Newsom wants more authority for party-crashing cops

Our March 23 cover story and other media reports on problems with the SFPD have been ignored by Newsom.

At a time of rising concern about police crackdowns on San Francisco nightlife – including the use of unprovoked brutality, selective harassment, and punitive property seizures – it would seem a strange time to call for abolishing the Entertainment Commission and returning its authority to the San Francisco Police Department. But Mayor Gavin Newsom has now called for doing just that.

Newsom last week refused calls to get involved with mediating a nasty dispute between the SFPD and nightlife workers and advocates, who have filed claims and lawsuits against the city alleging improper police behavior, including a racketeering lawsuit and another lawsuit alleging police retribution against promoter Arash Ghanadan for complaining about mistreatment, for which Police Chief George Gascon is scheduled for a video deposition on April 8 (other depositions involving Gascon and the undercover partners Officer Larry Bertrand and ABC agent Michelle Ott will follow in coming weeks).

The police crackdown, the subject of recent cover stories in both the Guardian and the SF Weekly, has been underway for more than a year and nightlife advocates say it is reminiscent of the arbitrary police enforcement against disfavored clubs and parties in the late 1990s that led to the creation of the Entertainment Commission in the first place.

Making Newsom’s new stance even more puzzling, the commission has been responsive to the overhyped criticism of the commission by nightlife critics, some politicians, and the San Francisco Chronicle and Examimer. The commission voted last night to suspend Suede for shooting out front, a decision that Board of Supervisors President David Chiu (whose North Beach constituents have put pressure on him to rein in problem clubs) cast as a litmus test for the commission, and one it apparently passed. In addition, Commissioner Terrance Alan, who had been criticized for his conflicts of interest, last week announced that he will be stepping down from the commission when his term expires in June. 

“Isn’t anyone paying attention? It’s really got me baffled,” Alan said of the continuing calls to kill the commission. “I don’t know what this is about.”

He isn’t the only one. Commissioner Jim Meko, who had been critical of the commission’s industry-heavy makeup and reluctance to take aggressive action against problem clubs, told the Chronicle that turning permitting and enforcement over to the cops would be much worse.

Sen. Mark Leno, who as a supervisor created the commission back in 2002, agrees. He told us that he opposes the change proposed by Newsom.

“I strongly believe the original reasons for the creation of the commission, an inherent conflict in having the same body that enforces licensing to also issue those licenses, remains,” Leno told us.

Leno also noted that it was only in November that the Board of Supervisors voted to give the commission more authority to suspend the licenses of problem clubs, which they used with Suede, delivering the maximum penalty possible: a 30-day suspension.  

“If they just gave them additional authority, let’s give it a little time to work out before we talk about disbanding them,” Leno said. He also noted that it’s strange to see the mayor and supervisors criticizing the industry-heavy makeup of the commission considering that they’re the one who make those appointments: “That’s in the hands of the board and the mayor.”

Neither Chiu nor Newsom have returned our calls seeking comment, but several Guardian sources with long involvement in the conflict between the SFPD and the nightlife community say the cops – particularly hardasses like Commander James Dudley, who has often made comments critical of nightlife and its promoters -- have long sought to have more power over nightclub, private parties, and the citizens who attend them.

But until there is a fair airing of and resolution to the trend of overzealous and belligerent enforcement actions by the SFPD, any move to give that agency more authority to kill the fun in San Francisco is likely to be met with heavy opposition.


UPDATE: David Chiu just got back to me, saying Newsom hadn’t consulted him before taking his stand and telling us, “I don’t agree that we need to abolish the commission.”

But as the supervisor from a sometimes-rowdy district that includes a couple of clubs where violence has occurred, Chiu does want to make some changes in how nightlife is governed in San Francisco, seeing a conflict between the Entertainment Commission’s role promoting nightlife and regulating it: “The Entertainment Commission has conflicting missions.”

Chiu said he would like to see nightclub permitting turned over to a body like the Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation (ISCOTT), which handles street closure permits and has representatives from several city agencies. It would exist alongside the Entertainment Commission, whose work Chiu said has become “overly politicized” in recent months.

At the same time, Chiu said, “I generally agree with” the Guardian’s coverage of the War of Fun, and said that he’s helped facilitate meetings with SFPD to deal with issues like the inappropriate police seizures of DJ’s laptops: “From my perspective, I want to make sure people’s civil rights aren’t being violated.”

But Chiu said the problem seems to lie more with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control than the SFPD: “It appears the ABC has been inappropriately cracking down on the mainstream venues that are trying to do the right thing.”

Chiu said there isn’t a pressing need to act quickly on the Entertainment Commission issue and said that he would work with Leno on the solution, something Leno confirmed, telling us, “I have had some conversations with David Chiu and I’m going to get more involved.”