Police say it was a mistake to have notorious Officer Bertrand recently back on the beat busting nightclubs
It's been more than a year since relations between San Francisco's nightlife community and the San Francisco Police Department bottomed-out following a nasty crackdown and pattern of harassment led by plain-clothes Officer Larry Bertrand and Michelle Ott, an agent with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
The pair's antics included repeatedly shutting down clubs, aggressively raiding private parties, seizing laptop computers and other property, making arrests for minor infractions, roughing up and threatening those who objected to the harsh treatment, dumping out dozens of bottles of alcohol, and, according to one lawsuit, retaliating against those who filed complaints.
There were at least four lawsuits against the city related to the crusade, including one that the city is in the process of settling for $50,000 (involving promoter Arash Ghanadan, who had repeated run-ins with Bertrand) and another federal lawsuit alleging that Bertrand's harassment of legal businesses amounted to a criminal racketeering enterprise. The federal case is headed for trial later this year.
After cover stories in the Guardian (see "The new War on Fun ," 3/23/10) and SF Weekly exposed the abuses, and the nightlife community formed the California Music and Culture Association to counter the assault, Bertrand and Ott were pulled off the nightlife beat and things slowly got better.
So when Bertrand appeared back on the beat on a recent Friday night, June 17 — targeting two of the same clubs he allegedly harassed before, Mist and Sloan, and shutting Sloan down for the night on a technical violation — many in the nightlife community freaked out, fearing that their improved relationship with SFPD was over and the bad old days were back.
"My phone was blowing up with texts and photos of his raid on Sloan nightclub. People are livid," attorney Mark Rennie, who works with clubs on permitting and compliance issues, wrote to a group of nightlife advocates in an e-mail titled "Officer Larry Bertrand back on the Streets last night and up to his old tricks."
Complaints were made to new Police Chief Greg Suhr and others in the command staff. The SFPD initially refused a Guardian request for comment on whether Bertrand would remain back on the beat, citing the ongoing lawsuits. But police spokesperson Sgt. Mike Andraychak eventually admitted it was a mistake to have Bertrand busting clubs and said he won't be back on that beat anytime soon.
Andraychak said the new commander of Southern Station, Capt. Charlie Orkes, assigned Bertrand to police the clubs for the night and "he wasn't aware of the history of lawsuits, and so that's why Officer Bertrand was out there that night doing permit inspections ... He won't have Officer Bertrand in that role again, in the interests of good community relations."
Those relations have become much better and more cooperative in the last year, according to Suhr, Rennie, and Entertainment Commission Executive Director Jocelyn Kane. "We're happy with our relationship with the Police Department right now," Kane told us. "That's why [the reappearance of Bertrand] was of concern to people."
During an interview with the Guardian on the morning of June 17, Suhr said he was supportive of nightlife. "I'm pro entertainment and I want the clubs to succeed. It think it draws people to the city and allows us to do a lot of things," Suhr said, emphasizing the importance of clear communications and good relations between clubs and the SFPD. "If we're being fair, consistent, and objective in how we treat situations, the clubs will know how it works."
To many in the nightlife community, Bertrand represents the antithesis of that approach. Mist owner Mike Quan, a plaintiff in the ongoing federal lawsuit alleging Bertrand repeatedly harassed him and his customers, said he was shocked to hear Bertrand showed up at his club and was abrasive with his employees again. "My attorney sent [SFPD] a letter the next day saying this is not acceptable," Quan told us. "Hopefully they got the message."
Mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty, who is close to the nightlife community, helped reach out to Suhr after the incident and said he believes it was an aberration. "This is something that is a concern and the leadership needs to be sure that we're not falling back," Dufty told us.
Appeals also went out to the City Attorney's Office, headed by another mayoral candidate, Dennis Herrera, who said he was happy to hear this was an isolated incident. But he said it illustrates something he's been saying in meetings with clubs and cops — that SFPD's nightlife enforcement policies need to be clear and consistent.
"We need to get it above the ad hoc way we've done it, so that it's above the captain level and coming from the command staff," Herrera told us.
Suhr, who has better relations with the nightlife community than any of his recent predecessors, also emphasized the need to lay out clear expectations. But he stopped short of saying there wouldn't be anymore undercover raids of clubs and parties, telling us, "I think it's important that people think that's a possibility."