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October 24, 2014

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Joe Downtown: Police crackdown on Fremont East after First Friday raises questions

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

The East Fremont Street district is seen at sunset Wednesday, April 3, 2013.

Fremont Street Enforcement - July 2013

Officer I. Williams cards Christopher Stovner, 22, in the Fremont East District on Friday, July 5, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Two bars were closed for 24 hours, dozens were arrested, some for outstanding felony warrants, and several more were cited for underage drinking as about two dozen police, some on horseback, sifted through a massive crowd on Fremont East Friday night.

The action followed months of worry by police and Fremont East business owners about the growing crowds, particularly on the night that First Friday is held in the downtown Arts District. Many of those who attend the monthly art walk — a mile to the southwest, it draws some 30,000 people — migrate to Fremont East later in the night.

On those nights, a typical scene on Fremont East includes hundreds of young people drinking and hanging out on the sidewalk in a one-block area where eight bars and restaurant/bars do business.

Though in the midst of redevelopment, downtown Las Vegas borders a poor section of the city. So many who flock to the street on First Friday don't want to spend money inside the bars, but come to enjoy the party atmosphere on the street, bringing their own booze with background music supplied by the bars.

Business owners have complained in the past about not enough police presence on those nights, the fear being that a shooting or other violence will cause irreparable damage to the area's improving reputation. Police responded last month by beefing up their numbers.

Last Friday, Sheriff Doug Gillespie and other top Metro administrators spent hours on the street taking in the scene. One public official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, speculated that had the sheriff not been there, enforcement might not have been as strong.

"When you've got the boss down there, they're all trying to show off," the person said.

A Metro spokesman said the department is simply trying to be more proactive.

"Right now, we are increasing enforcement … to prevent an escalation of violence," said Officer Bill Cassell. "We're trying to get ahead of it."

By the end of the night, police had arrested 54 people, Cassell said. Of those, 17 arrests were for outstanding warrants including some felonies (exact numbers were not available), 13 were for alcohol-related allegations, three for narcotics, five for disturbing the peace, and 16 for "other" reasons.

In addition, officers from Metro's Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws program were part of the enforcement action. Metro said that of 181 people stopped, eight, or about 4.5 percent, were cited for underage drinking. Another 22 citations were issued for alcohol-related offenses.

Between 2:30 a.m. and 3 a.m. Saturday morning, the Vanguard Lounge and Beauty Bar were shut down by police. Operators of both establishments said police closed them for 24 hours.

"They said if I opened again on Saturday, they'd take me to jail," said Kevin Griffin, Beauty Bar manager. He estimated he lost $2,500 in revenue by not opening Saturday night. His employees lost money, too, by not being able to work that night.

"Our rent is pretty high," Griffin added. "So that now comes out of my pocket, out of the owner's pocket, out of the worker's pockets. And there was nothing going on—no hassles, no fights, no reason police were drawn to our place. They just wanted to close down the street."

Jennifer Metzger, Vanguard owner, said she also lost thousands of dollars after Metro forced her to close for 24 hours.

"I was upset, I was taken off guard completely," she added. "We're coming up on our three-year anniversary, and I've never ever had that experience."

Officer Cassell said both bars were closed after being deemed a "public nuisance," largely due to the fact that both played music loud enough to be heard outside. Beauty Bar has done so for most of its eight-year existence, as it has an outdoor stage in back by an alley where bands from around the country play regularly.

After Friday night, Metzger met with Councilman Bob Coffin, who represents the area. Coffin said police didn't cite Metzger for being a public nuisance but because one or more of her security guards didn't have a work card.

He has also spoke to Metro officials and said police have the power to close a business in an emergency or when they perceive the emergence of a crowd-control issue. He added, however, police had the option of shutting them down for only eight hours.

"(The businesses) think Metro came down too hard or too fast," Coffin added. "We need to establish better protocols so everybody is on the same page down the road."

He also supports ongoing police enforcement of open container laws, at least until people stop bringing open bottles of liquor and 12-packs of beer and drinking it on the sidewalks.

Police activity with crowds on Fremont East is a relatively new phenomenon, coinciding with the evolution of the street as a bar-hopping hotspot. Downtown Project redevelopment is ongoing, including several bar/restaurants on the way. Meanwhile, some 2,000 people begin working in the area in the next few months — 800 at Downtown Grand hotel/casino (formerly Lady Luck) and 1,500 to Zappos' new headquarters (in the former City Hall) — so policing issues are bound to continue.

Coffin said most can be resolved "through negotiation."

"Sometimes success comes at a price," he added. "It's become so successful so fast, measures to maintain some control haven't come along as quickly."

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