Crapped Out

Craig Bares

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.

Still, she concedes, "there are not enough cops downtown. Downtown has been thriving lately, and we need to get a handle on the late-night crowd." According to city 911 logs, she says, almost 1,000 more emergency calls were placed downtown this July than in the same month last year.

Some of those calls came about 3 a.m. August 1, when a large crowd gathered outside the Loon Cafe. According to police spokeswoman Penny Parrish, bottles were thrown and a woman was injured by a gunshot. Loon owner John Stein claims the tumult was a direct result of insufficient police presence: "Downtown has become a gathering area for lots of people. And with them comes things like gambling, public drinking, and fights."

Some businesses have taken the law into their own hands. Both the Quest and the Gay 90's have hired private security firms to patrol their perimeters. "It's had some effect," says Pudlitzke, "but it's not the same as a uniformed cop. These guys can't carry guns." The Quest has also begun closing its doors earlier--at 2 a.m. rather than 3 on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays--to coordinate its hours with a police shift change. And as of last weekend, the Gay 90's has been closing at 1 a.m, a move Pudlitzke claims came after pressure from the city. (Gay 90's owner Mike Bloom did not return City Pages' calls.)

As this story was going to press, police presence downtown appeared to be increasing. On both of the last two weekends, police have blocked off First Avenue to eliminate traffic jams and discourage loitering, and Pudlitzke says he recently saw a dozen or so cops along the First Avenue corridor late at night. "I don't know why they're doing this all of a sudden," says Pudlitzke, "We've been bitching about this for so long."

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