Atlanta chief ‘disappointed’ police forced gay bars to close early

Atlanta police Chief Erika Shields said she is “disappointed” that police commanders closed two gay bars early during Black Gay Pride and she reassigned the lieutenant who ignored the protests of bar owners and shut down the businesses anyway.

“I’m disappointed with the decision by the Zone 5 morning watch commander to force four gay bars/restaurants in Midtown to close two hours early during Black Gay Pride weekend,” Shields said in a statement issued late Wednesday.

Shields’ public statement on the incident came as the police department tries to quiet a flap that has mushroomed since early Monday. That’s when officers and paddy wagons arrived at 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue concerned about large crowds at the intersection. As owners of Blake’s and Ten tried to explain to officers and commanders that a city ordinance allowed them to remain open past the usual 12:30 a.m. closing time, they were ordered to close.

That ignited a controversy and claims that the action was motivated by racism and homophobia.

Atlanta police have called the incident an “honest mistake” and pointed out that the commander who ordered the bars closed is gay and so is his boss, Major Darin Schierbaum, the newly-appointed Zone 5 commander. On Wednesday, Shields – who was promoted to chief in December and later came out as gay – announced that she reassigned the commander.

“There are several steps the morning watch commander could have taken to further investigate the concerns bar owners expressed that they had permission to stay open until 2:30 a.m. Those steps were not taken. As a result, I have made the decision to move this commander to another duty in another zone,” Shields said.

The city’s top cop also said she is “disappointed” with the chain of decisions by police supervisors that led to the closure of the gay bars and two other venues – G’s and 10th & Piedmont. Shields said the agency must improve communication between its command staff and supervisors on the streets.

“We also must ensure that vital communications about matters such as extended bar hours are properly relayed to zone supervisors expected to enforce such ordinances,” Shields said.

Shields said that the incident was not prompted by racism or homophobia, but said it could have left that perception with the public.

“While I do not believe the commander purposely set out to act in a discriminatory manner, his actions certainly gave that perception to bar owners, managers and patrons. Our commanders and officers simply must show more sensitivity to the concerns of our diverse communities,” Shields said.

Shields said the agency worked quickly to address the controversy, an approach that Shields has used in other matters since taking the helm of the department.

“The diversity of its people is one of the City of Atlanta’s greatest strengths. Any perception that the Atlanta Police Department does not respect, and celebrate, that diversity must be dealt with swiftly,” Shields said.

The bar owners forced to close were furious about the incident and the refusal of commanders to reconsider their decision when they showed them the ordinance allowing them to stay open until 2:30 a.m. James Nelson, the owner of Ten, said the incident was a case of discrimination and pointed to non-LGBT bars around Piedmont Park that were allowed to remain open.

"There were probably 400 African-American gay men and women standing on the sidewalks in front of G's and 10th & Piedmont and the Blake's parking lot. They clearly wanted to shut that down," Nelson said. "I've been in business far too long and i know what happened on Sunday night."

"This was clear, this was racially motivated and discrimination. We are the only businesses that were shut down in the entire city," he added.

Cathy Woolard ­– the first openly LGBT elected official in Georgia and a candidate for Atlanta mayoral – blasted the early closures. In a statement issued Tuesday, Woolard also said it's "difficult not to interpret the action as discriminatory against the LGBTQ community."

City Council member Mary Norwood, who is also running for mayor, said she was “dismayed” by the incident. City Council member Alex Wan, the council’s only openly LGBT member, called the incident disappointing. Wan is running for City Council president.

Other candidates have also weighed in on the controversy. Via the AJC:

Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore, council president candidate: “I spoke personally with APD’s Chief Shields this morning and again this afternoon about my anger at independent businesses being forced to close early — especially on Black Gay Pride weekend. Chief Shields and APD report there will be new deployment and communication procedures put in place ASAP, hopefully ensuring this will not happen again. Unfortunately these conversations are happening too late for our guests that were here last weekend, so I am extremely focused on making sure that APD and the rest of the city has the tools they need to ensure the upcoming pride weekend in October happens as smoothly as possible.”

Former city of Atlanta COO Peter Aman, mayoral candidate: I am very disappointed in the actions of the APD personnel that forced these businesses to close. I really want to have a culture that has a sense of urgency and customer service. We need to make sure people are not only properly trained, but follow protocol.