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On safe(r) nightlife

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There are not a lot of nightclub shootings in Winston-Salem.

Most years, for example, there are none.

But an incident outside the Red Rooster nightclub in February 2007 was anything but an acceptable loss.

That night, after a private party at the club turned into a parking-lot brawl, a 22-year-old Winston-Salem State University student allegedly shot Sgt. Howard Plouff of the Winston-Salem Police Department in the face.

And though there are not a lot of nightclub shootings in Winston-Salem, one like this was apparently one too many.

In response, city leaders want to impose a code of safety from the top down. Called the Violence Reduction Program, it’s designed to make nightlife safer with guidelines and suggestions for club owners and employees to “encourage healthy nightclub and nightclub entertainment commerce,” according to an August version of the initiative.

The ordinance, which as of its latest wording lacks in clarity, allows city government the leeway, with no stated criteria, to deem a nightclub an “unsafe operation,” subjecting it to stricter regulation than others under penalty of losing its business permit.

And while one police officer slain in a nightclub is one too many, the city of Winston-Salem is overstepping its bounds on this one. Unable to pass legislation that contradicts North Carolina’s ABC laws, it seems intent on regulating live entertainment, something many see as a vital component to the City of the Arts.

The proposed ordinance will require some clubs to hire extra security personnel – off-duty cops, mostly – under criteria that could wipe out a bar’s entire take for the night. Having uniformed security may be an effective way to curb violence, but the fact of the matter is that there were off-duty law enforcement agents working on that fateful night at the Red Rooster, and they were unable to prevent Sgt. Plouff’s death.

It places the onus of security at live music shows on the promoter, which alters general standard business practice and has many of the area’s private promoters worried that they will no longer be able to do business in the city.

And the proposed plan exempts businesses that serve more food than alcohol, whether they have live entertainment or not.

Everyone agrees that a safe bar is a happy bar, but the plan as proposed by Winston-Salem City Council gives more power to government over businesses that are overregulated to begin with, and far too many responsibilities on bar owners and promoters. It could certainly benefit from another troubleshooting session like the one last week during the public safety committee meeting of the council, and the question that should first be asked is: Do we need this program?

Sometimes nightclub violence is a self-correcting problem.

Last week Mark Jacobs, owner of the Red Rooster who had thus far successfully defended his club against lawsuits from the city to shut him down, sold his last beer at the location and closed the doors for good. Business was never the same after the shooting – not even changing the club’s name to “Big Cans” helped.

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