Fresno Club Owners Accuse PD of Abusing Power

August 9, 2008 1:12:33 PM PDT
Serious accusations are being raised over the ethics and legality of a Fresno Police Department program.For the past several years the departments Problem Oriented Police, or POP team has offered uniformed, on-duty officers to serve as security personnel at various restaurants and nightclubs.

But some owners and attorneys say the department pressures them to hire the officers, and if they don't the owners claim they are subjected to harassment and charged with code violations.

Attorney Jonathan Netzer represents Jay Ghazal, owner of the "M" Nightclub in Fresno's Tower District. Netzer says the police practice violates state law. He says Ghazal refused Police suggestions to hire contract officers at "M" and at his restaurant in North Fresno, called "Samba." Netzer says, "As a result of Jay's refusal to hire Fresno Police Department to act as his private security guards he's had the ABC, (Alcohol and Beverage Control) come through numerous times, he's had code enforcement come through, he's been given citations for what I think are nit-picking and incorrect purposes all designed to harass him into either closing down his business or hiring Fresno Police Officers to come in and be what in effect would be private security but on-duty police officers."

On Thursday police revoked Ghazal's Dance License, citing building code violations. The revocation seriously limits the clubs business operations.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer says inspectors, "Determined there had been significant structural modifications to the business including electrical which was in violation of their permit because they didn't receive any type of city permits to do those modifications. That is a clear violation. We were asked by the City Attorney's office to serve them with a revocation of their dance permit."

Dyer denies any pressure on nightclub owners to hire police officers. He says, "We don't make any type of mandate for businesses to hire Fresno Police officers. We do require they have a security plan. Part of those security plans require security at those locations. It's totally up to them if they choose to hire Fresno Police officers, another agency or private company. We leave that decision solely up to the business owner."

But Jay Ghazal says he was asked directly to hire the officers. "Yeah, they've asked me. Absolutely. " He says.

Former club owner and manager Jeremy Dobbins says he had the same issues with Fresno Police at four clubs he was involved with, Soho, The Red Room, North Point and Citron. Of police, Dobbins says, "They don't like large groupings of people to come together. Makes them work, so in order to make it worth their while they try to get you to hire their contract police officers, they'll make you hire two to four usually, and that'll keep them away for the most part."

And Dobbins says, once he started hiring officers, he often had to add more. He says, "Many of them are looking for something that's wrong so they can they can require you to have more officers so they can double it from two to four, or four to six, it's just really unfair."

Under an agreement with the Fresno Police Officers Association, the department has a pool of officers who can be selected for these contract assignments. The bar owner is required to pay them one and a half times their hourly police wage. So having two officers on duty for a few hours would cost between $250 and $400 a night.

Dobbins says the police would claim they had complaints, or "calls for service" at the clubs. Those calls for service can come from citizens, or from police officers themselves, using those calls as a reason to suggest protection. As Dobbins puts it, police typically say, " When you're open our calls for service are higher and we need more police resources. So, if you don't hire us, we're going to shut you down."

Attorney Jonathan Netzer claims the practice has caused some bars and clubs to go under. He says, "There are other restaurants and clubs that have been subjected to this, that have been closed because of this."

But Chief Dyer challenges Netzer's claim. And accuses Netzers law partner, attorney Ron Sawl of being behind a campaign to discredit the police department. Dyer says,"That is a misrepresentation by Ron Sawl, and that is an ongoing complaint he has because he has his own private security company."

Dyer says Sawl regards the contract police services as competition. But Sawl denies that, saying his security company is not involved in providing security services to bars and restaurants.

One bar and restaurant owner we contacted says he's happy hiring police officers. Jessy Mendoza who operates "Salsa" in the same Northwest Fresno Shopping Center as Ghazal's "Samba" restaurant, says he hires the officers whenever he thinks he might need them and has never been pressured by police. He says,"I like using them, I have a good relationship with them, they take care of my spot, and I don't have any problems. It's good insurance."

Ghazal has filed an appeal over the revocation of his dance license and he and Netzer and Sawl will appear at a City Hall hearing next week.

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