Clubbin’ conundrum

Cayman’s night-time hot spots are getting a bit too hot. But fixing the problem is more complicated than it seems.

Party people, police, nightclub owners and most residents in Grand Cayman have long known that violent incidents were occurring in and around clubs and bars.

Police raised concerns constantly about the issue in 2008 when a steady stream of shootings, knifings, and bar fights were reported. Some of those incidents led to clubs being temporarily or even permanently closed by their owners.

To start off this year, things seemed to be getting back under control. Fewer violent incidents were reported than in 2008.

Then 10 September, 35-year-old Carlo Webster was gunned down on the dance floor of the Next Level nightclub on West Bay Road – in the heart of a busy night-time entertainment area for Grand Cayman’s tourists and residents. A picture of Carlo’s lifeless body, apparently taken with a cell phone camera, was distributed island-wide within hours.

It might have been easy to blame the club for lack of security, and some of the 150 people who were there that night did.

But police officers investigating the crime did not.

“The security at the Next Level is particularly good,” said Royal Cayman Islands Police Service Chief Inspector Peter Kennett a day after the shooting. “(Security) clearly wasn’t tight enough because a weapon was fired inside a nightclub, which is deplorable. But, there is no such thing as total security. I think the club…took every precaution.”

There were at least ten security guards inside and outside the Next Level at the time of the shooting. Some dozen closed-circuit television cameras were operational at the time.

The realisation for club owners and club-goers began to sink in.

“Something always will go wrong,” club owner Joe DeFilippo tells the Observer on Sunday. DeFilippo recently purchased the Next Level from former owner Harry Lalli and plans to reopen it as “Jet” nightclub in mid-December.

“No matter how much security you have in place, no matter how well your searches are (done),” he says, “all you can do is try to control it and minimise it.”

But not all subscribe to such a view. Former Deputy Chair of Grand Cayman’s Liquor Licensing Board, Lynn Bodden, said in a recent interview that plans for change have been drawn up in a joint effort by police, board members and the National Drug Council.

Those proposals have been presented to government officials and are expected to be reviewed by Cabinet members with an eye toward changing Cayman’s Liquor Licensing Law.

“We believe this is the right time, with everything that’s been happening,” says Bodden, who still chairs the Liquor Licensing Review Panel that was formed during the last government.

Recommendations to be presented to Cabinet deal with several key areas within the Liquor Licensing Law. They include recommendations on how liquor licenses are obtained, security measures that must be taken, and enhancements to the powers of the Liquor Licensing Board to deal with problem establishments.

The recommendations have not been set down in any legal draft form and Bodden admits there’s still quite a bit of work to be done. However, she believes the recent club violence and other robberies and muggings around clubs and bars will encourage government to act.

One of the strongest recommendations made to government is that everyone who serves alcohol at a liquor licensed establishment should receive required training to be provided by the National Drug Council.

“So people know how to serve, they know when to stop serving, they know when someone has gotten to the point when they’re intoxicated,” Bodden says.

Such training would be required for bartenders, wait staff, and managers of clubs. Those individuals would receive licenses under the “TIPS” programme of the National Drug Council.

They would also receive training in how to spot fake IDs, and be required to adhere to new regulations that ask club staff to only accept drivers’ licences or passports as acceptable forms of identification.

Bodden says a few of the clubs and bars have already volunteered to put their employees through the training.

The age at which an individual can obtain a liquor license in Cayman was also recommended to change. Right now, any Caymanian 21 or over can apply for a licence. Recommendations are for that age to be increased.

Proposals being sent to government also ask that stronger measures be put in place to make it easier for the Liquor Licensing Board to revoke or suspend the liquor licenses of problem establishments.

“Presently, the board really has no power to revoke a licence at all,” Bodden says. “We recommended that the board be given power to revoke the licence in cases where the police aren’t able to.”

Under Cayman law, the RCIPS commissioner has the ability to close down clubs in certain circumstances where an immediate threat to public safety has been established. Bars and clubs can also be prosecuted and have their licences revoked following two separate court convictions.

“That process can take years,” Bodden says.

The liquor board does have the ability to put licensed premises on probation, and it does so frequently, although that power is not specified in the actual Liquor Licensing Law but rather in the board’s regulations. The board can also revoke music and dancing licences under certain circumstances.

Proposals to give the liquor board more unilateral power to revoke or suspend licences have previously been met with resistance from club owners, and this time is no exception.

“That’s always fraught with difficulties because we’re talking about personalities and how objective people can be,” says Pepper’s nightclub licensee Lloyd Samson. “There are already provisions there that repeat serious offenders…can see charges brought in Summary Court.”

“It should be a court process,” DeFilippo says. “It’s a matter of rights.”

In the end, incidents like shootings and stabbings around clubs aren’t good for the businesses either, Samson says.

“I don’t think there should be this adversarial relationship between the clubs and the board,” he says. “Clearly, what’s bad for business are the same things that annoy the police and the public.”

Club closures
In any case, simply closing down a nightclub or bar that has been a problem spot can end up creating more problems than it solves.

Just ask RCIPS Inspector Richard Harford.

In an interview earlier this year, Inspector Harford confirmed that at least two shootings in central George Town occurred near areas where unlicensed street parties, commonly known in the Cayman Islands as ‘sessions’ were being held.

Whether those involved in the recent shootings were actually attending the street parties in both instances was not known, but Harford freely admits that the unlicensed events are a major headache.

“Some of these guys are persistent,” Harford says. “They (hold parties) every weekend, and that’s actually where all of the anti–social behaviours take place.”

Street parties also tend to move around to make it more difficult for police to find them.

“It’s the balloon effect,” said Mr. Harford. “You put pressure on one side and the other side blows up.”

Inspector Harford said police in George Town are making greater efforts now to control these illegal parties which generally happen between midnight and 6am on weekends.

Not only are those who host the parties, play music and sell alcohol acting illegally, but Mr. Harford said individuals who attend the sessions might also be arrested if police arrive.

Samson says he doesn’t believe the sessions are as big a problem as they were in the late 1990’s in Cayman. However, he says closing one club can just lead its patrons to go down the street to the next one.

This situation can be addressed by nightclub and bar owners, Samson says.

“What we have tried to do, and to a certain extent it was done, that if you’re banned from a particular nightclub – if there was a way we could network with each other so (that person) doesn’t show at somebody else’s doorstep,” Samson says.  

DeFilippo also notes that under the current law, not all liquor licensees are treated equally. He points out that some bars are allowed to serve alcohol on Friday nights until 1.30am or 1.45am now. Nightclubs must stop serving at 2am, although they can remain open until 3am.

“There are bars now acting as clubs,” DeFilippo says. “They have 250-300 people and they don’t have to follow the laws of the clubs. Some of them have one security guard.”

Nightclub owners and tourism-based business have also urged government to allow nightclubs to remain open until at least 1am Sunday. Currently, the Cayman Islands Music and Dancing Law require those premises to shut down at midnight Sunday.

“From a standpoint of tourists coming to the Islands, it’s necessary,” he says. “I would invite anybody to come and stand there on a Saturday night when tourists are here for the first time and they have to leave at 12 o’clock. The amount of abuse we take…it’s ridiculous.”

Security matters
Recommendations regarding security at bars and nightclubs are contained in the report to be presented to lawmakers, Bodden says.

However, those are largely an issue of scale for nightclubs, since most already have security measures in place.

“We’re recommending more security guards in the clubs, closed-circuit TV in the clubs,” Bodden says. “There was a recommendation by police that all licensed establishments should have it (CCTV).”

However, Bodden says the review panel did not end up carrying the CCTV recommendation to government.

“We just felt because of the economy, we didn’t think there would ever by an issue with Casanova and places like that,” she says. “But obviously someone was robbed outside Casanova.”

A woman was mugged earlier this year in the parking lot across the street from the waterfront restaurant.

The Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce has advocated that island-wide connectivity be established for CCTV cameras, so that those video feeds can be sent directly to police stations. Bar and club owners have also supported that proposal.  

What happens outside nightclubs and bars has been another touchy issue, with club owners arguing they simply can’t police everything that happens in the street around their establishments.

“What has been our experience is that when there’s a major incident and we get hauled before the board and chastised…(police) show up for a while and then they slack off,” Samson says.

Clubs have asked police to maintain presence in their parking lots, particularly around closing time on the weekends to make sure those hanging around in the lots don’t get into scuffles after-hours. RCIPS officers have done so in the past as staffing levels and calls for service have allowed.

RCIPS Chief Superintendent Adrian Seales says bar and nightclub security is a top priority for the police.

“We’ve adopted a high-profile policing approach in the areas surrounding the bars and clubs,” Seales says, adding that the clubs themselves have taken a number of steps in the past 18 months to better secure their own premises.

“These include the use of metal detectors, stop and search operations, roadblocks and high visibility patrols at peak times.”

Seales also hinted at a new Cayman Islands “Bar Watch Programme” that will introduced in the beginning of 2010 by the RCIPS, but provided no further details.