Nuisance bars: Violent, noisy, often difficult to close

Police outside Rose Lounge on Hunting Park Avenue near 16th, after man was shot dead in January.
Police outside Rose Lounge on Hunting Park Avenue near 16th, after man was shot dead in January.
Posted: April 08, 2011

PAST A SEA of empty 40-ounce beer bottles that litter a neighboring lot, patrons enter the dimly lit T&J's Lounge in East Germantown through a broken glass door lined with duct tape.

On a recent evening, a crowd of mostly men perched themselves atop lopsided bar stools with torn cushions and shot the breeze.

"This is where we come after work to converse and kick it," said Winday Dawson, 40, an electrician who lives in the area.

But some nearby residents say that the longtime neighborhood hangout - the scene of a homicide in December - has become a big-time problem.

"It's a nuisance," said Josh Barber, 30, whose cousin, Damaine Barber, 35, was killed on Dec. 17 inside the bar on Boyer Street near Woodlawn Avenue. "I want to shut it down."

"They're always fighting, shooting and arguing," said Juwan Hunter, 44. "It's a 'hood bar. There's always something going on in there."

Of course, it's far from the only problem bar in the city. Already this year, 12 people have been killed inside or directly outside of bars. Only three had been killed at the same point last year.

With the increase in shootings, police districts have focused their attention on problem bars, especially at closing time.

But shuttering those truly troublesome bars is not something that happens quickly. It takes time, something that authorities blame on Pennsylvania's ineffective liquor laws.

Although police are forced to deal with numerous nuisance bars each weekend, the Public Nuisance Task Force - a unit of the District Attorney's Office - has shut down only three bars since 2008.

Neighbors in Frankford have been making complaints against the bar operating at 4691 Hawthorne St. for years, and Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, whose district includes the bar, has been working just as long to get it shut down.

But that wasn't enough to save the life of former Frankford High School football star Christopher Spence.

Spence, 20, died after he was was shot in the chest inside the bar, formerly known as the T&T Lounge, where he had ordered food Feb. 19. A month later, after the bar had been renamed Deuces Lounge, a group of protesters, including Spence's mom, were shot. Two were injured.

Bar manager Shamus Armstead was charged with aggravated assault, attempted murder and related offenses.

"The laws protect the business. Our hands are tied," said Quinones-Sanchez. "It's no different than the issue with guns. We are limited in what we can do locally to pursue establishments."

The PNTF filed a 611 action, a court order requesting that the bar be closed for up to a year. A court hearing has been scheduled for May 2.

"There was a history of violent incidents. There was a quality-of-life issue," said Assistant District Attorney Beth Grossman, chief of the PNTF. "Things really came to a violent head this year."

Closing a bar for good can take from two to four years, Grossman said. Building a case requires a generous number of complaints, citations, police reports and community involvement. PNTF files one to four 611 actions a year.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board can refuse to issue or renew a liquor license, but has no authority to close a bar.

The Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement investigates about 100 cases a month, said State Police Sgt. Bill LaTorre, but the bureau can only issue citations, conduct investigations and make arrests. An administrative-law judge can suspend or revoke a liquor license based on the citations brought against licensees by the bureau.

"The neighborhood has to be victimized for a matter of time in order for us to go into court," LaTorre said. "That's the system that's in place right now. The legislators need to look at the laws and update them. Until the law gets changed, nothing is going to change."

State Rep. Michael O'Brien, D-Phila., said he is drafting legislation in the next two weeks that would give State Police, under certain circumstances, the authority to suspend a liquor license for violations.

"Liquor laws need to really be tightened up," O'Brien said. "There have to be entertainment venues, but they have to be safe."

Although it still takes time to deal with problem bars, some local lawmakers say that the PNTF has done plenty of good since its inception in 1992.

"Everybody wants [to close problem bars] like yesterday," said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. "But you have to stay on them. Diligence is what works."

Diligence is what led to the closure of Club Jaguar, one of the three bars shuttered by PNTF since 2008.

"This was a wonderful example of neighbors banding together to make change," Grossman said. "Neighbors had a big problem."

Grossman pointed to drug sales and a rash of shootings inside and outside the club. After at least three people were killed, officials sought a temporary restraining order against the bar. Its owners sold the property and the license in 2008.

"It's tragic we have to lose a life in order to create enough of a paper trail," Quinones-Sanchez said. "The city needs more power to combat these nuisance bars."

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