Under a pilot program set up in 2011, the City of Providence has allowed seven nightclubs located within a restricted geographic area to remain open until 3 a.m. on weekends. In 2012, the Board of Licenses closed down one of these clubs because of a massive street brawl that one police patrolman described as “pretty much a slaughterhouse.” Earlier this year, the Board revoked the license of a second club because of a double shooting. More recently, the Board penalized a third nightclub when a fight within the club turned into a street brawl.
City authorities have now asked the Board of Licenses to expand the scope of the “soft closing” rule. They want the Board to extend the mandatory weekend closing from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. for large nightclubs throughout the entire city. They have provided no analysis of the experience of the three-year-old pilot program. They have not identified the specific nightclubs that would be eligible. Many of these clubs may have a documented record of violence, underage drinking and noise violations. Many are likely to be in residential areas.
At its regular open meeting on June 12, the Board considered a request from the City Solicitor’s Office to schedule a public hearing on the proposed expansion of the soft closing rule. The Board voted unanimously not to schedule a public hearing until it had completed a thorough, two-month study of the proposal. Soft closing is far too important an issue. We cannot go blindly forward without understanding its consequences.
At the Board’s June 12 meeting, leaders of community groups, experts from colleges and universities, and some City Councilmen eloquently raised a large number of unanswered questions. Will the as-yet unidentified nightclubs have enough security personnel to ease patrons out at 3 a.m.? What forms of transportation will be available at that hour? Where can a club patron get food at 3 a.m.? What will be the economic impact on smaller clubs that do not qualify under the proposal? How can our police department, with its limited resources, realistically manage the extended 3 a.m. closings? The Public Safety Commissioner did not attend the Board’s hearing, and other police officials in attendance were not authorized to comment publicly. However, at other Board hearings, district commanders have testified that they presently don’t have the manpower to cover incidents of club-related violence within their own districts, let alone the entire city.
The City Solicitor’s Office has drafted a proposed list of requirements for those nightclubs eligible to close at 3 a.m. Extended hours will be limited to Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, as well as nights before holidays. During the final hour from 2 to 3 a.m., the music must be softer, the lights must be brighter, and no alcoholic beverages can be purchased. To prevent larger eligible clubs from stealing customers from smaller ineligible clubs, the Solicitor’s Office proposes that the doors of the larger clubs must be locked at 1 a.m.
Is compliance with these new regulations even remotely realistic? Week after week, the Board of Licenses hears alleged violations of city ordinances and state laws that prohibit noise pollution, bottle service, fighting and other public nuisances, as well as the operation of a nightclub without a license. The City Solicitor’s Office currently has over forty cases of violations documented by the police that have yet to be brought before the Board. The Board’s license administrator, already understaffed, will have a whole new layer of regulations to monitor.
With its current 2 a.m. weekend closing, Providence is already an outlier that attracts nightclub goers from throughout the region. Unfortunately, some of these visiting club goers have violent propensities. The fact that they are unknown to our local police makes it harder to take preventive measures to stop fights before they start. With a 3 a.m. closing, eligible clubs will have an even stronger incentive to engage in “party more, party later” advertising, even though such advertising is illegal. That could further exacerbate our city’s violence problem.
To institute such a major change without adequate factual input from neighborhood groups, colleges and universities, developers and potential investors is simply irresponsible. If some of our city authorities believe that the extension of the soft closing will protect the public safety, let them make their case with facts.
Johanna Harris, an attorney, is Chair of the Providence Board of Licenses. On June 25, 2014, the Providence Journal published this post as an editorial commentary under the title “Johanna Harris: Providence must scrutinize ‘soft closings’.”
Copyright © 2014 Johanna Harris