Tulsa Police restaurant checks during busy period were 'over the top,' city councilor says
BY KEVIN CANFIELD World Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2013
2/17/13 at 4:45 AM
Read the reports and TPD emails
involving Blake Ewing and the Tulsa
A Tulsa city councilor is at odds with the Police Department after officers and Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission agents conducted routine compliance checks at several downtown restaurants last month.
City Councilor Blake Ewing said last week that he believes police targeted him during checks conducted Jan. 31, but Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan said officers were doing the same compliance checks they do all over town.
"The general vibe around here is that this is so out of the ordinary and such an over-the-top display and the time of week it was conducted - 6 o'clock on a Thursday - is a little bit suspicious," Ewing said during an interview at City Hall. "And there is a reason why city employees and, you know, my customers, all feel this was a targeted action and the fact that it was the Blue Dome District and no other entertainment district in our city."
The police report from that night indicates that police and the ABLE agents went to eight downtown restaurants and bars - Orpha's, Max Retropub, Back Alley Blues and BBQ, Dilly Deli, Dust Bowl, Joe Momma's, El Guapo's and McNellie's - and Red Rock Saloon, 1229 Charles Page Blvd. Orpha's and Red Rock Saloon are the only ones not in the Blue Dome District or owned by either Ewing or another businessman, Elliot Nelson.
The report indicates police intended to do more compliance checks in other parts of the city, but officers were redirected to an unrelated police matter.
In all, officers issued 18 citations for unlicensed coin-operated devices and other violations. ABLE agents issued 10 citations for liquor law violations.
Several members of the Police Department's top brass have criticized Ewing's interaction with officers on the scene that night.
Ewing acknowledged that he does not have any specific evidence that he was targeted, but he does have his own theory.
"They got afraid that I was going to start calling them out for a bad judgment call and making the police look bad because I was upset," Ewing said. "So they pre-empted that by doing this - leaking things to the media, having these crazy emails back and forth and basically overblowing the situation - they came after me."
Jordan defended his officers' actions.
"Any assertion that we were targeting any one business is ludicrous," Jordan said.
Ewing, Jordan and Nelson are scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss the Police Department's policies on compliance checks.
5 officers, 4 agents
The meeting will take place three weeks after Ewing left the Jan. 31 City Council meeting after learning that several police officers and police cars had converged on the Max Retropub - one of several downtown businesses he owns.
He arrived to find five police officers and four ABLE agents inside the restaurant.
What transpired from that point on has become a subject of debate, with Deputy Chief Mark McCrory stating in a Feb. 1 email to Jordan that the councilor used "his position to try and keep our officers from doing their job" and Ewing steadfastly arguing that he has no problem with police enforcing compliance laws but simply questions the manner in which it is done.
"The issue I have is that they were harsh, aggressive and overstaffed - not that they were writing me tickets," Ewing said. "I felt like I was defending my staff and my guests that night. They were freaked out by this display."
Records provided by Tulsa Police show that conversations between police and Ewing that night - which took place at three restaurants over several hours - centered around whether it was appropriate for police to use so much manpower to sweep through downtown restaurants during the dinner hour.
"I think it is not business-friendly," Ewing said.
Jordan said he would be open to discussing the time of day officers made compliance checks at restaurants.
"That was not intentional to disrupt business," he said.
According to an internal police memo from Sgt. Bryan Bryden, who oversaw the compliance checks that night, when Ewing arrived at the Max Retropub, 114 S. Elgin Ave., he became upset.
"Don't you guys have anything better to do? This is bull----," the memo quotes Ewing as saying.
Ewing reportedly also questioned why officers were issuing tickets to the pub's manager instead of him. At one point, he instructed the manager not to sign the citations, according to the memo. The manager signed the citations after she was told she would be arrested if she did not.
"I said if there is a violation in this place then I am responsible, and I want the ticket to be written to me," Ewing told the Tulsa World. "I wasn't trying to impede anyone doing their job. I wasn't trying to intimidate anyone. When I said 'Don't sign that,' I was saying, 'I'll sign it' - not 'Don't sign it. Let's be difficult. Don't sign it. I am a city councilor.' I was saying let me sign it. There is a pretty substantial distinction there."
While at the Max Retropub, Ewing called Maj. Tracie Lewis to express his concern with the show of manpower.
"He was mad and stated that he wanted me to know what my officers were doing with their time. That they were not patrolling, but were in his bar writing tickets when they should be out catching criminals," Lewis wrote in a Feb. 1 email to McCrory.
Lewis went on to say that she wants to have good relationships with city government "but I do feel this interaction is inappropriate."
Ewing described the emails between Lewis and McCrory as "uninformed exchanges."
"They weren't there," Ewing said. "Some of the things they're talking about aren't even recorded in the police report."
According to Bryden's memo, days before the compliance sweep, police notified a manager at Max Retropub that the restaurant did not have the required City of Tulsa licensing stickers on its games. On Jan. 21, police issued 10 citations to the restaurant for missing stickers, although officers noted all 40 or so machines lacked stickers.
Ewing says police made no such notification.
At Back Alley Blues and BBQ, another Ewing restaurant, police issued a citation for an improper happy-hour sign and three for employees' failing to have their liquor licenses displayed.
Ewing's next encounter with police came at Joe Momma's Restaurant, 112 S. Elgin Ave., which he also owns. After calling the restaurant to tell the manager to unplug the games and make available all required licenses, he arrived to find police had issued four citations for machines lacking stickers.
According to Bryden's memo, the citations were again issued to the restaurant manager and again Ewing told the manager not to sign them. Ewing challenges that account of what happened, saying he asked officers to make the citations out to him - not his employees.
"Joe Momma's was literally packed full, and all of these officers come in there, are standing smack in the middle of the place writing tickets to my bartender in the middle of our busiest hour of business," Ewing said. "That is when I first got upset."
After learning that the employee had already signed the citations, Ewing asked to talk to the supervisor of the compliance team and was directed to Bryden, who was at McNellie's Public House, 409 E. First St.
It was there that a widely circulated audiotape of Ewing, police and ABLE agents discussing the city's compliance policies was recorded by one of Ewing's employees. According to Bryden's memo, police also recorded the exchange.
In the audio recording made by Ewing's employee and obtained by KJRH, channel 2, Ewing is heard saying: "Here is what is going to happen: The next time someone in your department sits across the table from me at a City Council meeting and says we are short on police officers and that is why crime is the way it is, I will recount this entire incident to the letter."
In response, ABLE agent Erik Smoot tells Ewing there is a direct correlation between alcohol consumption and crime.
"We are going to reduce the calls for service later in the night by being seen in the bars earlier in the day," Smoot says.
Lewis, in her email to McCrory, states that "Mr. Ewing said that he would not vote for more money for academies etc. due to this incident at his business."
Ewing told the World that was a "ridiculous suggestion that I would say if you write me tickets, I am not going to fund a police academy ... I don't even have any authority to do that and would never do that."
Throughout the audio recording, Ewing, the police and ABLE agents speak firmly but never raise their voices. Ewing makes the point several times that he does not question the need to enforce the laws but does question why police need so much manpower to do so.
"When our guests see 10 people walking into a place ... it makes people freak out like something crazy is going on," Ewing can be heard saying.
Asked to expound on that point, Ewing told the World that the compliance check came at the end of a month of high-profile crime in Tulsa - which makes residents want to see police officers working to combat serious problems.
"When you are having dinner, eating pizza with your kids and nine officers of any kind walk in, what is the public to think but that we are being wasteful?" he said.
In his memo, Bryden recounts his explanation to Ewing for why so many officers are used on compliance checks.
"I explained that we brought the number of officers that we did because bars often involve intoxicated subjects, and we wanted to make sure we were safe while we were there," Bryden wrote.
According to Bryden's memo, while at McNellie's he also told Ewing that police do not target particular businesses and that the purpose of the compliance checks is to prevent underage drinking, over-service and licensing compliance.
"I expressed my concern that as far as I knew, no checks of the bars and restaurants in the area had been done since I came to the area in August and we were trying to correct that," Bryden wrote.
Bryden's report states that near the end of his conversation with Ewing at McNellie's, he and the councilor agreed that they needed to work together to make the area safer and more enjoyable.
"After about another five minutes of conversation, Mr. Ewing shook my hand and as we were leaving the area made jokes about being afraid to jaywalk," Bryden wrote.
Original Print Headline: Police actions irk councilor
Kevin Canfield 918-581-8313
Councilor Blake Ewing (left) and Chief Chuck Jordan: A main topic the night of the compliance checks was the manpower used to sweep through downtown restaurants. "I think it is not business-friendly," Ewing said. Jordan responded: "That was not intentional to disrupt business."