Crapped Out

A dispute over street gambling has downtown bar owners clamoring for cops

Round midnight, a wave of nightclubbers spills into the streets of Minneapolis's warehouse district, forming pools of players, watchers, and wannabes. First Avenue is a veritable fashion show, mode of dress revealing where each wanderer has been spending the evening hours. T-shirts and jeans: Rosen's Bar and Grill. Yellow-lensed horn-rims and polyester pants: the Lounge. Body-hugging, shimmery dresses: South Beach. The crowd is segregated as much by manner of dress as by race, but everyone hangs out for the same reasons, scoping and styling.

Tucked into a dark corner of the scene, a handful of men huddle in a group, summoning their courage to dance with Lady Luck. They're about to play street craps--a fast and furious, profanity-provoking, gut-wrenching game of chance. The first bets are usually modest--say, $5 on the first roll--but it doesn't take long before wagers climb into the hundreds. "You can make a lot of money" at craps, says one veteran player. "But you can also lose your ass in a hurry."

"It's an exciting game," concedes Sgt. G.W. Reinhardt of the MPD's licensing division. "Some people carry dice in their pockets for a game of pickup craps instead of pickup basketball or horseshoes." The game's portability is one reason, he adds, why crap games are hard to bust: They usually take place in an out-of-the-way corner, and a lookout is posted to alert players to trouble. "It's a bit of a cat-and-mouse game," says Inspector Sharon Lubinski of the Downtown Command. "If [the players] see a squad, the dice and loot disappear." The MPD's biggest craps bust so far this summer came in the wee hours of August 13, when officers John Murphy and Alan Liotta arrested eight men in a parking lot. Most of the players were around 20 years old and lived in Minneapolis, but two were considerably older--42 and 43--and gave addresses in Burnsville and Bloomington.

That bust, coincidentally, came less than a week before a Warehouse District Business Association meeting at which downtown business owners vented their frustrations with what they call the city's failed policy on downtown policing. According to minutes of the August 19 meeting, mayoral aide Pierre Willette told the group that the dispute is "the price of success... with the high number of people in the entertainment area of Minneapolis."

But that didn't satisfy club representatives like South Beach owner David Koch. "It's out of control," Koch says. "There's gambling every night on First Ave. and Fourth Street, and [the area] has an extreme loitering problem."

In response to the complaints, 3rd Ward City Council member Joe Biernat has introduced an ordinance which he says will help police and prosecutors crack down on gambling. The measure--currently pending before the council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee--would specifically outlaw craps games. In practice, assistant city attorney Carol Lansing says, it probably won't make much difference for offenders: Whether charged with trespassing (as most are now) or illegal gambling, they will face no more than a $700 fine or 90 days in jail.

In either case, club owners say it's not the legalities of rolling the dice that concern them. The problem is that the city "isn't prepared to deal with" a booming downtown nightlife, says Paul Pudlitzke, director of operations at the Quest. "Twenty-three cops [the number on patrol downtown each night] is just not enough for a vivacious, busy, urban center."

What club owners really want, adds South Beach's Koch, are their off-duty cops back. Last year, says Koch, "I had four officers working on Wednesdays and Fridays and two on Saturdays, and I never had any problems." But this February, after years of tussling between Police Chief Robert Olson and the Minneapolis Police Federation, the city officially banned police officers from working at nightclubs. The measure is an attempt to reduce liability problems, says Olson. "There's a significant, disproportionate risk for performing this kind of work for the city." The policy change was first announced by mayor Sharon Sayles Belton in 1995, following the $1-million verdict against the city in the case of Ofcr. Mike Sauro. Sauro had been accused of assaulting a Juke Box Saturday Night customer while working off-duty at the club in 1990.

The ample lead time, argues Olson, should have given downtown clubs plenty of opportunity to prepare for the loss of their rent-a-cops. And it's not as though the city left business owners without options, he adds: "They can use the NRP [Neighborhood Revitalization Program] buyback program to hire additional policing." Under the program, business owners contribute to a fund run by the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association, which in turn pays off-duty officers to patrol the streets.

Koch and Pudlitzke, however, scoff at Olson's offer. "I've been spending $200 a week for the buyback program, and I'm supposed to get three additional beat officers patrolling the area regularly," says Koch. "I haven't seen them. I'm not getting anything for my money." Pudlitzke similarly claims his club paid $1,000 for just one week of patrolling, yet "didn't see any results."

But that, says Inspector Sharon Lubinski of the Downtown Command, is because buyback officers, unlike a club's own rent-a-cops, patrol an entire neighborhood. "Club owners are used to seeing a part-time cop at the door. [Now] when they see a cop go past, they have no way of knowing if it's a shift officer or a buyback cop." Lubinski says the city has increased the police presence in the warehouse district, implementing an extra dogwatch shift of 12 officers and four supervisors at the downtown command.

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