Joe Downtown: Martial law or proactive policing? Officers swarm downtown’s Fremont Street
"A police state.”
That's how downtown regulars described the police presence Friday night on East Fremont Street.
In response to the growing fear of violence and unrest downtown, Metro Police blocked off traffic to the bar-filled block, parked almost a dozen police cruisers on the street and made people walking outside dump their drinks.
Visitors complained that officers were overly intrusive. But business owners saw the police presence as a positive.
Bush Xhandi, owner of Uncle Joe’s Pizza, said he had his second-best day of profits since reopening in June. A tavern owner said his business equaled that of any other busy First Friday night. And Michael Cornthwaite, owner of the Downtown Cocktail Room, Emergency Arts, the Beat and soon Inspire, said the alternative could have been much worse.
“It was definitely a stronger presence," Cornthwaite said. "There was less booze drinking on the street and no underage people. It looked like a police state, but it was safer. I hate (the need for police), but what I hate worse is people getting stabbed in front of my business.”
Indeed, many business owners fear that an eruption of violence would hurt Fremont Street, an artery of the city’s urban core that for decades was owned by drug dealers, hucksters, prostitutes and the homeless but in recent years has undergone a striking revitalization.
“If we have one incident down here, a knifing or a shooting, all of us are going to get hit. Some of us will go out of business,” a business owner said in May.
Over the past four or five months, police have struggled with the emerging popularity of East Fremont Street. Though business owners are happy to see more customers, especially on Fridays and during the First Friday art walk, some visitors have caused problems. Underage drinkers hang out on the sidewalk with alcohol brought from home. Fights have broken out. A few months ago, someone was shot under the Fremont Street Experience.
Police, in response, have tinkered with ways to control the growing Friday night crowds. Horseback officers were brought in, as were saturation teams and police focused specifically on underage drinkers. Plainclothes cops took to the streets to try to blend in.
Last month, police arrested dozens of people, some for outstanding felony warrants. On Friday, officers arrested 84 people, but few were picked up on East Fremont. Most were arrested a few blocks west, under the canopy of the Fremont Street Experience.
Only six people were arrested in the East Fremont Street area, and almost no one was ticketed, Capt. Shawn Andersen of the Downtown Area Command said.
“I think we did the right thing,” Andersen said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Friday night’s effort was perhaps the strongest police response yet. But officers tried a new approach after consulting business owners and city officials.
Police erected metal cattle guards at the curbs to prevent people from crossing the street outside of crosswalks. Both ends of the street also were fenced off. Pedestrians could pass through designated entrances and exits, but cars couldn't.
Police made it clear they were watching. They lined the curbs with almost a dozen black-and-white squad cars.
When people entered the area with open containers of alcohol, police made them throw out their drinks. Witnesses said garbage cans were full of cans and bottles.
And officers weren't always cordial.
One woman, who asked not to be identified because she works regularly with Metro, said police abruptly took her husband’s drink and poured it out without warning.
“It was just so aggressive,” she said. “If he had just said it was illegal and asked us to pour it out, we would have.”
Another man brought relatives from out of state to East Fremont Street but turned around when he saw all the police.
“It looked like a hassle,” he said.
Some people, however, appreciated the officers' effort and asked for even more intervention.
One man reported accidentally sideswiping a vehicle, then being jumped by three men riding in the car. One punched him in the mouth, he said.
Police questioned the driver, who said she didn't know the men and had picked them up as hitchhikers. Police let the matter go without issuing any tickets, leaving the man whose face was bloodied stunned.
“First Friday night brings a lot of people to Fremont Street, and you come into contact with 100 to 150 people,” Andersen said. “By the time you get to the 150th person and they call you all sorts of names and it’s 1:30 in the morning and you’re tired — I’m not saying it’s right, but we are human beings.”
In many ways, East Fremont Street is the victim of city ordinances enacted years ago to encourage business downtown. The laws dismissed distance requirements between taverns.
Now the first block of East Fremont Street houses eight bars and four bar/restaurants. It has become a popular place for people to hang out Friday night, particularly after the First Friday art walk ends.
No one wants to hamper the momentum taking place in the area, but both police and business owners want to keep the area safe. Andersen said officers will continue to talk with business owners and tweak their approach.
Some of the new ideas being floated include erecting signs that warn open containers are not allowed and moving the cattle guards closer to the middle of the street to give people more room to walk.
“We’re always looking to do things better,” Andersen said. “How many other business communities around the country sit down with law enforcement with the frequency that we do? Just the fact that it’s being done speaks to the commitment that everyone has to making this successful and safe.”
Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown; he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.