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VOL. 133 | NO. 183 | Friday, September 14, 2018

Return of Beale Street Cover Charge Adds Fuel to Debate

By Bill Dries

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There are still some details left to work out about the return of the Beale Street cover charge.

The Downtown Memphis Commission and Memphis police have to set criteria for when to use the cover charge. There is also the question of whether it is a $10 cover with coupons from merchants or the $5 cover with no rebates that was in place before the council abolished the cover altogether.

With Beale Street past the Labor Day weekend, the last weekend of the traditional spring-summer peak that the original cover charge was designed for, it could be next spring before the new cover charge is used. Or it could be used for the crowds that come for Memphis Grizzlies home games at FedExForum starting in October.

But the Tuesday, Sept. 11, city council vote to return to the cover charge as a security measure in the entertainment district shows no signs of quelling the controversy even during the fall off season.

“There are better ways to keep Beale Street safe than charging a $5 fee,” State Rep. Raumesh Akbari, chairwoman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, tweeted the day after the council decision. “Never paid to be on any public street ANYWHERE, even in an entertainment district.”

Under terms of the resolution, approved on a 7-4 vote, the decision to use the cover charge would be made using “a needs-based determination in the interest of public safety” using “an established set of criteria” along with consulting with the Beale Street Merchants Association.

Council members will continue to have a voice in setting the criteria.

The DMC runs the district on a day-to-day basis for the city, which owns Beale Street. The merchants association has been a vocal proponent of the cover charge.

In the move to restore the cover charge, the council Tuesday also approved 23 other safety recommendations made by a Beale Street Task Force on the advice of Event Risk Management Solutions, a consulting firm paid with money accumulated from the earlier cover charge.

Council chairman Berlin Boyd didn’t care for comments Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings made before the council vote, saying the Sept. 10 shooting at Purple Haze nightclub showed the need for an immediate return to the cover charge.

Boyd called the comments “skewed.” He cites police officers sitting in their cars in the district instead of patrolling on foot as “one of the biggest issues we have.”

Boyd and council member Martavius Jones also said the cover charge wouldn’t have stopped the shooting at Purple Haze since it’s outside the security perimeter for the district.

A recent Chancery Court decision makes the club at Second Street and Lt. Lee part of the district for purposes of staying open and serving alcoholic beverages until 5 a.m.

Jones said wanding for weapons stopped almost an hour before the shooting anyway.

“Whether we charge $5, $10 or $100, if we stop wanding at 2 o’clock this is a case where the charge would not have prevented what took place,” he said. “These are the type things I want to bring up and discuss.”

Council members Worth Morgan and Ford Canale said it was imperative for the council to act on at least some of the recommendations following a shooting Monday morning before dawn at the Purple Haze nightspot that injured at least four people.

“This is something that should not wait,” Morgan said.

Council member Kemp Conrad proposed two weeks ago using a cover charge whenever there are expected to be 10,000 or more people in the district. It was a deliberate move away from the use of the cover charge specifically on Saturday nights in the spring and summer starting at 10 p.m.

The timing of the charge has drawn fire from council member Jamita Swearengen, who says Saturday is the night African-American attendance on Beale is at its highest.

Boyd said the 10,000-people threshold would have been challenged.

“The first 10,000 folks down there and this occurs and it’s predominantly African-American, I guarantee you a lawsuit will be filed for discrimination. … It’s profiling, that’s what it boils down to. Whatever we do should be fair and equitable. If we are going to charge one night, we need to charge all nights.”

Morgan disagreed.

“We shouldn’t sacrifice the safety of citizens for optics,” he said.

Council attorney Allan Wade wanted to see other criteria to go with the headcount threshold and also thought it should be used on a trial basis with the council taking the data from that and evaluating it.

Wade thought just using the expected crowd count on the street might run afoul of the conclusion in the ERMS study that there was no correlation between stampedes in the district and the size of the crowd at the time.

But the council debate turned a corner with a call by council member Bill Morrison to let the Memphis Police and the Downtown Memphis Commission make the call on when the cover charge is imposed.

“What is the pattern and can we make decisions on that?” he asked of the problem of stampedes and other violence.

Morrison called on the council to pass 23 other recommendations and work on shaping the methodology on how the police and DMC make the call on when the cover charge is used.

“And we take our hands out of it,” he said.

An earlier lawsuit over the cover charge became a moot point when the council voted to abolish it but kept security checkpoints in place for spring and summer Saturday nights.

The cover charge emerged after another federal court challenge of the Memphis police policy of clearing the street at an arbitrary pre-dawn hour.

U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla ruled in 2015 the sweep violated Constitutional rights of thousands and appointed a court monitor for the next year to oversee changes including police training.

“I would prefer that we have some combination as long as it’s done on a trial basis so we can evaluate it at the end of some point in time,” Wade told council members. “I think that’s going to address it more than just having an arbitrary number. And I do believe that a court would look at MPD’s determination as being needs-based, based on safety.”

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