Solomon found both confusing and frightening. “I was in a panic,” he says. “I thought I did the right thing. All I get was the notice in the mail. It scared me.”
He isn’t the only one. According to Skip Coburn, executive director of the D.C. Nightlife Association, many liquor licensees worry that calling the cops when incidents occur may lead to repercussions from the alcohol administration, especially now that the two agencies are in such close contact. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration director Maria Delaney says that in the past few years, ABRA and the police have tried to improve communication. Now, whenever police are called to a liquor-licensed establishment, she says, the police department is supposed to fax over the police reports (known as “251s”) that chronicle everything from stolen purses to stabbed patrons. When the incidents relate to the establishment’s liquor license, she says, ABRA will launch an investigation. Those investigations, she says, can result in ABC board actions.
And that’s a problem, Coburn says, because the officers who write the reports usually don’t mention whether the club acted responsibly by contacting the police or defusing potential violence. “The police department sends that 251 to ABRA, which says ‘disorderly, drunken person,’” he says. “It doesn’t say the club did all the right things.” Coburn says he would like to see the reports become more detailed, noting whether a club deserves credit, blame, or was not involved in whatever prompted police attention in the first place. He says he’s corresponded with police chief Cathy Lanier about the subject and plans to discuss the issue with other police department officials as well.
Police spokesperson Traci Hughes, however, says the cops rely on club owners to give them the details about an incident at or near their establishments. “Everything that is conveyed by the club owner about why police were called in the first place goes into the 251,” she says. “We put as much information as possible into the report, but we rely on the club owners or club managers to give us that information.”
Hughes says the reports themselves testify to a licensee’s initiative. “The implication is that if a report is written, the club owner called the police,” she says, adding that ABRA can choose to interpret that as a proactive move on the club’s part. “The police cannot make an assessment about whether a club has acted responsibly. That’s the role of ABRA,” she says.
Delaney cautions that not calling the authorities can make matters worse for establishment owners: She says the board always considers whether an establishment contacts the police in its deliberations and urges all bars and clubs to call the cops whenever violence occurs. Solomon, meanwhile, is urging ABRA to soften the language in its letters. At the very least, he says, not all communiqués from the agency should use words like “suspension” and “revocation.” (He ultimately received neither.) “The process doesn’t have to be intimidating,” he says.
He also worries that the hot line between the police and ABRA results in a disincentive for bar and club owners to call the cops. “They want us to call the police whenever there’s an incident,” he says. “You’re risking having your license taken away or going on permanent record.”
Lieven DeGeyndt, co-owner of Eyebar at 1716 I St. NW, echoes Solomon’s concerns. “It’s been a big problem for club owners for a long time,” he says. Often, he says, the fights that occur in clubs have domestic roots. “If you were at the club, and your boyfriend went psycho on you, we call the cops for you,” he says. “It’s annoying to be proactive and later…be penalized or have your proactiveness held against you based on just paperwork.”