Scott MacKay Commentary: Time For Providence Club Owners To Control Violent Patrons

Aug 7, 2014

Street crime is once again a political topic in Providence. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says it’s time for nightclub owners to better control their rowdy customers.

Providence must figure out a way to deal with the violence springing up in Federal Hill and other neighborhoods with clubs.

Federal Hill is more restaurant theme park than Little Italy these days. While the Providence neighborhood is dear to older generations of Italian-Americans, it is no longer the fulcrum of such revered up-from-poverty Rhode Islanders as former Sen. John Pastore, who grew up there.

The neighborhood’s traditions are kept alive by the wonderful array of eateries and shops along Atwells Avenue that serve some of New England’s best food. But recently, the balmy summer evenings along this foodie and people-watching mecca have been shattered by violence when nightclubbing young rowdies spill into the streets as the bars serve their last calls.

In one recent week, there were three violent incidents in the Hill neighborhood, including  a beating death in a parking lot near Atwells Avenue.  While Mayor Angel Taveras and Federal Hill business leaders call for a shutdown of night clubs on the Hill, club owners bristle.

One of them, Gianfranco Morrocco, was so incensed with the mayor that he said Taveras, who was born in New York and is of Dominican ancestry, should ``run back to the Dominican Republic.’’ The insult carried a twisted irony; Morrocco is an immigrant who came to our country from Italy.

Crime, like the poor, will always be with us. Yet facts are stubborn things and they show that violent crime is down in the capital city. There are gang-related shootings in the poverty-stricken areas of Providence’s South Side, but overall, the city is safer than many others of its size in the northeast.

We are in the silly season of electioneering and Taveras is campaigning for governor. So he is fair game for jingoistic bar owners and candidates with more ambition than reason. State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, running against Taveras in the Democratic primary, seeks to blame him for shootings . Taveras, she says, is responsible for cuts in the police department that have led to fewer officers on the street. (Raimondo has also hammered Taveras for high business tax rates. Given the mountain of city budget red ink that he inherited from former Mayor David Cicilline, it appears she is trying to have it both ways on this one. Without some police cuts, taxes would be even higher).

As far as the Federal Hill crime wave goes, it isn’t fair to pin the blame on the mayor. The problem goes back years, as the city Zoning Board of Review under Cicilline opened a loophole that allowed nightclubs in the neighborhood. The city’s Board of Licensing followed along by granting special licenses that permit live music and Djs.

City records show that Taveras Administration shut off issuing new nightclub permits on the Hill three years ago. That came after complaints about noise and rowdiness on Atwells Avenue.

The big problem is that some club owners are not doing enough to curb the bad behavior of patrons who have been served too much liquor. Those who own the clubs are not doing enough to screen patrons who carry weapons. If  Fenway Park can monitor fans for knives and guns, surely a barroom  can.

It isn’t fair to paint all club owners with the broad brush of irresponsibility. Richard Lupo, longtime owner of Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel on Washington Street downtown is cited by Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare as a good owner who works well with the cops.

At some point, it is up to the nightclub industry, not the police, to control their customers. As Pare says, the taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for the sins of greedy nightclub owners who refuse to pay for beefed up security.

Providence has never done a great job balancing the tension between its reputation for vibrant nightlife and safety. This is particularly true of roistering clubbers who spill into the streets after being served too many drinks.

One myth is that local students in Providence, a college town, are creating  a climate of violence. A search of the arrest blotter is much more likely to turn up a trouble maker from Fall River, Brockton or New Bedford than a Brown or RISD student.

As for homicides, well, the numbers show that Providence was worse off by this measure under recent mayors than Taveras. In 1990, when Joseph Paolino was mayor, there were 31 murders. In 2000, under Buddy Cianci’s administration, there were 30.  (Not to mention that the city police department was riddled with corruption under Cianci). In 2009, when Cicilline ruled City Hall, 24 died of homicide.

Since Taveras took over in 2011, homicides have never topped 17 in a single year.

The news media, particularly television, isn’t an innocent bystander. While some news outlets, particularly the Providence Journal (especially reporters Amanda Milkovits and Bill Malinowski) have done a nuanced job reporting city crime issues, television too often doesn’t. Too much local television reporting is focused on sensation that gives viewers the false impression that Providence neighborhoods resemble a never-ending episode of Law & Order. Crime goes down as t.v. crime reporting goes up.

It’s way past time for City Hall, the police and the nightclub owners to forge a better way to combat the young rowdies who threaten to tamp down an entertainment scene that most enjoy without incident. It’s too bad that this has to be done under the cloud of frivolous campaign rhetoric.

Control them or close `em would be a good campaign slogan.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at   6:35 and 8:35  and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at