The city's smoking gun in its war on nightlife—that clubs such as Tommy's Nightclub and Grill allowed guns on their premises—is undermined by something the daily papers, which dutifully reported the Seattle Police Department's press-conference sound bites verbatim earlier this week, ignored: The actual police report from Tommy's. That report, which does not say a gun made it into Tommy's, echoes accounts from managers and bartenders who were stunned by the city's heavy-handed citywide raids on Saturday, September 8, and calls the city's claims into question.
By Sunday morning, bartenders, doormen, bouncers, club owners, and bar backs across the city were already calling the SPD's mass roundup of club workers—some reportedly made without warrants, reading of Miranda rights, or credible charges—the "Saturday Night Massacre."
In an undercover sting operation dubbed "Operation Sobering Thought" by the Bush-lite SPD, the police issued 28 warrants, nabbing 17 workers for a host of alleged violations, committed several weeks earlier. They included: serving alcohol to a minor; allowing a minor to enter a bar; and, most startling, allegedly allowing a firearm into a bar.
The sting hit 15 nightclubs across the city. The dramatic sweep—which club workers say involved "SWATed out" officers in black vests with "those extra gun holsters strapped to their legs," an SUV parked outside, and a blue-and-gray SPD bus that went from club to club picking up workers—also netted alarming headlines. (The officers had the arrestees' home addresses, but "made a show" of hitting the clubs instead, according to a club worker.) The headlines seemed perfectly—and politically—timed.
The Seattle City Council is taking up legislation on September 13 that Mayor Greg Nickels has been unsuccessfully but persistently pushing for over a year—a nightclub license that would give the city unprecedented power to shut down clubs.
"Our biggest concern," says nightclub industry lobbyist Tim Hatley, "is that the city just wants to have a strong hammer to shut down a club at its sole discretion. Hatley says that, after "the mayor's systematic public-affairs strategy" of recent media stunts, including his "top five bad clubs list" and "certainly the heavy-handed tactics of this past weekend," the clubs don't trust the mayor's office to govern fairly.
Team Nickels's propaganda coup on Saturday night—followed by a Sunday press conference and the obedient headlines—is likely to give his once-stalled legislation new momentum.
Ironically, the mass arrests actually prove the point that critics of the legislation have been making all along: The laws to hold clubs accountable are already on the books. Says Council Member Richard McIver, who thinks the city could discriminate if handed an extra tool, "Our existing laws give us the authority to prosecute."
Unfortunately, that point is likely to get lost in the made-for-TV arrests, which focus on alarmist solutions rather than logic.
The mayor's office claims it had nothing to do with the massive city operation. It also claims that simply enforcing existing laws isn't the right approach. "Should we really be spending our public-safety resources policing clubs that ought to be policing themselves?" Nickels spokesman Martin McOmber asks.
It's clear the SPD wasn't as interested in enforcing the law as they were in serving Nickels's political agenda.
Case in point: The sting operation itself (when the SPD actually caught clubs admitting and serving minors and supposedly letting guns get past security) took place weeks before the grand show of arrests on Saturday night. So the immediate question becomes: Why would the SPD let a doorman stay on the job for even five minutes, much less several weeks, if it believes he's letting guns get through? What if the guy in line behind the undercover officer had a gun?
"That would have tipped our hand," SPD spokesman Mark Jamieson says. "We would have only been able to make a couple of arrests." In other words, the illegal activity would have stopped. Go figure. That's what enforcing the existing laws does.
More troublesome than commanding police resources for a political agenda is the story that emerged when I talked to club owners, bartenders, and managers who were arrested.
Their stories called Nickels's most stunning political victory—coverage that flaunted the "fact" doormen had knowingly let guns into Tommy's and Tabella—into question.
For example, workers at Tommy's say they recognized the undercover officer (from security trainings) who was trying to get a gun into the club after another undercover officer had offered the doorman—not a Tommy's employee, but a temp—a $100 bribe.
"Tell him all he has to do is show you his badge, and we'll let him bring the gun in," Tommy's manager reportedly, and sarcastically, instructed the temp doorman.
According to folks at Tommy's, the undercover cop with the gun left the scene at that point.
Despite claims in the media that a gun made it into Tommy's that Friday night, August 17, the police report confirms the workers' accounts of that night. The otherwise detailed report does not include a weapons charge and never says a gun made it into the club, stating only that the doorman "told [the undercover officer] he would let him in if he had a permit."
SPD spokesman Jamieson did not disavow this reading of the report, saying only that the doorman took a bribe. Tommy's does not deny the non-staffer may have taken the money.
It's a similar story at Tabella. According to Tabella owner Kauser Pasha, several doormen recognized the undercover officer from security training and let the armed cop through. The police report does not contradict this account. In fact, the gun charges may be dismissed.
Pasha also says his bartenders were arrested for letting underage patrons into the club—one of them without a warrant. He says the charges made no sense because his bartenders don't let people into clubs. Pasha maintains that his club follows the rules, saying, "I have thousands of fake IDs that I've confiscated to prove it."
When Tabella came under scrutiny for a shooting outside the club in July, The Stranger uncovered video that showed the violence did not start inside the club. We also found an SPD report that said the club "does a very good job" with security. Later that month, the Washington State Liquor Control Board denied Mayor Nickels's request for an emergency request to revoke Tabella's liquor license, stating that "an exhaustive review" found "no grounds" for that "extraordinary exercise of... power."
Pasha calls the SPD tactics "harassment: "Nickels is upset that he didn't get his way with the liquor board. So he wants total control."