Credit: Illustration by Max Kornell

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A decade ago at the 9:30 Club, security didn’t just mean keeping order during rowdy rock shows. It meant keeping employees safe during the day. When the “new” 9:30 Club opened its doors at 815 V St. NW in 1996 (the original at 930 F St. NW opened in 1980), bar manager Jean Homza says the surrounding neighborhood resembled “an industrial park.” So the club hired police to patrol the area. They even kept watch over employees’ parked cars.

The 9:30 Club loved its police detail so much that when Charles Ramsey, the police chief at the time, said clubs could no longer directly hire officers to patrol their premises, 9:30 decided it would rather give up being a club than give up its cops.

After a year with no cops at all, 9:30 changed its liquor license. “We actively pursued a change in license so we could hire our own officers,” Homza testified at a hearing of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment April 18.

In 2005, 9:30 switched from a nightclub license, defining it as “a place serving both alcoholic beverages and food, which may provide music and dancing” to a multipurpose license, which includes venues like the Warner Theatre and the National Theatre. It’s also the license held by the Washington Convention Center and the National Press Club. Keeping its cops wasn’t the only reason 9:30 changed its license, Homza says, but it was an important one.

According to those involved in the debate at the time, Ramsey halted the practice of liquor licensees directly hiring overtime officers because he feared the cops might be too friendly with club owners or customers. According to Ward 1 councilmember Jim Graham, Ramsey worried things would “get too cozy, too much of a socializing opportunity.” Ramsey also prohibited police officers from working inside ABC establishments.

Now, “reimbursable detail” officers are dispatched to patrol the public space outside certain bustling nightlife zones. The officers stationed outside of Love nightclub in Northeast and on 18th Street between Kalorama Street and Columbia Road in Adams Morgan, among other areas, are part of these reimbursable details.

Under the current system, club and bar owners, either individually or in groups, pay extra for overtime officers to keep the peace outside their establishments. Because licensees are barred from paying officers directly, they make their checks payable to D.C. Treasury. The typical rate for reimbursable detail officers is $55.71 an hour, which includes “indirect” costs for radios and the like, Assistant Chief Brian Jordan testified at the April 18 hearing. MPD then draws from the D.C. Treasury fund to compensate a revolving cadre of officers who work outside the bars and clubs according to their individual overtime pay rates. Unless they’re responding to a specific incident inside the club, reimbursable detail officers have to stay outside.

In Adams Morgan, the number of officers working the reimbursable detail changes according to the season but usually ranges from about two to four on Friday and Saturday nights, says Anne-Marie Bairstow, executive director of the Adams Morgan Business Improvement District. The BID pays for overtime officers to work on the 18th Street strip. At Love, between five and 30 officers can be employed on a given night, depending on the event scheduled, Barnes testified.

Reimbursable details get mixed reviews. “It definitely helps because it allows the regular [Police Service Area] officers to deal with other issues they need to attend to,” says Officer Andrew Zabavsky. “It’s better not to tie officers up from regular patrol to deal with issues that are germane to a particular club,” Commander Robert Contee says. And “they have made a solid difference” in making club zones more secure, says Graham.

But reimbursable details have come under scrutiny in recent months. When Taleshia Ford was killed by a stray bullet inside Smarta/Broadway at 1919 9th Street NW on Jan. 20, the two reimbursable detail officers who were hired by 9th Street businesses to patrol the block were processing an arrest elsewhere. Gregory J. Lattimer, attorney for Smart Aziken, the club’s owner, has said the shooting never would have happened if the officers had been posted on the block as they were supposed to be.

Graham calls Lattimer’s claim a “smoke screen.” After all, the gunman was inside the club when the fatal shot was fired. But he does advocate tweaking the way reimbursable details work. His bill, The Taleshia Ford Memorial Amendment Act of 2007, would make it possible for club owners to contract with individual officers once again, which he says would be less expensive for club owners and would improve security. “What’s at stake here…is to have a strong enough police presence to prevent crime from happening,” said Graham, who is chair of the public works committee, at the April 18 hearing. The bill was introduced in draft form for discussion at the hearing. A vote on the bill has not yet been scheduled.

Marc Barnes, owner of Love, favors hiring individual officers to work club zones. “We need to hire those officers,” he said at the hearing. “People don’t recognize security personnel the way they do a police officer.” And consistency boosts security, Barnes says in an interview. At Republic Gardens, the U Street nightclub he once owned, the same officers were used to monitor the entrance night after night. “They would be in the front, and they would see the problem people,” he says. If someone who had been banned from the club tried to sneak in, “the cops outside would know about it.”

Now, Barnes says, things are different. The officers stationed outside Love don’t know the crowd. Plus, the price is high, he says. Barnes says he pays more than $240,000 a year in reimbursable detail fees. “We just don’t want to be gouged,” he says. At the hearing, Graham suggested MPD subsidize reimbursable details so that clubs wouldn’t have to pay as much. “These zones are contributing so mightily to the [revenue] of the city. I think this is such a minimal expenditure.”

But police chief Cathy Lanier isn’t convinced it’s time to let clubs contract directly with officers. In a statement read aloud by Jordan at the hearing, Lanier testified, “In October 1998, members of this Council led the Special Committee on Police Misconduct & Personnel Management…in studying the issue of officers working off-duty for ABC licensed establishments. The Special Committee found that it is a conflict of interest for officers to work for ABC establishments.”

That committee report cites “one tragic case study” in particular. In February 1997, Officer Brian Gibson was murdered by an Ibex club patron while sitting in a police cruiser outside the establishment. The patron had “just been ejected by a police officer who was working there off-duty,” the report says. Following the report, Lanier wrote, Council passed legislation prohibiting off-duty officers from working directly for bars and clubs. “I have not seen any evidence that this law is less relevant today,” she wrote in her testimony.

Alcohol board chair Charles Burger also expressed concerns about Graham’s proposal. “Specifically, the Board is concerned that having an MPD officer directly rely upon a licensee for income will hamper the MPD officer’s ability or willingness to proactively take enforcement action against the licensee, which the board has seen occur on a limited scale with ‘details,’ ” Burger testified. If the bill is passed and the proposed changes to reimbursable details go through, Burger continued, “It is imperative that the Council takes steps to ensure that the conflicts of interest that previously existed when off-duty officers worked directly for ABC establishments do not reoccur.”

Barnes says that’s fine by him. He recognizes that “an officer is not necessarily going to go against me if I’m the one paying his salary. But, he says, impropriety and corruption can be avoided through oversight. “It’s just like ABRA. You have somebody to monitor what we do….There are some bad officers, and there are some bad nightclub owners. But there are a lot of good officers and a lot of good nightclub owners….Everybody gets a few bad apples, but it’s what you do with those bad apples. Do you throw them away, or do you serve them to the public?”

Graham said he was willing to place his trust in the police and club owners. “I’d rather believe most police are ethical,” he said at the hearing.

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