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Turning the Tables 

Police have made a number of arrests and seizures of DJ equipment at underground parties and clubs. Is it enforcement or harassment?

Wednesday, Mar 17 2010

It was a good party, Arash Ghanadan thought: the right girl-guy ratio, a DJ spinning house music, attractive people. He had arrived alone at the loft space on Folsom at about 2:30 one June morning after finishing up a party he had promoted at a SOMA nightclub. It had been a big night across the city, and his industry friends were upstairs, talking about how their events had gone and who had booked the best DJ. Ghanadan was ready to unwind. He was about to go looking for a vodka and cranberry when the music shut off.

"The cops are here!" somebody said.

It didn't seem like a big deal: After-hours parties often get busted. The 50 people on the upper level started filing downstairs. Ghanadan, a 27-year-old engineer for Hewlett-Packard, was chatting with his friends, not really paying attention. Then, as he looked toward the door, he found himself staring directly a/t an undercover police officer.

Oh, shit, he thought. It's Larry.

He had butted heads with Officer Larry Bertrand six months earlier at an afterparty he was throwing at 570 Jessie in a building full of rehearsal studios. Ghanadan had walked his girlfriend to her car, and when he got back, Bertrand was outside the building door. The cop said he needed to check Ghanadan's permit and demanded to be let inside. Ghanadan refused. It was a private party, he told the cop; just some friends hanging out. He hadn't charged for admission. He saw no reason to let the police in without a warrant.

Bertrand put him in handcuffs and called for backup. Ghanadan said he was made to crouch on the filthy, needle-strewn ground of the alley. Then, Ghanadan alleges, Bertrand kicked his legs several times, trying to get him to sit flat. Ghanadan started to get scared.

At least 10 cops showed up, Ghanadan said, and eventually the fire department arrived to bust open the door.

Ghanadan got off with citations for running an afterparty without a permit and for obstructing a police investigation. "If you had opened the doors at the beginning, I wouldn't have written you a ticket," he says Bertrand told him.

Afterward, Ghanadan filed a complaint against Bertrand with the Office of Citizen Complaints, a civilian body in charge of investigating allegations of police misconduct. Ghanadan contended that Bertrand had wrongfully arrested him, used unnecessary force, and sworn at him.

In May, the OCC sent Ghanadan its findings: Four of his complaints — including wrongful arrest — were judged "proper conduct," meaning that Bertrand had just been doing his job. But Ghanadan's complaints about Bertrand kicking and threatening him were marked "Not Sustained," which meant there was not enough evidence to prove that Bertrand had done something wrong, or to prove that he hadn't.

Now, just a month after the OCC dismissed his complaints about Bertrand, Ghanadan was being confronted by his nemesis once again.

"Arash, come here!" Bertrand called.

"Damn, that guy knows you," someone near Ghanadan said.

When he got to the bottom of the stairs, Ghanadan alleges, Bertrand told him, "I remember you. You made a complaint about me to the OCC — now you will see what happens. I am taking you in and you are going to jail. This is the second time, and you're being arrested for throwing this party."

Even before Bertrand finished saying this, Ghanadan says, the cop was putting him in handcuffs. He tried to explain that he had nothing to do with the party, that he was just a guest, but Bertrand wouldn't listen. As soon as he was cuffed, Ghanadan alleges, Bertrand told the other police officers, "Let everyone else go."

Houdini Hamidi, a nightclub manager who was also at the afterparty, corroborates some of Ghanadan's account. He says he heard a cop call Ghanadan's name, put him in handcuffs, and then tell everyone else to leave. As Hamidi walked past Ghanadan, he says he heard the cop "say something to the effect that he had filed a complaint against him and he was going, 'I'll show you what happens when you file a complaint against me.' It was obviously like a vengeful comment."

Hamidi says he kept walking, not wanting to get involved, but he called Ghanadan the next day to make sure he was all right. Hamidi says he has known Ghanadan professionally through the nightclub scene for almost two years. "I thought it was a very unprofessional thing that the officer had done, and he was abusing his powers," Hamidi said. He has since filed a signed statement with Ghanadan's attorney.

As the officers searched his pockets at the SFPD's Southern Station, which oversees SOMA and the Embarcadero, Ghanadan had a sense of déjà vu. He was wearing the same jeans he had on during his last confrontation with Bertrand. They were Dolce and Gabbana, with four decorative zippers, which the officers kept opening and finding nothing there.

If you get arrested two times in the same jeans, Ghanadan remembers thinking, you should buy another pair.

Later that night, Ghanadan says he watched Bertrand through the glass window of the Southern Station holding cell as Bertrand catalogued the vodka and DJ equipment he had seized at the party. Finally, Ghanadan claims, Bertrand opened the door of the cell. Ghanadan says as he sat there, handcuffed to the bench, he again insisted that it hadn't been his party.

Bertrand accused him of sending e-mails promoting the party. Ghanadan recalled that Bertrand had been playing with his cellphone, as if looking for incriminating text messages.

"I am the king of busting after-hours," Bertrand allegedly boasted.

When you're a king, Ghanadan says he shot back, there's only one direction you can go.

In response, Ghanadan alleges in his lawsuit, Bertrand yelled at him, "Do you think you can complain to the OCC and ruin my record by complaining? Fuck you, I don't feel fucking sorry for you at all. This time you are going to jail, and you won't get out easily." He allegedly said this with another officer standing by. Ghanadan was finally given a citation for running an afterparty without a permit and released at noon. In the lawsuit Ghanadan filed against the city and Bertrand in December, he accused the officer of false arrest and imprisonment. Ghanadan and his attorneys claim that Bertrand arrested him in retribution for his OCC complaint.

Deputy City Attorney Robert Bonta, who is representing Bertrand in the case, says the arrest was fair and legal. According to Bertrand's police report, three witnesses told him Ghanadan had organized the party. That was enough probable cause to arrest Ghanadan, Bonta says, and Bertrand made none of the comments Ghanadan alleges he did.

But Ghanadan isn't the only one to complain about the so-called "king of busting after-hours." Bertrand's heavy-handed tactics attracted media attention in November and December when he confiscated laptops at several underground parties — a series of incidents that prompted a meeting between a lawyer for the DJs and Police Chief George Gascón and that led to a revised police policy for property seizures at illegal events. In the last three months, Bertrand and his partner, state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Inspector Michelle Ott, have become infamous not only within the underground scene, but also at legally licensed venues throughout SOMA.

Police officials say that the pair are just doing their jobs and helping keep San Francisco nightlife safe.

But owners and staff at six SOMA nightclubs say that Bertrand and Ott's policing is harsh and vindictive, and has crossed the line into harassment.

With police denying any problem with Bertrand and Ott's enforcement techniques, a group of nightclub owners say they are planning coordinated legal action to address the issue.

In response, their lawyer says, they're going to file an extraordinary lawsuit against the SFPD and the ABC — and sue the city and the state for racketeering.

Since last June, Bertrand and Ott have become familiar figures in certain parts of SOMA. Nightclub security staff on 11th Street describe Bertrand as a thin guy, maybe six feet tall, who wears a baseball cap when he's in plainclothes. Ott is much shorter, with curly hair; one bouncer said she looked Mediterranean. Sometimes they patrol in uniform, but often they're both undercover, Bertrand driving, Ott riding shotgun. Ghanadan said he spotted them once last winter disguised incongruously as a pair of ravers. Bertrand sported jeans and a ski hat; Ott was wearing a backpack.

Bertrand did not return repeated requests for comment. Through an ABC spokesman, Ott also declined to be interviewed. ABC spokesman John Carr wrote in an e-mail that neither Ott nor her boss, Erik Szakacs, would be commenting, "so the peace officers could continue to focus their efforts on several active investigations, some involving ongoing undercover work."

While media reps for both organizations emphasize that members of the SFPD and ABC often work together, Bertrand and Ott's ongoing partnership in the Southern District is something special.

"This was an opportunity where we had two people who just kind of clicked," said Inspector Dave Falzon, the police department's liaison to the ABC. "Larry was interested in doing club enforcement. Michelle was interested in finding someone in the city to work with."

Police officials deny that there's been a major change in nightlife enforcement since Bertrand and Ott have been on the club and party beat. If anything, Southern Station Captain Daniel A. McDonagh said, nightclub citations in his district have actually declined, thanks to better-run venues. The most he would say is that some tickets have been issued recently to "clubs that have normally not been an issue, if they're in violation for something egregious."

"The majority of clubs that they've gone to have no problems," he said, referring to Bertrand and Ott. Even Ghanadan says he knows that Bertrand has a good relationship with the staff of at least two SOMA nightclubs. "From what I heard, with some people he's the nicest guy," Ghanadan said.

ABC refused to release any information about Ott, even how long she has been working for its Bay Area office. Bertrand is a member of the San Francisco Police Officers Association board of directors. In his nine years with the SFPD, he has been the subject of two lawsuits alleging unfair arrest and improper use of force. One suit, filed in 2005, was later abandoned. In the other, the case went to trial and the jury declared Bertrand not liable.

Now, in an unrelated case, attorney Isaac Bowers says his client, Peter Gomez, is preparing to file a lawsuit against Bertrand. According to the police report, Bertrand arrested Gomez in front of the Chronicle building at 2 one August morning for breaking a window. Bowers says that after Gomez was already in handcuffs, Bertrand pushed his head through a window, then forced him to the ground and yanked back his arms, demanding, "Say sorry, bitch; tell me you're sorry, bitch."

The police report of the incident describes Gomez as confrontational, but confirms that his head went through the window after he was cuffed.

State law mandates that the records of complaints filed against peace officers, as well as their disciplinary records, remain confidential.

What is public knowledge is the fact that police instituted a new policy mandating that a supervising officer be present whenever cops bust underground parties — a direct reaction to the public outcry surrounding media reports about the confiscation of DJs' laptops at these events.

When Bertrand took DJ Justin Credible's laptop out of her hands, she says, she wasn't sure what was going on. She was playing at a friend's private Halloween bash at a large residence in SOMA when the party got busted by the cops. She says she wasn't using her laptop to play music; she had just been worried that it would be stolen if she left it in her car.

As the party was being broken up, she says a man in plainclothes approached her and asked for her laptop. When she produced it, Credible says, he took it and walked away. She followed him outside, where the party's other DJs were standing by, equally shocked at the confiscation of their equipment. Credible says that when the man opened the trunk of an unmarked car, she saw three or four laptops inside, as well as a DJ bag.

When she asked him what he was doing, she claims that he told her, "I'm going to single-handedly shut down every illegal party. We are a new task force, and this is our primary goal, to shut down these parties."

One of Credible's friends protested that one of the laptops belonged to his roommate. Bertrand allegedly responded, "You're never going to see this property again."

Credible got her laptop back a month later after the intervention of Jennifer Granick, an attorney from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who called the seizures "illegal" and "improper."

In the wake of a January meeting involving Granick, Gascón, and other city officials, the SFPD instituted a new policy mandating the presence of a supervising officer at busts of illegal parties and thorough documentation of any seized property.

"We're not saying anything was done wrong at the time," said Officer Boaz Mariles, an SFPD spokesman. "The officers acted as per the evidence code. Now we're just trying to take a step back. Maybe there are questions at the scene that needed to be answered, that the supervisors would need to address ... more interaction with the community."

Advocates of San Francisco's underground music scene, which is largely centered in SOMA, said the confiscations have had a chilling effect on parties, which they say are a crucial part of the city's culture and an important incubator for new talent.

"If SFPD's goal has been to stop arts activity in the neighborhood, they've succeeded," SOMA arts space activist Skot Kuiper said. He publicly called out Bertrand as a "blight" on the police department during a Board of Supervisors meeting on Feb. 9, the same day a "call the mayor" campaign orchestrated by supporters in front of City Hall protested the crackdown on underground parties.

"I've never known a more universally hated person in a neighborhood" than Bertrand, he said in an interview.

Jim Meko, a SOMA community activist and a member of the Entertainment Commission, said he has little sympathy for artists who throw illegal parties and then are shocked when the police bust them. He doesn't buy into what some have described as "the War on Fun."

"The misbehavior in the entertainment community got so institutionalized that the first thing they do is go running to the Board of Supervisors, expecting them to sanction [parties]," he said.

Meko calls himself "probably the police department's best friend on the Entertainment Commission." But, he said, Bertrand's name "has come up so frequently that I would have to question what his motives are. ... The burden on him is to justify what the hell he's trying to accomplish."

In a city like San Francisco, Meko said, the ideal is police enforcement that understands that nightclub noise and crowds are part of city life, and cops who can take a measured approach to keeping them in line.

But "there are elements in the police department that go beyond overzealous, that are just getting off on making life miserable for some venues."

As Meko noted, the sheer volume of anecdotal complaints racked up by Bertrand and Ott in six months is hard to ignore. Even if the two are being villainized by melodramatic nightlife activists, they seem to have given their critics plenty of ammunition.

The loudest complaints against Bertrand and Ott come from a cluster of clubs on 11th Street. This stretch between Folsom and Harrison draws an eclectic crowd: On a given night, there may be younger fans from all-ages rock shows at Slim's, partygoers from Mist's Asian or hip-hop events, guys in pirate hats for DNA Lounge's Bootie Night, or even scantily clad clowns for its Bohemian Carnival.

The owners of four 11th Street venues — DNA, Mist, Butter, and one shuttered club, Caliente — have all gone on the record with SF Weekly with complaints against Bertrand and Ott. (Staff from two other SOMA nightclubs described similar complaints, but said they were unwilling to go on the record for fear of being targeted. )

The complaints describe Bertrand and Ott as two officers on a power trip who target certain clubs, make unreasonable inspections, and verbally abuse security and staff.

Mike Quan, owner of Mist, said that Bertrand and Ott had been visiting his club since September, and that in January and early February they showed up every weekend. Quan said the pair repeatedly demanded to see his permits, even though they knew they were valid from previous checks.

One time, Quan alleges, Ott approached a mature-looking man on the dancefloor, demanded to see his ID, noted his information, and then walked away. Floor manager Hanh Nguyen said that at least once, Bertrand and Ott came in at the peak of a busy weekend night, got out their flashlights, and insisted on checking all the alcohol bottles at the bar for bugs — even though that meant putting the bar out of service in the middle of the party.

Quan's security staff say that Bertrand and Ott have chastised them for not keeping the club's sidewalks clear, even at 1:45 a.m., as people are leaving for the night. Quan's head of security said this was the harshest police enforcement he's seen in 10 years in the business. One night, Quan claims, Ott told him that she had shut down his other clubs and that Mist would be next.

Quan and his staff have a history with Bertrand and Ott: Last June, the two officers used an undercover sting to bust the Room, Quan's club on Sixth Street, for an illegal expansion downstairs. (Quan claims he had secured appropriate planning permission, but that there was a problem with the paperwork.) As well as confiscating most of the stock in the downstairs bar, Nguyen said, Bertrand and Ott poured out an estimated 24 to 30 bottles of alcohol that were already open after Ott claimed there were fruit flies in one of them. They also arrested a 31-year-old bartender who had left his ID at home, even though Quan says he offered to show them a copy he had in his office.

Of course, the bust at the Room didn't come out of nowhere: The week before, Bertrand had responded to a stabbing on the Room's dancefloor.

According to the police incident report, officers arrived at the club to find a man bleeding from his stomach and arm. He told police he had been on the dancefloor and thought someone had hit him, but when he looked down he saw he had been stabbed.

"It wasn't a big stabbing," Quan said. As he describes it, some guy had stuck another guy with a box cutter. He never heard back from the victim; if it had been serious, he argues, he would have been sued.

Club Caliente on 11th Street was cited three times last fall for having minors on the premises, but owner Maurice Salinas claims he was forced to shut down completely after his primarily Latino patrons interpreted a bust by Bertrand and Ott as an immigration raid. As SF Weekly reported in December, Salinas complained to the Entertainment Commission, alleging racial profiling, intimidation, and harassment, after officers including Bertrand and Ott lined his customers up against the wall to check their IDs. Salinas says that subsequent attendance dropped dramatically, forcing him to shut the club.

In an interview, McDonagh emphasized, "Caliente was never singled out to say that we're going to shut it down. We don't want to see people shut their businesses; we just want to see them in compliance with the law."

At nightlife stalwart DNA Lounge, owner Jamie Zawinski says his club was cited by Bertrand and Ott for having too many patrons blocking the sidewalk on New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day weekend. Zawinski labeled these charges "bullshit," since the events took place on busy holidays, his patrons were orderly, and the sidewalk wasn't actually blocked. Zawinski, who blogs extensively about controversies over ABC and SFPD nightlife enforcement, says that Bertrand told one of his staff that he knew about the blogging, and that they would see more of him in the future.

Zawinski and Quan both allege that Bertrand and Ott failed to follow up on tickets issued to their venues. Zawinski said that when his manager went to the Hall of Justice to deal with a ticket for not keeping the sidewalk clear, a clerk told him the ticket was invalid. Quan said that when Ott issued him a ticket for the Room, his court date was rescheduled for a furlough day, and that he showed up to find that no one was there.

Javier Magallon, the bartender who was arrested during the bust of the Room, said that this happened when he tried to find out why he had been arrested. The trouble started when Ott approached him belligerently, he said. "Every time she asked a question, she prefaced it with, 'If you don't answer this, you're going to jail,'" he recalled. He couldn't understand the strong-arm treatment. At one point, he claims, Bertrand asked him for his laptop. He was a bartender; why would he have a laptop?

Magallon said he tried to cooperate, even backing out from behind the bar so it would be easier for Bertrand to put on the handcuffs. He said Bertrand treated him roughly anyway, shoving him down on a couch and cinching the handcuffs way too tightly. "Never was I wrangled like that in my life," Magallon said.

What gets him most, Magallon said, is the sense that he was targeted and treated harshly for no good reason. He said Ott cited him for resisting arrest and obstructing justice, but when he turned up for his court date, it was a furlough day — and although he called Ott to find out what he should do next, he never got a response. After the incident, he quit his job and didn't work for almost three months. "I was just really bitter about going back to bartending," he said. "I wasn't sure I wanted to go back to the industry."

He got another bartending job in North Beach, and asked that his new place of employment not be included in the article.

"Ninety-nine percent of every correspondence I've ever had with the San Francisco police [has] been nothing but fair," he said. "They have been nothing but justified in everything I've done with them. It's just this one cop, Larry Bertrand, he doesn't deserve the honor of wearing the badge. The sooner the department does something about him, the better."

To many in the city's nightlife scene, including San Francisco's most prominent entertainment activists, Bertrand and Ott are only one flashpoint in what they see as a citywide SFPD and ABC crackdown on entertainment venues. In response, Entertainment Commissioner Terrance Alan and others have founded the California Music and Culture Association (CMCA), an industry advocacy group, to help coordinate a nightlife community response.

Most say the crackdown started in late 2008 with ABC's much-decried enforcement of specific permit demands about how much and what kind of food should be served at all-ages music venues, including Café Du Nord, Bottom of the Hill, Slim's, and Great American Music Hall, and has continued to expand, threatening the viability of San Francisco's nightlife. It doesn't hurt the conspiracy theories that ABC's new director, Steve Hardy, is a former San Francisco cop, or that little-loved Southern District permit officer Rose Meyer is now working for the ABC.

In early December, Ghanadan says that he and his lawyers attended a CMCA "founders' meeting" with 30 to 40 other people involved in the city's nightlife. It was designed to discuss broad problems with enforcement, but it turned out that at least 10 people at the meeting had had run-ins with Bertrand, Ghanadan said.

Mark Rennie, a former nightclub owner and San Francisco entertainment attorney, says he has been overwhelmed by complaints from his clients about ABC and SFPD enforcement, and believes that San Francisco's nightlife culture is under serious attack. Last fall, he got a call from trial attorney Mark Webb, who wanted to hear more about Bertrand and the problems Rennie's clients had been having. Webb began to develop an audacious plan. What if he put all the complaints together and made a grand gesture to get the city's attention?

Webb suggested that he use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law, a statute created to prosecute Mafia organizations, to file a complaint against the ABC and the SFPD — suing the government agencies, he says, for acting like the Mob.

Early last year, Webb had given up his career as an attorney and moved to Mexico to open a yoga studio. He had a messy divorce and a run-in with the California Bar Association (he got a two-year probation in 2008 for a delayed payment to another attorney). San Miguel de Allende, he says, was a small, soothing town with cobblestone streets and a population of American retirees. He says he was living modestly and giving yoga lessons.

But it was a little too quiet in San Miguel, and then swine flu broke out. So Webb came back to San Francisco. He moved into the Zen Center, where he had practiced meditation for many years, and decided to go back to the law. He wanted to do something inspiring and worthwhile, and when he heard the talk about Larry Bertrand and the ABC crackdown, he thought of his experience doing RICO cases as a young lawyer.

It seemed like the perfect fit.

Over the past two months, Webb has been gathering a group of plaintiffs, including Maurice Salinas of Caliente, Jamie Zawinski of DNA, Mike Quan of the Room and Mist, and bartender Javier Magallon, all of whom have complaints about Bertrand and Ott's enforcement.

But Webb says the lawsuit is much bigger than two officers in SOMA: He says additional plaintiffs will include Philippe Rieser, the managing partner of Vessel.

Rieser, who also owns the New York nightclub Cielo, said in an interview that he lost about $160,000 in a business deal to acquire Azul, a downtown San Francisco club near Vessel, and turn it into a late-night restaurant. Rieser says that as he was in the process of buying Azul's liquor license, ABC changed the conditions of the license from a 2 a.m. closing time to midnight, making it effectively worthless.

There's a long list of crimes that fall under racketeering, Webb says, and he believes that what the police and the ABC have done fits the bill. Arresting Magallon unfairly, Webb suggests, counts as kidnapping. Interfering with the sale of a liquor license from one nightclub owner to another who's from New York? That could be interference with interstate commerce.

Using RICO is a dramatic move, but that's part of the goal: Webb wants to catch the city's attention.

Suing San Francisco with a statute designed for the Mob isn't quite as strange as it might seem. RICO has been used against big tobacco companies, antiabortion protesters, and the alleged collusion between Microsoft and Best Buy. In 2006, the Supreme Court let stand a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that allowed a plaintiff to use RICO to sue the Los Angeles Police Department as a racketeering organization.

That lawsuit, part of the aftermath of the LAPD Rampart scandal, in which police officers allegedly took kickbacks from drug dealers, planted false evidence and used it to obtain convictions, and conducted beatings and shootings, was eventually settled by the city out of court.

"Unusual uses of the RICO statute are, in a certain way, maybe the norm," said David Slansky, chairman of the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice. "This is a statute that has been used throughout its history in lots of way that the original backers may not have had in mind."

Rory Little, a professor at UC Hastings who has taught federal criminal law for 21 years, was more skeptical about the merits of a theoretical RICO case against government enforcement agencies. "The reality is that RICO has been abused by plaintiffs for many years," he says. Lawyers often file RICO cases to get leverage in making a settlement or to attract attention, he said, "but nine times out of 10, civil RICO suits end up being dismissed."

A serious RICO suit against a government agency, Little said, might include patterns of bribery or criminal assault — but not, for instance, police arrests that may or may not be lawful. "It's a sexy claim," he continues, but "usually it just ends up being a dispute about business practices or enforcement practices."

Webb conceded that the fact that there was no evidence that the alleged harsh police tactics were linked to bribery or kickbacks made the RICO angle trickier, but he said he believed it was still an appropriate use of the law. He said it was also possible that a federal prosecutor might even be interested in picking up the case, depending on the reception of the media publicity around the planned lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the complaints against Bertrand and Ott may be having an effect. Over the past couple of weeks, club sources say the pair has gone on the down-low. Their weekly visits to DNA and Mist have stopped. Their last bust was clearing out Butter for being over capacity on Feb. 19. Since then, club staff say the two haven't checked in on any of their usual suspects on 11th Street.

Vladimir Cood, owner of Butter, speculated that the media attention has driven Bertrand and Ott underground. The last time Cood spotted Ott and Bertrand driving down 11th Street was in late February. They were driving in their unmarked car. They didn't even slow down, he said; he saw their faces briefly, and then they rolled on by.

In an earlier version of this story, the writer mistakenly attributed a statement to Robbie Kowal of Mojito about a rumored meeting between Police Chief George Gascón and Entertainment Commissioner Terrance Alan. Mr. Kowal's last name was also misspelled. We regret the errors.

About The Author

Lois Beckett


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