Party people, watch out: undercover cop Larry Bertrand has declared war on San Francisco nightlife
For several years, the Guardian has been running regular stories chronicling what we've dubbed the Death of Fun, a trend of official crackdowns and shakedowns on people who throw parties and festivals in San Francisco. In the last year, that trend has started to morph into an often brutal War on Fun, with a growing list of atrocities and casualties associated with this overzealous new approach to killing the city's entertainment industry.
Why this is happening is baffling to those most affected: nightclub owners and workers, party promoters, DJs and VJs, fundraising activists, and people just out to have a good time without being harassed by a cop. But in recent months, we've learned much more about what's happening and who the main perpetrators are.
Two undercover enforcers have been at the center of just about every recent case of nightclubs or private parties being raided without warrants and aggressively shut down, their patrons roughed up (see "Fun under siege," 4/21/09) and their money, booze, and equipment punitively seized "as evidence" (see "Police seize DJs laptops," 11/24/09) even though few of these raids result in charges being filed in court.
Officer Larry Bertrand of the San Francisco Police Department's Southern Station and Michelle Ott, an agent with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, are plainclothes partners who spend their weekends undercover, crashing parties, harassing disfavored nightclubs, brutalizing party-goers, and trying to send the unmistakable message that they're in charge of San Francisco nightlife. Neither responded to our interview requests.
Isolated incidents of intolerant cops and NIMBY citizens who repeatedly complain about certain clubs or festivals has been a problem for years (see "Death of fun," 5/24/06 and "Death of fun, the sequel," 4/24/07). Top city officials have opted to cancel events such as Halloween in the Castro District rather than try to manage them better, and the nightlife community has tried to organize in defense of its interests (see "Fighting for the right to party," 7/1/08) with mixed results.
But the personal War of Fun by Bertrand and Ott seems to have galvanized and united the nightlife and festival community like never before, leading to the creation of a new California Music and Culture Association and prompting threats of a federal lawsuit alleging the ABC-SFPD collaboration is a racketeering scheme designed to harass, disrupt, and extort people engaged in otherwise lawful activity.
The myriad horror stories associated with Bertrand and Ott have also finally begun to draw attention from the Mayor's Office, which has quietly pushed the SFPD to rein in Bertrand and change its policies on raiding parties and seizing property. State Sen. Mark Leno also has gotten involved, brokering a March 12 meeting between club owners and Steve Hardy, director of ABC (which, in addition to cracking down on nightclubs — see "Busting bars," 6/23/09 — has recently announced a campaign against fruit-infused liquor).
"They were going to see how they could unwind this a bit," Leno told us, adding that he was "infuriated" by stories of abusive treatment of the public. "The fear that it spreads through the community is unacceptable."
The question now is what Hardy, Mayor Gavin Newsom, and Police Chief George Gascón — who has ordered some crackdowns and wants greater authority to discipline problem officers — is going to do about it.
It was after midnight on Jan. 31 when Krystal Peak, a journalist with San Francisco State University's Golden Gate Xpress, received a call from her managing editor. There was a commotion and a swarm of police cars outside a student party at Seventh and Minna streets near her home, and she was asked to investigate.
She came upon the aftermath of a melee between police and partygoers that had taken place after a fundraising event at a SoMa warehouse art space was upended. The benefit was organized to raise legal funds for students who staged a building occupation at the University of California at Berkeley, in defiance of budget cuts.
The event was clearly chaotic, and it's hard to sort out exactly what happened and when. City officials say the partiers were throwing bottles and firecrackers at the police; people at the event say the cops started it all.
But the tales partygoers tell about the behavior of Bertrand and Ott, the undercover enforcers, are similar to a series of other stories involving the pair, stories published in the Guardian and elsewhere.
There had been multiple arrests by the time Peak arrived on the scene. Numerous witnesses asserted that things were going along without incident until a fire marshal arrived in response to a complaint, and in short order, two officers who'd been there in plainclothes for hours — Bertrand and Ott — began shouting, tackling people, and kicking in doors.
Police Chief George Gascón acknowledged that the department has been targeting underground parties. "We get a lot of resident complaints about it," he said in a recent Guardian interview. "We're talking about a lot of the underground parties, or the parties where the promoters are exceeding their authorities to a number of people."
Several hundred attended this particular party. Of the 11 people arrested, eight were either detained or cited and released. None faced underage drinking or drug charges. At least five were charged with resisting arrest. One individual was charged with vandalism, two were charged with battery on an officer, and two detained for being drunk in public.
Peak began photographing the scene: busted-up chairs, uniformed officers guarding the entrance, police cars everywhere. She zoomed her lens to capture the wreckage inside. None of the uniformed officers seemed to have a problem with her — but when she spotted the undercover officers with exposed badges, that changed.
The cops broke through the door, yelling. "They said, 'This is an investigation, you're not allowed to be here.'<0x2009> she said. "We told them we were with the press." They threatened to arrest her.
Shortly after, the plainclothes officers crossed in front of her to an unmarked car. She took another picture. Bertrand, a tall guy with a shaved head, allegedly turned and grabbed her arm, and both officers shouted at her. "[Ott] said to me, 'Your flash has impeded my investigation,'" Peak recounted. She was cuffed and arrested on the spot, and her camera was confiscated.
She was cited for obstruction of justice, but the charges were dropped. And she got her camera back — but says the SD memory card, where all the photos were stored — was missing.
"I flipped [the camera] open ... and found the SD card was missing," she said. She asked Bertrand where it was. "He said, 'I don't know what you're talking about,'" Peak recalled. Bertrand, she recalled, then looked around at a group of officers watching the exchange, and announced, "This woman is refusing to leave. I'm going to have to re-arrest her." Ott appeared, according to Peak, and insisted that there was no evidence the memory card had been in the camera in the first place.
"My camera will not ignite a flash unless there's a memory card in there," Peak explained. In the end, she left empty-handed — without photos of the undercover officers.
Earlier, when the party was in full swing, a 24-year-old California State University, Fullerton student visiting from Los Angeles says when the fire marshal entered, Bertrand flashed his badge, yelling at everybody to get out. "It was really aggressive from the get-go," said the Fullerton student, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he had a pending legal case. "It's very hard for me to describe the intensity to which this guy was busting down doors."
Later, the young man from L.A. said, he was following people who left in a rush, and ran to catch up. "Shortly after, I felt a blow to the back right of my head," he said. "My glasses flew off, and I was tackled to the ground. My forehead was being pushed straight into the ground and they were holding my hair. I kept repeating ... please, I can't see — I'm legally blind. I thought three or four officers were on top of me, and they were saying, 'Fuck you, you little anarchist punk.'<0x2009>"
That's when he said he felt a sensation like "a bunch of really intense bee stings on my left side, just above my hipbone." He thought he was Tasered — and photos he showed us depict a skin burn. SFPD officers are not authorized to carry Tasers.
"It sounds like a stun gun, not a Taser gun," Ken Cooper, a firearms and Taser instructor based in New York, noted when the incident was described to him.
When we shared the photos with SFPD's media relations department, Lt. Lyn Tomioka noted, "I can tell you that we do not have any tool that would produce the type of wounds shown in the picture that you attached, or produce a stinging sensation."
The L.A. visitor said he was delivered this explanation from an officer while in the holding cell: "One of your anarchist buddies must've had a Taser, ran over to you trying to get one of our officers, got you instead, and ran away."
Cooper Brislain, a Web developer from Santa Cruz, told us his iMac was destroyed that night. A friend of the owners of the art space, he was there doing video mixing for the party, he explained. After the trouble started, he began carrying his computer and mixing equipment toward the door. "The uniformed officers were going to let me go. I told them, 'I just came here to perform.' They seemed OK," he said. Then he encountered Bertrand.
"He ... grabbed me by the collar, led me over toward the wall, and sat me down," Brislain told us. He says Bertrand and Ott seized his computer. Brislain says no charges were filed against him.
The morning after, he found that his computer had been smashed up. His friends found it in pieces at the bottom of the stairs. To this day, he says he has not been able to retrieve his ID, which was seized that night. "I tried calling [Bertrand] on his extension to leave a message and never heard back," he says. "They told me he probably wouldn't return voicemails." The District Attorney's Office has a different perspective. D.A. spokesperson Brian Buckelew said the partygoers were drunk and "going nuts on police." People were throwing firecrackers, he said. "It obviously got out of hand, and people were throwing bottles at police," he said.
The student from L.A. allegedly shoved a female officer, Buckelew said. According to the report, he said, police officers were taking someone into custody, and he tried to pull them free.
Nevertheless, even Chief Gascón agrees that it's not okay to destroy someone's personal property. "If in fact the allegations were proven to be the case that an officer took somebody's laptop and threw it down the stairs," Gascón told us, "that would be inappropriate, and that officer would be sanctioned accordingly." He noted that he met with an attorney from the Electronic Frontier Foundation about a recurring trend of officers — Bertrand in particular — seizing DJ laptops at underground parties. "We've met with them and we've agreed to actually tighten up the protocols in how this would be handled," Gascón noted.
The list of local nightclub clubs that have been recently targeted by Bertrand and Ott or subjected to ABC sanctions is long. It includes Great American Music Hall, Slim's, DNA Lounge, Mist, Whisper, the Room, Vessel, Azul, Butter, and Club Caliente (which closed down after its mostly Latino customers were scared away by repeated raids).
"Using the now familiar pattern and ruse of ABC authority, these raids have been without warrant and without probable cause, under the pretext of finding liquor violations," attorney Mark Webb wrote in a claim against the city, describing the harassment of Caliente owner Maurice Salinas and later adding, "Despite numerous raids, the invading officers [Bertrand and Ott] managed to 'uncover' a single infraction: one customer used his brother's ID card, claiming he was over 21 to gain entry. For this reason, Mr. Salinas was cited and fined, bullied, intimidated, and yelled at on the spot."
Webb said such behavior isn't legitimate police work, but unlawful harassment. In fact, this experienced litigator said it's far closer to the shakedowns and extortion rackets familiar to him from the start of his legal career in the late 1970s prosecuting organized crime cases in New York City.
That's why he's threatening to bring a novel lawsuit against the city and ABC under federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act, a law designed go after the mob, but which has since been adapted to target entities ranging from the tobacco industry to the Los Angeles Police Department.
Webb told us that interference with legitimate business operations, such as running a nightclub, is the essence of RICO suits. As part of the case, Webb plans to submit a surveillance video that shows Bertrand kneeling on the neck of bartender Javier Magallon from The Room and twisting his arm. Webb gave us a copy of the video.
Another element of making a RICO case is the use of intimidation and retaliation against those who complain — which was central to a March 17 SF Weekly story about promoter Arash Ghanadan being inappropriately singled out for arrest by Bertrand as retaliation for filing a complaint against the officer with the Office of Citizen Complaints.
Webb says he has a strong case that he intends to file soon, but that most of his clients just want the SFPD to rein in Bertrand and stop facilitating ABC actions. "I want to have a sit-down with Gavin Newsom," Webb said. "I am calling on Mayor Newsom to come in and mediate what would be an expensive, divisive fight that will generate national interest ... I think this thing can go way quickly without litigation."
Newsom press secretary Tony Winnicker, who said Newsom has brought concerns about Bertrand to the chief's attention, didn't immediately embrace Webb's offer. "The mayor would rather leave it to the chief," Winnicker said.
So the question for Gascón is whether he's willing to take on the cowboy cops within the SFPD's ranks. After all, Bertrand is also on the San Francisco Police Officers Association Board of Directors.
The nightlife community is organized like never before and plotting its next move in fighting a war it didn't initiate and barely understands. Whether that war continues now seems to be a question for the party crashers and their supervisors.