20100908-news-0101Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Written By Nathan Stubbs

Is the popular downtown nightspot Karma being singled out in a crackdown on Lafayette bars?

Police Chief Jim Craft still vividly remembers one of his recent trips to the downtown nightclub Karma. At the 2 a.m. closing time, he was standing on the sidewalk near the front entrance with his downtown detail leader, Lt. Burt Bejsovec, when the crowd began spilling out onto the street while tossing and shattering glass bottles. “Why are they doing that?” Craft asked Bejsovec. His lieutenant then turned and motioned to the horse mounted patrol making its way up the street: The broken glass gets in the horses’ hooves and keeps them from making their way up to Karma to disperse the crowd. Then, a fight broke out. “It was something that had started in the club,” Craft says. “And the guy immediately reaches into his pocket and comes out with a butterfly knife and has got that thing open so fast. And it’s just fortunate that a policeman was behind him and grabbed him and took him into custody and took the knife away from him. That happened probably 10 feet in front of us.”

This is what the weekend downtown police patrol has to contend with on a regular basis, according to Craft.

The chief says Karma’s patrons regularly carry weapons, challenge the police and openly use drugs inside the club.

“When it reaches the level that it becomes that difficult to police,” Craft says, “then you have to do something. And the ordinance that we’re operating under is not perfect, but it’s the one that we have on the books.”

The controversial law Craft is referencing is in Section 6-11 of the city Code of Ordinances: “Public nuisances in the City of Lafayette; factors to be considered; procedure to abate; penalty and revocation.”

The law states and defines five classes of criminal activity for which an establishment can be assessed points that can result in it being declared a nuisance. The categories are high violent crime activity, drug related activity, prostitution-related activity, nudity-related activity and disturbance-related activity. The ordinance dictates the number of points that should be assessed for each category and states that “any combination of the following activities that total to 12 points within any 12 consecutive month period shall be considered a public nuisance.”

It’s this ordinance, and the assessment of a total of 12 points in a three-month period that now has Karma facing revocation of its liquor license for two years. A public records request for a list of all nuisance points assessed to city establishments since the beginning of the year (see chart below) shows that a total of 44 points have been awarded to seven different restaurants and bars in 15 separate incidents. Karma accounts for more than half those points. The club has been issued a total of 24 points in nine separate incidents over a four-month span. All the incidents are classified as either high violent crime activity or disturbance-related activity.
Last month, in an informal hearing, Lafayette Consolidated Government Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley ruled to revoke Karma’s license for the two-year period based on the nuisance ordinance. The Karma Group LLC ownership team of Robert Oja, Michael Parich, Dennis Talbot and Danny Smith is now appealing the decision to the City-Parish Council. The council took the issue up last week, only to table it after a prolonged, unwieldy, two-hour discussion that touched on everything from the management of the club to the pending consequences for the building owners to the merits of the nuisance ordinance itself. The council has yet to schedule when it will reconsider the appeal.

20100908-news-0102Karma Group’s attorney, Daniel Stanford, repeatedly labeled the ordinance, and the manner in which it is being applied, “arbitrary and capricious.”

Stanford rightly notes that, although the ordinance in question was enacted in 2005, city-parish government did not begin enforcing the point system until around February or March of this year. “That ordinance, that section,” he says, “was enacted five years ago. It goes without use. It’s gathering dust. All of a sudden they pull it out and start using it against Karma. Well, they say the reason we weren’t using it is because we didn’t really have a way to assign points, to assess points, but then us guys at the police department, we’ve come up with a case-by-case analysis. We think that we know better, and we’re going to determine who gets points and who doesn’t get points, and that’s basically what happened.”

Craft says the time the ordinance began being enforced corresponds with the time the city dissolved its office of Criminal Justice Support Services and moved its Office of Alcohol and Noise Control under the auspices of the police department. At that time, according to Craft, the police department reviewed all of the alcohol and noise control ordinances and began enforcing the point system. The way it now works is the police department sends arrest reports related to possible nuisance ordinance violations to Alcohol and Noise Control Director Tim Melancon, who researches the incident to see if any points should be awarded. A penalized establishment is afforded a hearing before CAO Stanley for challenging any penalties resulting from the points and has the right to appeal that decision before the City-Parish Council.

In his argument for Karma, Stanford questions why several known crimes, such as a shooting earlier this year in the parking lot of Daiquiri’s Supreme, went by with no points awarded. In his department’s defense, Craft notes the ordinance states that a crime must arise in or out of a known establishment, adding, “It’s real easy to get up and say, ‘Hey, you didn’t give points for this, you didn’t give points for that but you gave points to us.’ We take it on a case-by-case basis, and there are many factors that determine whether or not you’re going to be awarded points, and some of the stuff they’re saying is not exactly accurate as far as what exactly occurred.”

Karma’s supporters in its appeal to the council included Shannon Wilkerson, owner of The Bulldog, and former Karma owner Eric Cloutier. While The Bulldog has not been assessed any points under the nuisance ordinance, Wilkerson argues that the law sets a dangerous precedent because bar owners cannot always be held responsible for the actions of anyone who happens to step foot in their club. Cloutier, who still owns an interest in the Karma building, sees other surreptitious motivations at play. He says the city is out to reduce the number of bars downtown and that the police are targeting Karma because it now features hip hop music and caters to a largely African-American clientele. “When I owned Karma, and it was a white club, this wasn’t an issue,” he says. “We had fights.”

Other bar owners downtown, who say the tension is not racial, contend Karma’s large, unruly crowds are hurting their business. Jason Robino owns the club Shakers, which also features hip hop music and has mainly black patrons, but has not found itself at odds with the police or city government. “It has nothing to do with the color of people,” Robino says. “It has to do with the amount of people. Karma started having problems when they started hitting capacity and going over capacity. Any time you have that many people, it’s a whole lot harder to manage. You can’t advertise and pack your club in with 1,300-plus people and then at two o’clock, dump them out into the street and say, ‘Oh well, they’re not my problem.’”

Stanford is quick to point out that Karma already is paying the police department $4,000 a month — more than any other bar — as part of a levy the police department imposed on downtown clubs to manage weekend crowds.

Chief Craft says Karma, which has a capacity of about 1,300 people, has a crowd that often overflows out onto the street. “Downtown was not designed to have a big mega club right on Jefferson Street,” he says.

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