Testimony of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance
on Bill 12-816,
The Metropolitan Police Department Management Reform Act of 1998
Presented by Franklin Kameny and Rick Rosendall
D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary
Jack Evans, Chair
November 20, 1998
Since the so-called "fairy-shaking" extortion scandal broke a year ago, involving Lt. Jeffrey Stowe, there has been a loss of trust for the police in our community. We have been determined to rebuild that trust, because the safety of the gay, lesbian, and transgender community depends upon it. Recently, we have worked with our colleagues in Gay Men and Lesbians Opposing Violence; served on the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Selection of a Chief of Police; worked on the NAACP Police Task Force, along with the ACLU, the National Black Police Association, and others; and met with Chief Ramsey just last week, and earlier this year with the Homicide Commander. As you know, Mr. Evans, we have also helped write legislation related to public safety. Our approach has therefore been a multi-valent one, including both oversight efforts and public policy formulation.
Our concerns about one aspect of the bill currently before the committee will be presented by Dr. Kameny.
[Franklin E. Kameny:] Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee on the Judiciary:
We are here to testify today in strong opposition to certain provisions of Title II. Regulation of Off-Duty Employment, subtitled the Police Officers Outside Employment Amendment Act of 1998 of the Bill 12-816 - Metropolitan Police Department Management Reform Act of 1998, presently before you.
While we certainly support effective reasonable regulation of off-duty employment of MPD officers, we object strongly to certain restrictions being placed upon the site of that employment,
Specifically, we take issue with the proposed prohibitions found in Section 203(b) against employment in (1) ABC-regulated establishments and (2) sexually-oriented establishments, and urge that those prohibitions be deleted from this legislation.
We see no reason for distinguishing between these lawfully-operating types of business and all other lawfully-operating types of business.
We are told, in Section 202 of the Bill, that employment of police officers in ABC licensed establishments may create a conflict of interest because the officers are duty bound to enforce liquor regulations, such as those on underage drinking, which is criminal. But sale of cigarettes to persons under 18 years of age is also criminal. Are we then going to prohibit the assignment of off-duty officers to Safeways, 7-Elevens, drug stores, and countless other businesses which sell cigarettes? Under the pseudo-logic being imposed here, we would have to.
If a particular ABC-licensed establishment would find it helpful to hire an off-duty police officer to help maintain order, either inside the establishment or outside, and an officer is available to be hired, it is to the good of all and to the detriment of none that the officer be hired. Since some of these larger, lawfully-operating ABC-licensed establishments are among those most in need of police protection beyond what the MPD can provide, it defies reason that they should be the ones specially singled out to be denied that protection. It is certainly not in the best interests of the citizens of the District that protection be denied them by a City Council and a police department which exist to protect them, not to enhance the danger to which they may be subjected, as this proposed legislation would incontrovertibly do.
At least Bill 12-816 attempts, in Section 202(7) to provide a rationale, as weak as it is, for prohibiting employment of MPD officers in ABC establishments. Those drafting the Bill do not show even that much responsibility in prohibiting such employment by sexually-oriented businesses. Without predicate, preamble, or the common decency of an explanation or a finding, that utterly irrational prohibition is just simply imposed. These are legal establishments, legally operating. Why should they be placed into second-class status? What other businesses, without rhyme or reason are going to be subjected to similar disadvantage, simply because someone does not like them? Last week, during a friendly meeting with Chief Ramsey, at which this was one of only two points of disagreement, we pointedly and forcefully raised the question of the rationale for this exclusion. All we got in return was an expression of feeling by the Chief that such employment would be unseemly (our word, not his, but you just heard him say much the same thing here a few minutes ago). That is not sufficient reason for placing legitimate businesses under significant discriminatory disadvantage. Puritanism is out of style in 1998; do not lead the District back to 1698 and the Salem witchcraft trials.
We recognize that Chief Ramsey favors both these exclusions. However, as we understand his position, he will comply with the law as it comes down to him from the Council. We strongly urge the Council to reconsider the prohibitions on these two forms of off-duty employment by MPD officers, and amend Bill 12-816 to permit such employment.
By way of illustration of the need for the services of off-duty police officers, at just these kinds of establishments, I would like to discourse at some length on one particular situation which, however, can be generalized to other areas and establishments, gay and non-gay alike. My testimony is as a knowledgeable customer or patron of these establishments over the years. I understand that others will testify today from the viewpoint of businessmen and off-duty officers in the same area.
Around 1970, at the beginning of the discotheque era, some gay businessmen wanted to open what were then called "superbars" commonplace now, but pioneering then. Then-Police Chief Jerry Wilson was uncomfortable with the idea of large gay establishments downtown, and managed to exile them to the factory-warehouse area off South Capitol Street, above Buzzards Point, west of the Navy Yard, north to I Street, SE. Over the decades since, that developed into the nightclub-entertainment area now found in that otherwise unlikely part of the city, attracting thousands of people on an average night, and providing the City with sizable tax revenue. The establishments are mostly gay, although one large nightclub is presently non-gay, and another is significantly mixed. There is also one large, privately-operated community service establishment in the area. There are almost no residents at all in the area, although there are residents nearby.
Within that larger area is one particular sub-area which is my subject. The entire block of O Street, SE, between South Capitol Street and Half Street, SE, on the north side, corner to corner, corners included and around onto Half Street, consists almost solely of gay business establishments though I have just learned that there is now one non-gay establishment on the block. Two of these (one of which is a large nightclub) are bars licensed for nude dancing one at each corner. One is a gay movie theater which also features live nude dancers from time to time. One is a health club; one can be characterized as a video arcade. The bars, of course, operate at times prescribed by law; some of the other establishments are open 24 hours per day. Estimates by one of the businessmen indicate that the street attracts about 1000 customers on an average night. The customers are orderly, both inside and outside the establishments, and over many years, there have been no problems at all (to my knowledge) with violent, disorderly, or illegal conduct on the part of customers. There is extensive on-street parking in the immediate neighborhood.
Immediately to the west, just across South Capitol Street is a rather rough neighborhood, which has been a source of problems for customers outdoors on O Street, including at least one fatal shooting, many years ago, and possibly a second. Additionally, an assortment of vagrants prey upon both customers on foot and on their cars, sometimes threateningly.
Quite a number of years ago, the businessmen on O Street, pitched in and hired off-duty policemen. This worked well. I was a far more frequent customer there, then, than I am now, and I always felt protected and comfortable. Then, in 1993, there was an ill-advised police raid on the Follies Movie Theater, there, leading to about two years of litigation, ultimately thrown out of court. During the pendency of that litigation, the police department saw fit to prohibit service by off-duty police officers on the block. The situation deteriorated badly, and customers felt uncomfortable. Following the conclusion of the litigation, off-duty officers returned, and the situation improved. Currently, for reasons which will be discussed by other witnesses, there are significant problems once again.
The picture is clear. There are a large number of orderly, law-abiding customers of legally-operating establishments, who require more protection than the MPD is routinely capable of providing. The businesspeople have shouldered their responsibility to their customers, and with the cooperation of off-duty police officers, have gone a long way toward resolving the problems. Now the City Council is preparing to pull the rug out from under us for no persuasive reasons. We do object.
If O Street, then elsewhere.
That these are a mixture of ABC-regulated and sexually-oriented businesses is absolutely irrelevant to anything related to the matter before us.
Delete the prohibition presently proposed in Bill 12-816 against employment of off-duty police officers by ABC establishments, and sexually-oriented businesses.
Thank you. We are open for questions.
[Rick Rosendall:] Mr. Chairman, let me just add a few comments here. Chief Ramsey said in his testimony that his concern in this is not about morality. But it certainly sounds like it to me. The Chief also said that, "Any place rowdy enough to need the constant presence of a police officer, we ought to be considering revoking their license." This sounds dangerously close to blaming the victim. The businesses Frank has talked about are having problems with their customers being harassed outside their premises. To suggest that they themselves are causing their problems, and to suggest revoking their licenses in response, will make them think twice about calling 911 in an emergency, for fear that they will be blamed unfairly for the problem. Surely the Council does not intend to discourage them from trying to work with the police to improve the safety of their customers.
I would like to add one point in response to a question raised by Dorothy Brizill earlier. She asked why only felonies in D.C. are specified as a bar to potential police applicants. I would observe that there are still 18 states that criminalize private, consensual, non-commercial acts of sodomy. We in D.C. went to a lot of trouble to abolish our own sodomy laws over five years ago, and we would raise quite a furor if we learned that a police applicant was turned away because he had been convicted, say, in Mississippi of something that we don't think should be a crime. So we are happy with that wording as it stands.
[Franlin Kameny:] All felonies are not felonies. You have to look at them more carefully.
[A brief colloquy ensued, in which Rosendall thanked Councilmember Ambrose for her proactive efforts on behalf of the gay community, particularly the business owners and customers in the vicinity of Half and O Streets, SE. Councilmembers Evans, Patterson, and Ambrose thanked Kameny and Rosendall for their testimony.]