What can city government do about a neighborhood business that is a haven for drug dealing and violence?
The question arose at an April 19 hearing before the Baltimore Liquor Board and the answer that day was:
Days before Mayor Catherine Pugh assailed some West Baltimore corner carryouts as crime magnets that should be shuttered, the liquor board considered a request from residents that it revoke the license of a corner liquor store and carryout, Waverly Tavern, at 3801 Old York Road.
Three Baltimore Police officers testified that they have constantly responded to 911 calls from the bar and make arrests there.
Known drug dealers regularly stand outside the building mingling with other patrons, openly drinking liquor and conducting drug transactions, the officers said.
“He told me he did not have a bomb. . . he appeared to be paranoid,” Officer Eric Dodson said.
He was describing a January incident in which a man in the work area behind the counter volunteered that he had been smoking crack cocaine. (He was found to have some in his pocket and was taken away for evaluation.)
Last year, said Maj. Richard Gibson, the district commander, the area outside that bar “was designated as the most violent area of the Northern District.”
Gibson said this spot has had a city police officer deployed there every day “from 10 a.m. to about 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning.”
“I typically had to pay an officer about five hours a day of overtime just to be in this area, just to keep it under control on this corner,” Gibson continued, estimating the total cost at “$60,000 to $70,000 a year.”
The officers and Becky Lundberg Witt, the Community Law Center attorney representing the bar’s neighbors, came with pages of printed-out 911 calls. They also had the story of a December 26 homicide “directly outside the bar.”
“The suspects involved in this case are known people who constantly congregate outside the bar,” Gibson said. “And the gentleman who came down here to buy drugs, they had an altercation – obviously it was drug related.”
“The Community is Terrified”
The theme was continued by one of the protestants, a woman who lives six blocks from the tavern and who said she was speaking for closer neighbors afraid to “show their face.”
“There is so much violence and so much fear of retribution that you refuse to deal with that we are living in terror,” said Dr. Elizabeth Simons Kasameyer.
The three commissioners clearly found the testimony disturbing. All agreed it was credible.
“I believe her testimony that the community is terrified,” Liquor Board chairman Albert J. Matricciani, Jr. said.
But the board ultimately voted unanimously to renew the establishment’s license.
Despite all the testimony and documentation, there was no record at the Liquor Board itself of any violation of state liquor laws.
None of the 911 calls or police reports had ever been forwarded to the board.
“I feel like I’m living in Oz or something because I have in front of me licensees who’ve had the license since 2014 without a single complaint being made,” Matricciani said.
“And then I hear that they operate an establishment that is a significant cause of the worst violence in Baltimore City, and that there are officers there almost the entire daytime and evening constantly shooing away violent criminals and drug dealers,” he continued.
“The police are getting 911 complaints about a liquor establishment repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly – why aren’t they telling us?”
Commissioner Aaron Greenfield said he also was “troubled” by what he heard from Gibson and his team and “surprised that the liquor commission is unaware of it.”
“The police are getting 911 complaints about a liquor establishment repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly,” Matricciani asked. “Why aren’t they telling us?”
“That’s a question I have been asking for a really long time,” Witt said, going on to offer her explanation for the lack of followup.
“I think that there has been a historic disconnect between the agencies that I think both agencies are partially to blame for,” she answered.
Faulting the Cops
Acknowledging that the Waverly Tavern is not “a model business,” attorney Stephan W. Fogleman said his clients, the licensees, were not properly informed of “the magnitude” of problems at their establishment.
He pressed Gibson and his officers, saying they should have policed the establishment more closely.
“Why don’t you arrest these loiterers. You know where they are! It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” said Fogleman, who is a former liquor board chairman.
That’s the kind of approach discouraged by the 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report and subsequent consent decree with the city, Gibson fired back.
“Sir, read the report. We’re not going out there just to clear corners and lock everybody up,” he said. “You have good patrons that are out there. They’re just leaving the bar. I’m not going to have a wagon come along and just start locking those up.”
Why hadn’t she entered the tavern to discuss problems with the owners? Kasameyer said she was terrified of the place.
Asked by Fogleman why she didn’t go into the business and advise the staff to better control its customers, Sgt. Amy Streett pushed back as well.
“They see me come through, sir, and they see me ask the people to leave, so they know that there’s a problem out there, sir,” Streett said.
Pressed on why she had never entered the tavern to discuss problems with the owners, Kasameyer said she was deeply afraid of the place.
“I have watched this bar go from a place where you would want to live across the street and you wouldn’t mind stopping there, to a place where I am terrified to even stop at the stop sign,” said Kasameyer, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2009.
“These are people who carry guns. They pulled an AK-47 off my street,” she said. “You think I’m going to go up there and hang out with them?”
Fogleman said no one from the community, including the Waverly Improvement Association, had informed the licensees (Bibek Gautam, Shekar Karki and Rupendra Luitel) of any problems before March 28.
“These problem were a trickle on March 28 and they dealt with them – they’re finding out they’re an avalanche today,” Fogleman said.
The corporate entity associated with their license, a BD7 Beer, Wine and Liquor License, is BS&R LLC, according to records on file with the Liquor Board. The license was transferred to the three on December 2, 2014.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, contradicted Fogleman’s account.
Clarke said the association had reached out during the Transform rezoning process “and couldn’t get a meeting with them.” (She said she was speaking on behalf of Councilman Bill Henry, whose district includes the tavern and was unable to stay until the end of the hearing.)
Witt addressed why, other than complaints about trash and illegal dumping, there were no 311 complaints about the tavern.
Citizens call 911 instead, she said, because they think it’s more appropriate to a violent or criminal situation and because they have become discouraged by the city’s lack of responsiveness to non-emergency 311 complaints.
“They say ‘311 doesn’t work – I call 911,’” she said. “Because that’s what people tell them to do.”
When it came time for a vote, Greenfield at first suggested a postponement to let the two sides work out an agreement and “to find out where the disconnect is,” but the board dropped that idea after Fogleman objected to it.
Matricciani, Greenfield and Commissioner Elizabeth E. Hafey said their hands were tied by the law.
Witt disagreed, saying a renewal revocation does not require the board itself to have found a violation.
“Under Rule 3.12, licensees have the responsibility to run their establishment in such a way that does not disturb the peace, safety and welfare of the community,” she said.
The commissioners encouraged the neighborhood association to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the licensees. Fogleman said the owners would agree to many provisions, including better lighting, but they couldn’t commit to hiring a security guard because of concerns about the cost.
Afterwards, Witt said the hearing demonstrated “a systemic failure” between two agencies to communicate and coordinate with each other – with the victims “being the people who live on that block who have been suffering.”