By Louie Dane
Capital News Service
A new law is forcing restaurants and bars across Prince George's County to beef up security.
County officials hope the new restrictions — which take effect Jan. 1 — will help prevent fights outside bars and nightclubs like the ones that led to the closings of the Thirsty Turtle in College Park and Music, Sports & Games in Capitol Heights.
"The whole objective is to try to provide a safe environment for all patrons," said Del. Michael Vaughn, D-Capitol Heights, who co-sponsored the legislation. "There have been questions and concerns, but at the end of the day this is trying to provide a safe environment for people in Prince George's County."
Vaughn, vice chair of the Prince George's House delegation, said he co-sponsored the legislation after police recommended additional security for restaurants that morph into entertainment hotspots at night.
Under the new law, restaurants that become dance clubs or play live music between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. are required to obtain annual $1,500 "Special Entertainment Permits" from the county liquor board and submit a police department-approved security plan detailing violence prevention strategies.
The new law also requires owners of each establishment to attend a public hearing where citizens can discuss the affect on the neighborhood.
The original legislation was signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley in May 2010 and covered all restaurants and bars in the county. It was amended in June to cover only restaurants providing nighttime entertainment. Implementation of the law, which applies only to Prince George's County, was delayed until Jan. 1, 2012, while the liquor board developed regulations for the new permits.
The requirement for beefed up security plans could force some venues to hire off-duty police officers and install extra security cameras in parking lots.
"If someone has a security plan and they follow it, the hope is that it will ensure all the people who are impacted by the establishment will feel more secure because it will create a more stable environment," said county liquor board chairman Franklin D. Jackson.
Vaughn said he hopes the new measures will prevent future violence at nightclubs and bars, but said he did not "have a crystal ball."
"What I am confident in is that we are taking steps and measures to that goal, to try to provide a safe environment for people who want to be entertained at night," he said.
Music, Sports & Games (MSG) closed after 20-year-old Jasmine Banks was shot and killed on Aug. 8, 2011. College Park's Thirsty Turtle closed for business in November 2010 after the stabbing of three University of Maryland students. The liquor board revoked the Thirsty Turtle's liquor license.
The county stands to benefit financially from the new permits. Approximately 120 restaurants in the county will be required to obtain a permit if they want to continue providing nighttime entertainment, according to a state analysis of the measure. If all apply and are approved, the permits would bring in $180,000 each year for the county.
Despite the fact that the regulations could force some establishments to spend more on security, restaurant owners and managers said in interviews they would comply without protest.
Although older patrons typically frequent the Half Note Restaurant and Lounge in Bowie, the restaurant's manager Princess Grimes said it is important to hold all bars to the same standard.
"We don't turn anyone down based on their age. Anything is possible. [Violence is] not something that would never happen here; I think it is fair that we have to have to do some of the same things as the younger bars," Grimes said.
But Renee Ketter, manager of Hideaway, a bar-restaurant in Clinton, said the new rules are unnecessary for bars that are already following the rules.
"There's a lot of bars that have been maintaining themselves and keeping things calm and correct themselves," Ketter said.
Before the new law, some restaurants and bars were required to submit security plans to the liquor board for review.
"This law is probably more comprehensive in that all businesses that have special entertainment have to submit the security plans. Before, not everyone had to," Jackson said.
Vaughan said the expansion was necessary to put a stop to violence outside of restaurants and nightclubs.
"Any time an act of violence breaks out, one time is too many," Vaughan said. "It's never okay."