Private after-hour social clubs difficult to track, police in Cincinnati

CINCINNATI – There is no hard-and-fast policing strategy of after-hour private clubs in the city, and often, authorities don’t even know of their existence until violence erupts or until they're called for service.

Unlike traditional bars, which require a liquor license granted by the state to sell alcohol, all private after-hour clubs need to do to is abide by city zoning laws and charge a membership fee to serve alcohol – not sell it, authorities said.

And when the clock strikes 2 a.m. here, bars close down and stop serving alcohol.

A dynamic alternative after-hours scene could be moving to fill the vacuum with a palette of unlicensed social clubs. Akin to the password-required speakeasy joints of the bygone Prohibition era, the exclusiveness of these places is the hook to their appeal.

Sometimes, those looking for a few extra drinks also can find trouble at after-hours establishments.

The latest incident of shots fired outside the Kumasi Motorcycle Club in the West End resulted in the death of Jason Dukes, 33. Dukes was shot once in the head outside of the club at about 4:45 a.m. Saturday. He was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

A voicemail left at the phone number listed on the Kumasi Motorcycle Club Facebook page was not returned.

District 1 commander Capt. Mike John, who oversees policing in the West End, said the police department does not maintain a list of after-hour social clubs not because there is a lack of interest, but often police don’t know of their existence until they’re called.

“They are not required to formally register,” John said. “Generally speaking, they operate without us intervening at all, unless we’re called.”

The other way police know of these establishments is when an officer, normally working the night shift, may notice a crowd of people or cars parked outside of an establishment. Most of the time the clubs are quiet, John said.

Some, though, can become more illicit.

“Locations sometimes have illegal gambling, liquor sales and even semi-nude dancing,” John said.

The best weapon police have against problem after-hour clubs is to seek a nuisance abatement order from the city, he said.

In areas zoned residential multi-family districts, clubs and lodges are permitted to operate so long as they do not exceed 3,000 square feet of gross floor area, according to the city planning and building department.

John said he doesn’t want it to sound like police were getting Orwellian, “and we’re not in the business of shutting businesses down, but people ought to be able to expect to drive down any street without fear of violence.”

And as long as the club operates on a bring-your-own-bottle policy or charges membership fees to serve alcohol, such clubs are not illegal to operate, said Cincinnati vice section Sgt. Kara Graves. Some, she said, operate out of private homes.

An after-hours club is a lot less expensive to run than a conventional bar, too. Graves said buying a liquor license can cost thousands, and that doesn't include buying or renting a building and bar equipment.

But Graves doesn’t see after-hour clubs as a widespread problem.

"They can be neighborhood nuisances,” Graves said. “I can't recall one time where people welcomed them in the neighborhood.”

She said the vice squad has investigated a handful of after-hours clubs in her three years in the unit.

Tom Gamel, president of the East Price Hill Improvement Association, said there are two that operate in the neighborhood, and reiterated that some operate out of private homes.

“I’ve heard some complaints from people in the area, but I can’t remember violent incidents,” he said.

If authorities discover that an after-hours business is selling alcohol, the owner can face misdemeanor charges for running a bar without a license. John and Graves said civil court action – declaring a place a nuisance – is probably the most effective way to shut one down.

The after-hours club, John noted, is not like a bar with a liquor license, which gives police officers reason to enter at will and look around. In contrast, he said the after-hours club is like a private party on private property, which presents the police department with a dilemma – Can officers enter the property without a warrant or not?

They can’t.

READ: Crime and justice stories from Kareem Elgazzar
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