When Jason Reinbold, Metro police’s Central Precinct Commander, got wind the day before organizers planned a late-night outdoor concert at the club Mai featuring Three 6 Mafia and other groups, he began to worry. More than 700 people had already bought tickets for the event, and a few thousand were expected to attend. If the proper security and police presence wasn’t in place, Reinbold reasoned, such a large event could lead to problems typical of crowds at overstuffed venues: alcohol- and drug-related incidents, assaults or worse.
The Central Precinct, which encompasses downtown, was already a few weeks into a recent spike in aggravated assaults, many of which had happened in the district’s late-night clubs. It’s an increase police say often coincides with the summer months.
Still, Reinbold didn’t need a large Friday night event catching his precinct off guard. He sent Detective Anthony Heil down to the club to meet with organizers and discuss what security would be in place and the club’s various plans for attendees. Club personnel were receptive to the cops’ concerns. And as it turned out, the event went off smoothly, with only a small number of incidents — namely drug charges, after security personnel made concertgoers empty their pockets at the gate. That, along with a visual police presence that included dozens of officers as well as the department’s mobile Skywatch unit — a type of crow’s nest observation deck for monitoring outdoor areas — helped avoid any serious problems or altercations, police say.
Crime statistics provided by Metro police tracking aggravated assaults in the Central Precinct showed continued improvement for much of the first half of 2011, compared with the same year-to-date numbers from a year before.
But by June, numbers began to creep up over last year, with 23 aggravated assaults reported this year compared with 16 last year. July numbers peaked at 32 — 11 more than reported for the same period in 2010.
At the time, it was Reinbold’s singular biggest concern, leading him to make adjustments in his officers’ presence in and around the clubs at the heart of his precinct. Halfway through this month (Aug. 1-15), the number of assaults seems to have settled, with only nine reported thus far.
“We were doing so well, and then all of sudden the aggravated assaults started coming back,” Reinbold said. “We had a few weeks in a row in which we were getting high numbers” — or about 10 a week.
Such an average wouldn’t stack up to higher numbers from other, larger precincts. But there is a dense population in the Central Precinct’s relatively small area. It’s a destination not only for tourists, sports fans and concertgoers inclined to spend money, but also for the service employees who support those industries. Thus, any increase in violence is magnified in practical effect.
“Overall we’re still doing well, but we watched that trend come back, so we needed to do something to ensure that we remained in a better position than we were last year at this time,” Reinbold said.
Reinbold, Heil and others engaged in the precinct’s club initiative made a few tweaks in their timing and positioning to address the climbing aggravated assaults, particularly those that were club-related.
“It’s not as big of a problem, it just happens to be my biggest problem,” Reinbold said. “I’ve got less than 4 square miles of the 533 square miles of the county.”
The rise in aggravated assaults in the Central Precinct began a few months ago, just as it normally does with the heat of summer, when more college students (some of drinking age, others not) are o ut on break and wont to head downtown.
“Aggravated assaults are always high during the summer, just because there are more folks downtown, it’s hotter and tempers start flaring more with the heat,” Detective Sgt. Tony Blackburn said. “This year we had a spike, a big increase in aggravated assaults, so we had to do something. I think they’ve leveled off now, and we’re actually getting a better hold on them.”
Because of that “spike” in aggravated assaults, some of which were club-related, Blackburn said Metro police are upping their visibility, with uniformed officers instructed to position themselves at fixed posts — cars parked with blue lights on — about every 100 feet up and down Second Avenue and along Broadway during closing time.
But prior to the 3 a.m. closing time, officers (sometimes in groups of two) conduct walk-throughs at venues, from front door to back door, greeting patrons along the way and projecting the image of safety.
Police have focused on the time leading up to last call and just after closing time, when incidents that might’ve happened in a flash inside the bars and clubs — such as flirting with the wrong girl or crossing the wrong guy — spill out onto the streets, possibly leading to violent confrontations. It’s that window of time — between 2 and 3:15 in the morning — when Reinbold wants his officers to show the greatest visual presence. Aside from uniformed officers, Blackburn said undercover detectives have also been posted inside venues, watching for signs of underage drinking and overserved patrons.
“We’re trying to get people safely from the clubs to their vehicles, if they’re not intoxicated, and get them home,” he said. “Or we’re trying to utilize taxicabs or other people to transport people home. That’s our goal.”
Lately, the Central Precinct has also worked with the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office Mobile Booking Unit, which is often parked at First Avenue and Broadway as another imposing presence — this one with the reminder of possible jail time. It’s also an aid to officers, reducing time off the streets for those who do make arrests.
Most incidents inside the bars and clubs are over “something silly,” Blackburn said, with the overwhelming majority involving alcohol, possibly with some combination of women, men and testosterone. An argument or a simple assault can quickly turn into an aggravated assault if someone decides his beer bottle or her high-heel shoe would serve better in a fight.
Still, considering the sheer numbers of tourists, locals and even soldiers from Fort Campbell who visit downtown on average, Blackburn would pit the safety of Nashville’s city center against any other city.
It’s a lot to manage.
“I’ve got more clubs than officers,” Reinbold said. “That’s where we try to maintain that rapport with the clubs, so they can take care of their own problems before they become our own problems.”
According to Andrea Champion, spokeswoman for the Nashville Downtown Partnership, there are about 68 venues downtown, including bars, nightclubs, honky-tonks, etc. — with 23 on Broadway and 14 on Second Avenue.
Many have their own security personnel on site. Under the command of Damian Huggins — former Central Precinct commander and current deputy chief of the department’s Investigative Services Bureau — the precinct adopted a list of best practices for downtown nightlife business owners used by the New York City Police Department.
Those guidelines, modified by Metro police and some local business owners, suggest having at least one licensed and trained security guard for every 75 patrons and one security supervisor for every five security guards. Additionally, security personnel should be scattered throughout the venue, not just at the doors.
At the end of 2010, Heil was appointed to serve as the precinct’s liaison to downtown club owners. It’s his job to make face-to-face visits with club owners; discuss any outstanding issues involving a club, its patrons or employees; and go over those best practices for security.
Part of Heil’s message to the venue owners is to keep in touch with police. “If we need to arrest [someone] and there’s a lawful arrest to be made, then we can do that,” he said. “If it’s just a PI [public intoxication] they’ll sit for eight hours, and then there’s not going to be that escalated issue down the street.”
Heil — a resident dorm adviser in his college days — knows that the one-on-one relationships can go further than occasional one-on-one run-ins.
“It’s kind of the same mentality with this,” Heil said. “If I can go in and build up these rapports with the different owners and mangers — it’s more like, ‘Well, it’s not just the police are in here harassing us.’ ”
Some club owners and personnel, Reinbold said, might keep quiet and not report assaults and other crimes occurring in or around the venue “because they’re thinking we’re going to shut them down.”
He said there’s a “fine line,” but police are willing to work with a club owner who wants to improve his situation. If club staff calls police to pick up someone they want to throw out, such a case wouldn’t count against them, according to the commander.
If frequent visits from Heil or calls for police service at problematic clubs over an extended period of time don’t motivate owners to straighten up, there are other routes to take, such as forwarding reports of alleged alcohol violations to either the Metro Beer Permit Board or the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Police will also work with other agencies such as the codes and health departments when necessary.
A micro-trend has surfaced during the past several months in which law enforcement enlist the district attorney’s office when complaints persist. The DA has been asking judges to sign padlocking orders naming certain repeat-offender businesses as public nuisances. Owners then face certain legal restrictions before the business can reopen, if it does at all.
Two such padlocking orders have been issued since June 2, when South Precinct detectives locked up Murfreesboro Pike’s Out of Bounds Bar and Grill. Two months later, Hermitage Precinct detectives shuttered Silverado’s Dancehall and Saloon just up the street from Out of Bounds.
Asked about the potential use of a padlocking order in his district, Reinbold said he wouldn’t rule out the option. “I don’t know if anybody’s there at this point [so] we need to be looking at that — hopefully not,” he said.
Luau Louie’s Hula Hut, however, has frequently flashed on Central officers’ radar. The club has been plagued by allegations of underage drinking, its name showing up multiple times under the “violations” section of Metro Beer Permit Board agendas as well as before the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
By late spring, the 18-and-up Second Avenue club had developed a reputation for problems with underage drinking, according to police, with security staff allegedly taking a cut of the action by selling “of-age” wristbands to the 18- to 20-year-old crowd at inflated prices and pocketing the extra charge.
Police kept issuing citations and forwarding reports to the alcohol-control authorities, and Luau Louie’s might have been closer to a padlocking by now if owner Jody Browne hadn’t worked with police.
Around 3:30 a.m. on May 13, police said a suspect riding through the parking lot of the club in a car described at the time as a silver four-door Ford Taurus fired a shot into the door of the club, grazing an employee’s leg.
Aside from that shooting, Reinbold recalled a “couple” other aggravated assaults related to Luau Louie’s, but nothing “eyebrow-raising.”
In contact with Heil and other police along the way, Browne made his own adjustments, such as more visible security guards with uniformed, clearly marked shirts but without police-like badges and handcuffs. Employees have taken classes on serving alcohol, Browne has added attendants to both bathrooms to cut down on patrons passing drinks to others, and police have provided an ID verification unit — all helping cut into Luau Louie’s problems.
“I 100 percent want to work with police — I have no reason not to,” Browne said.
“I want their help more than I want them to come in and just shake me down for no reason,” he added with a laugh.
As for the recent swell of aggravated assaults, adjustments at the Central Precinct seemed to meet the issue, as the once-rising numbers of aggravated assaults in the Central Precinct appear to have stabilized.
Looking toward the future, the colossus box that will be the Music City Center is growing. At the doorstep of the city’s moneymaker stretch of Broadway sits an arena ranked sixth in the U.S. for concert attendance last year.
When the new convention center finally opens, it will require even more police and security presence in an area sure to be even more packed with people — likely tourists. Reinbold said he’s already working with MCC leaders to determine the needs and amount of collaboration. The police department’s annual re-bid — in which they redistribute resources based on calls for service — will help with the adjustment, but Reinbold said they’ll need more officers as more people come downtown.
Recalling a stretch of about 26 out of 30 days in which the Bridgestone Arena hosted events, Blackburn said, “It’s only safe to assume that when that Music City Center opens and we start having all of these conventions in town, there are going to be a lot more tourists, a lot more pedestrians, a lot more hotel rooms being filled. So I could definitely see needing more personnel to help in the downtown area, especially late at night.”